UK academics have snapped – and not just over pensions

Casualisation and treating academics like feckless children who can’t be trusted have also taken their toll, says Sarah Colvin

March 22, 2018
Source: Michael Parkin

Anyone who has been in the vicinity of a UK university in recent weeks will have heard something snap.

Snapping, as Sara Ahmed observes, is not always planned; it happens when something ends up being too much – and once it happens, you can wonder what took you so long.

Ahmed snapped in 2016, when she publicly resigned from her position as director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, over its “failure to address the problem of sexual harassment”.

Being told that they must suffer another cut to their pensions has now brought thousands of lecturers, librarians and others to snapping point. A snap, says Ahmed, breaks a bond, when maintaining that bond would require “overlooking violence”. Johan Galtung, the Norwegian sociologist, defined violence as “avoidable insults to basic human needs”. A pension cut of the proportions proposed, without independent scrutiny of the valuation behind it, was clearly an avoidable insult: a number of vice-chancellors have now acknowledged as much.

But snapping is never the starting point. Academics and academic-related staff have historically accepted relatively low pay in exchange for autonomy, job security and a decent pension. Snapping breaks a bond, but university leaders seem unaware that there ever was any kind of bond, as over the past decade they have gone about replacing trust and autonomy with a culture of control, and job security with “flexible contracts”. They nodded tolerantly along as our pensions were decimated while awarding themselves their infamous pay rises.

Another bond broke when management teams learned the language of academic-bashing, legitimising control by speaking of professional intellectuals as if they were feckless children who couldn’t be trusted. Academics might now wonder why it took them so long to declare that the lack of trust is mutual.

It has become clear in recent weeks that trust is spectacularly broken. Many of our students snapped with us. Students who have been redefined as customers and offered a product called “the student experience” have come out to support the people who are genuinely part of their experience of university life and learning. Galtung says that one form of cultural violence indulged in by ruling elites “is to blame the victim of structural violence who throws the first stone”. But that hasn’t worked in this case. Our students have joined us on the picket lines and occupied management spaces.

In her moving open letter to the vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds earlier this month, the priest and librettist Alice Goodman, the widow of a Leeds academic, wrote with sadness of the false assumption of the managerial university that “teachers and scholars are infinitely interchangeable and replaceable”.

But it isn’t only vice-chancellors’ fault. They are under pressure, too – and one day, perhaps, they too will snap, rather than bending endlessly under political pressure. They and their management teams are relentlessly offered opportunities for opportunism. On 8 May, a company called Westminster Insight is offering a conference called Adapting to the Transformed Student-Consumer, in line with the creation of England’s new and allegedly student-focused regulator, the Office for Students. Delegates will be brought up to date with best practice in “expectation management”, which presumably means learning to manage our transformed consumers’ disappointed anger when they recognise the disrespect for their humanity that inheres in the attempt to make education a consumer experience. The jewellery tycoon Gerald Ratner notoriously once implied that his customers were stupid enough to buy “total crap” – with disastrous results.

Sadly, academics also step up to legitimise the violent deformation of the university project. The blurb for a recent lecture in Durham University’s Future of the University series by Katherine Hayles, professor of literature at Duke University, claimed that universities can no longer be “the privileged site of knowledge creation and dissemination”, and must instead become “busy informational crossroads” focused on the “value added” of their contributions “to human and planetary flourishing”. I didn’t attend the lecture but I hope that someone who did asked who is going to find a quiet moment to come up with the ideas that will cause such flourishing when we are all sitting at that busy crossroads calculating our value added (and presumably trying not to get run down by a truck).

The same blurb dismisses traditional universities as “cloistered spaces”: familiar ivory tower rhetoric that hits laughably and painfully wide of the mark. Like most academics reading this, I spend more time in meetings responding to the latest plans of people whose job descriptions require them to “manage change” than I spend “cloistered” with either my students or my research.

Something that has snapped isn’t easy to mend. Apart from offering us a fair pensions settlement, university leaders will need to relearn and model some respect for university students and staff, not as transformed consumers or education providers but as intellectually talented dynamic human beings. That will be a tall order in the current political climate, but it will be an even taller order to maintain UK higher education’s international reputation for excellence when word starts to spread that our universities are broken.

Sarah Colvin is Schröder professor of German at Jesus College, Cambridge.

