Strike week two: The university rises

Week Two of the strike, freezing temperatures, and the university reborn.

It has been a remarkable three days. Across the country, picket lines have been manned with gusto, with dogs, babies and even a Strikeosaurus putting in an appearance. Students have turned out in force too, playing their part in the line and in supporting and co-ordinating teach-outs, some of which are taking place within Student Unions.

As a UCU veteran, I’ve never seen this level of enthusiasm, commitment and doggedness. Others will put it better, but the truth is prosaic; this strike is formally about pensions, but it’s really a revolt against the marketisation of the university. And in true prefigurative style, the collective action taking place in more than 60 institutions nationally amounts to not merely resistance – though it is that – but the reconstitution of the university itself.

Talking to people across the country, and having travelled to visit other institutions’ picket lines as well as manning my own, I can’t help but wonder what it’s going to be like when we go back to work.

We have found strength in each other. Whilst the neoliberal university seeks to individualise us, to cut us off from each other, to set us up in opposition to each other and to our students, in this strike – this collective action – we have found each other.

Academic-related and academic staff. Permanent staff and graduate teaching assistants. Most of all, academic staff and students. Speaking at a teach-out last week, I was struck not just by the enthusiasm of the students, but the genuine nature of the interaction.

As marketisation has bitten and the student has been transformed by state design into the consumer, education has become a more fraught ‘enterprise’. Students have become elements of KPIs, their ‘experience’ one to be audited, and a psychological barrier has been built between us.

That barrier has collapsed in this strike, as the university has realised itself for what it is, or should be – not a synonym for ‘senior management’ and their whims, but a learning community incorporating staff and students alike.

This has evidently rocked Universities UK, whose fat cat members are divorced from the reality of interactions with students which aren’t characterised by an asymmetric power relationship, or the mediated reality of an Excel sheet where a student equals one cell’s worth of £9.25k.

UUK thought it could divide and conquer, set students against staff, force UCU to accept terms. They have manifestly failed.

What’s more, they’ve created a perfect storm for themselves. With the state placing ever more pressure on universities to become more like businesses (or at least some fictive sort of business as might be imagined in a bad remake of Wall Street), UUK and its members (or at least those who haven’t publicly dissented) have set themselves up as the mere axe-wielders of government. I supposed the knighthoods and 400k plus salaries help, mind.

But this means that the real divide has now become between the genuine guardians of the spirit of the university – the staff and the students – and the state and its ‘academic’ acolytes in the shape of university vice-chancellors.

Pensions are only the beginning. When we return to work, it’s our job as critical thinkers, as scientists and scholars, to say ‘no’. If an initiative doesn’t make sense, say so, and say no to it.

Because if the past week has taught us anything, it should be that there’s more of us than we think.


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