A banner from the picket line in Bristol Universities across the UK are shut today as staff go on strike. University lecturers, researchers, admin staff, technicians, manual workers and cleaners joined forces for the first time today to reject an offer …

Walton Pantland
A banner from the picket line in Bristol

A banner from the picket line in Bristol

Universities across the UK are shut today as staff go on strike.

University lecturers, researchers, admin staff, technicians, manual workers and cleaners joined forces for the first time today to reject an offer of a 1% pay rise from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.

University staff are represented by the University and College Union, Unison and Unite.

With inflation, this offer amounts to staff taking an average 13% cut in their wages since 2008. This is in the context of student fees rising to record levels: £9,000 per year has become common, and that is for tuition only. Students still need to cover living expenses.

At the same time, top corporate managers at universities are continuing to see their bonuses rise, and the average package is now worth £250,000 per annum.

The strike in nominally about pay and conditions, because according to UK labour law, there needs to be a “trade dispute” before industrial action is legal.

The deeper issue, however, is about the marketisation of education. Universities’ ancient role as producers and repositories of knowledge is being undermined, and they are being turned into degree factories.

Many academics feel that education suffers: rather than learning critical thinking, students are taught to regurgitate dominant ideologies. This trend is perhaps most apparent in economics departments: despite the absolute and obvious failure of neo-liberal economics, even on its own terms, this model is still taught at universities. Despite not having an evidence base, it is taught as a science, and a new generation of graduates with dangerously mistaken ideas is churned out to work in business, the civil service and the media.

In addition to derisory pay offers, university staff are seeing a massive growth in fixed-term and zero hours contracts. This makes it particularly difficult for younger academic workers – many of them saddled with massive student debt themselves – to gain any kind of stable employment.

This trend is, of course, not unique to the UK: like much of the most destructive economic and management practices currently being roled out, it originates in the US. And this shocking story from Duquesne University shows how little universities value their staff:

“On Sept. 1, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, passed away at the age of 83. She died as the result of a massive heart attack she suffered two weeks before.”

Professor Vojtko died alone and in poverty after being denied medical care by her employer.

Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the privatisation of knowledge comes from Stefan Collini’s article Sold Out in the London Review of Books.In addition to the trends noted above, he analysis the effects a competitive market is likely to have on the culture of learning. He also speculates that student debt is likely to become a major market and a debt-driven bubble, much like the sub-prime crisis.

Currently, students don’t have to pay back debt until they earn £21,000 or more per annum, and unpaid debts are written off after 30 years. But there is nothing to stop the Government from retrospectively changing these terms, and selling the debt on to private companies.

“[The cost of debt to the Government is] a colossal outlay, but since it also represents, in accounting terms, a considerable asset, it is another reason for thinking that this or future governments will be tempted to ‘sweat the asset’, for example by raising repayment rates. So there is no cause yet to lie awake at night worrying that the government might be bankrupting the country: there is a lot that this or future administrations can do to reduce the problem. Everyday administrative fiats, such as freezing the repayment threshold at £21,000, or even reducing it (instead of, as promised, raising it in line with inflation), will bring in quite a bit more money. But even so, how long can it be before a Daily Mail-responsive government decides that ‘loan-spongers’ should be flushed out? Why should they get away with not repaying anything just because their earnings don’t exceed £21,000? Why should the outstanding balance be written off after thirty years? It won’t be difficult to change those terms either.”

Imagine being hounded by a bank twenty years down the line for an unsatisfactory degree you embark on today.

Is this really the education sector we want to create?


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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