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Reader's comments (10)

I completely agree with this. I didn't start working in the university til my early thirties and I couldn't get over the fact that it was like being back at school, like you were permanently 'on report' with little metrics, reviews, scores and so on to say whether you were good enough or not. Our institution is moving towards performance management as a way of dispensing with a few people. It's honestly like working your whole life in a school where you just hope you aren't put on the naughty step. Totally infantilising!
Fully agree. Academics are more and more dogs on lead, as we are desperate for money and students. Money from funding agencies (which tell us what is to be investigated and how to investigate it), money from students (which buy the "student experience" such as buying any attraction park ticket). We implore the support from Industry, which tell us what we should teach to our students and what we should investigate. We are continuously ranked (top research, top teaching, top student experience, top international outlook, top paper, top sport) against indicators that are quickly manipulated. Where is the autonomy?
Oddly enough, I am a very late entrant to academia - after doing my degree at the usual age, I've been out writing commercial software, then drifted into education via writing websites for then teaching at Further Education colleges... and find that compared to FE, life at a university is an idyll of personal freedom! However, I can see the rot beginning to slither in and agree wholeheartedly that it needs to be resisted. We should shun these meaningless metrics and stick to replacing empty minds with open and enquiring ones! One problem is that the government (and by this I mean governments of all shades) cannot be trusted as far as funding is concerned. Hateful though the current student fees are, at least there's some certainty over income. We cannot trust the government to fund universities properly in their absence.
I suspect that Freedom of Information requests would reveal what we already suspect - mainly that universities are now being operated as cash cows by an uncontrolled and ever-expanding managerial layer. It is particularly odious that those of us who generate income and provide the university "product" are subjected to ever increasing webs of control by a complacent class of apparatchiks, whose only measurable outputs seem to be a steady reduction of academic staff numbers and endless streams of pointless policies, initiatives, and irritating emails. In biological terms what began as something of a benign and vaguely useful organ has evolved into the perfect tumour, the current treatment for which seems to be the removal of healthy tissue.
I completely agree with all above and am wondering how long I can stay in my job before I am completely forbidden from doing my work the way it needs to be done in my academic judgement: I am already on a daily basis issued with orders about how to do what I do with no pedagogical or intellectual arguments permitted at all. So far, I am managing by knowing that in fact the endless layers of management and paperwork mean nobody knows what is going on or who does what, so you can slip between the cracks, but it is outrageous that one's core work can only be achieved by evading the endless petty rules and regulations all aimed at simplification and standardisation. And, exactly as the comment above observes, this has already happened in schools and FE and now the universities too. A disaster.
I agree with the sentiment and the detail and everything else in this beautifully crafted and sometimes biting analysis. However, maybe not all Universities are broken. I think there are some Universities which have more readily raced to the bottom to find customers and others who are attempting to preserve a sense of quality and value which is not only monetary but less easily defined or even described. At the same time a draconian leadership has become evident in some Universities but not others, which means it is a choice made by its leaders. Perhaps a draconian attitude is forced on some leaders, people might argue, but I feel it is one which is consciously made because there are so many different organisational theories. I know, I've worked in seven Universities in the UK and examined in a further six and they are so very different in they way they treat their staff. Perhaps the word that we are beginning to miss is community. So, can you share your views in your University? Are they welcomed? Is diversity valued? Are the managers reasonable? At the end of it all the mantra, contained in the essay, must be 'students are not customers or consumers, they are human beings.' Otherwise, what message are we in the University sector sending about the future of humanity. This short article understands the gravity of the situation and what is at stake, but not all is lost - yet.
OK what happens is managers have invaded UK Universities. Once they get control of the money pot they try to increase their share of the pot. Then they also appoint 3 or 4 sub managers to do the work they are supposed to do. This means they have people to order around, gives them time to do networking for their next job and also a cushion of sub mangers to protect themselves from the sack when cuts eventually need to be made. They also like to keep tight reins on the academics through a policy of divide and rule - set them targets most cannot achieve (4* only is acceptable + lots of research money) and most will fail - this means they will not get pay rises or promotions leaving even more money for the managers to pay themselves. Also keep those academics as busy as you can so they do not have time or energy to complain.
This is an excellent critique of the marketisation of education. But we can’t stop at critique; critique is important, shared critique is empowering, but we must also start to construct positive alternatives. Imagine the Cooperative University, a thought experiment. It is an organisation motivated by principles of cooperation, equality, and mutual respect. In a cooperative university we come together to expand our knowledge, skills and understanding, and share it with others. We are scientists, teachers, students, and administrators; we can be all of these things at different times. Let us not allow the absence of a grand plan deter us from taking baby steps: •Join groups that oppose the views we grumble about. •Reach out to others that share our dreams. •Treat students as producers, trainees, collaborators. •Recognise the structural reasons that we, and everyone around us, are anxious and stressed out. •Don’t give up!
The claim that reducing a person's expected pension, however reprehensible that is, amounts to 'violence' is not only silly but insultingly diminishes the experience of people who have suffered genuine violence. It is difficult to see how such idiotic hyperbole is going to advance the case of academics; more likely it will reinforce the perception in some quarters that they are like 'feckless children'.
Interesting and, in this case has some element of truth. Academics can't really claim to be at the cutting edge of social misery. At the same time, as the title of the article states, this dispute is not simply about pension cuts. I am sure many of us are aware of colleagues who have suffered real health issues as a result of the current culture in universities. Violence does not have to be defined as the rapid delivery of ill health, in many ways it is the malign will behind the process that contributes to the definition. What about austerity in general? The health effects of low income are fairly well established, even without including the impact of low income on the simple ability to enjoy all aspects of a normal life. Does harm delivered over time not amount to violence? For me it is pretty clear that it does.


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