On striking

I am on strike today.  
I’m striking — like most others I know — without much hope or expectation that it will effect change. After all, in the past four years UCU’s ballot papers asking me to support industrial action have landed so regularly on my doorstep they’re more ritual than revolution. I’ve also yet to manage to withdraw my labour in a way that inconveniences anyone other than myself. Unless a strike can be called between 2 and 4 on a Tuesday, the work I won’t get done on any one day is the work I want to do, not the work other people need me to do.  Flexibility and independence are my greatest joys as an academic: but they rather dilute the impact of one-day industrial action on other people.
So why strike?  Why strike, if it will change little and perhaps not even be noticed beyond an out-of-office email reply? In part it’s because it’s a question of principle: there are well-reasoned, persuasive arguments that pay agreements in higher education are not fair. It’s also, of course, because strikes are a collective action. But this is not simply some automatic union-member reflex.  Choosing to join a strike demands personal conviction – especially when there’s no personal injury involved.
As in this case. For this strike – over the need for fair pay in higher education – is not really about me. I earn more than 75% of the UK population: I have a permanent job. I have a final salary pension (just) and sick pay and paid holiday.  Equally important is the freedom I have to pursue my own research — and research funding.
Yet higher education in the UK has become a pyramid scheme, and even if I’ve climbed up beyond the precipice, it gives me no right to forget that the structure supporting me is one propped up by casualised labour.  More and more poorly paid teaching fellows and temporary lecturers are dependent upon the precarious favours of patron-professors for their continued employment. I was there not so long ago: many friends are still stuck in the cycle.  Yet these cycles of exploitation are increasingly integral to University strategy, as expansions into new student markets – especially at the graduate level – are built on cheap labour underpinning the expensive glamour of a few crowd-pleasing “superstars”, whose pay is increasingly untied from any kind of national pay agreement at all.  Superstars, unfortunately, who often appear like shooting stars: blink, and you’ll miss them, as they head out on another research buyout/sabbatical/book tour.
This growing inequality within higher education’s hierarchies mirrors the widening inequality gap in British society as a whole. An elite enjoys disproportionate spoils: the majority are left only with less power and more uncertainty.  This makes me angry: this enough is reason to strike.
But the casualization of academic labour is just one part of a much broader search for profit in higher education. In my more cynical moments, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m sometimes selling students a bulk-buy product that can’t possibly deliver on its marketing claims.  Qualifications are more than the paper they’re written on. Yet too often I wonder whether the real value of a degree, often taught in the harried margins of professors’ and tutors’ time – equates to the months of time and effort and tens of thousands of pounds in money it has cost the student.
All this leaves me disquieted, unsettled. Fair pay in higher education is certainly a just cause. But a meaningful end to the dispute – one that isn’t simply negotiation and counter-negotiation over numbers – depends on all of us asking bigger questions about the chances in Higher Education.  Who should research – and who should teach? Who do we want them to educate – and why? What – ultimately – do we want universities to be for?  

 

Of course the business of higher education can’t take place in an economic vacuum. But nor need it be driven by profit over principle.  So I’m on strike today not just for pay or pension – though neither fair wages nor security of tenure are excessive demands. I’m also striking today because I believe that if we don’t stand up now, the Universities I still love – the universities that taught me about power and politics and justice and aspiration, and still often astonish me as places of extraordinary creativity and learning – may well disappear, hidden behind a thousand paywalls, accessible only to the few.