USS strike: picket line debates will re-energise scholarship

The reawakening of political activism within academia sparked by the pensions strike will reinvigorate scholarship, says Jana Bacevic

March 13, 2018
UCU picket sign
Source: Getty

University strikes in Cambridge were, until recently, barely noticeable, wrote a Trinity College don earlier this month.

In the words of John Marenbon’s memorable Times Higher Education blog (“USS strike: academics are wrong to walk out”, 2 March), “life went on for the most part as usual” in the face of industrial action.

While I disagree with so much of what Marenbon said, I concur with him on this point. However, the ongoing industrial action that University and College Union members are engaging in at the UK’s universities have changed all that.

Dons, rarely concerned with the affairs of the lesser mortals, are now up in arms. They are picketing, in the wind and the snow; marching; shouting slogans. Some, for heaven’s sake, are even dancing.

This is possibly the best thing that has happened to UK higher education, at least since the end of the 1990s.

Not that there’s much competition: this period, after all, brought us the introduction, then removal, of tuition fee caps; the abolishment of maintenance grants; the research excellence framework and the teaching excellence framework; and as crowning (though short-lived) glory, the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students.

Yet, for most of this period, academics’ opposition to these reforms conformed to “civilised” ways of protest: writing a book, giving a lecture, publishing a blog post or an article in THE or, at best, complaining on Twitter.

While most would agree that British universities have been under threat for decades, concerted effort to counter these reforms – with a few notable exceptions – remained the provenance of the people Marenbon calls “amiable but over-ideological eccentrics”.

This is how we have truly let down our students. Resistance was left to student protests and occupations. Longer-lasting, trans-generational solidarity was all but absent: at the end of the day, professors retreated to their ivory towers, precarious academics engaged in activism on the side of ever-increasing competition and pressure to land a permanent job.

Students picked up the tab: not only when it came to tuition fees, which were used to finance expensive accommodation blocks designed to attract more (fee-paying) students, but also when it came to the quality of teaching and learning, increasingly delivered by an underpaid, overworked and precarious labour force.

This is why the charge that teach-outs of dubious quality are replacing lectures comes across as particularly disingenuous. We are told by Marenbon that “although students are denied lectures on philosophy, history or mathematics, the union wants them to show up to ‘teach-outs’ on vital topics such as ‘How UK policy fuels war and repression in the Middle East’ and ‘Neoliberal capitalism versus collective imaginaries’”. Although this is but one snippet of Cambridge UCU’s programme of teach-outs, the choice is illustrative.

The link between history and UK’s foreign policy in the Middle East strikes me as obvious. Students in philosophy, politics or economics could, however, do worse than a seminar on the development of neoliberal ideology (the event was initially scheduled as part of the Cambridge seminar in political thought).

As for mathematics – anybody who, over the past weeks, has had to engage with the details of actuarial calculation and projections tied to the USS pension scheme has had more than a crash refresher course: I dare say they learned more than they ever hoped they would.

Teach-outs, in this sense, are not a replacement for education “as usual”. They are a way to begin bridging the infamous divide between “town and gown”, both by being held in more open spaces and by, for instance, discussing how the university’s lucrative development projects are impacting on the regional economy.

They are also interdisciplinary, in ways that go beyond colleagues congratulating each other on published papers over a glass of port. They are not meant to make up for the shortcomings of higher education: if anything, they render them more visible.

This is not the studied depoliticisation that allowed the marketisation of higher education to continue.

Teach-outs, and industrial action in general, are a way to recognise our responsibility to protect the university from undue incursions of political power, while acknowledging that such responsibility is itself political. I can think of no greater service to scholarship.

Jana Bacevic is a sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @jana_bacevic.

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