The current industrial dispute in universities about pensions could change the balance of power in higher education for good, writes lecturer James Smith.

The current industrial dispute in universities about pensions could change the balance of power in higher education for good, writes lecturer James Smith.

I finished my undergraduate degree in the mid-2000s, with a total student debt roughly equal to what my students today accrue in just one year from their tuition fees alone.

My contemporaries and I might have protested against tuition fees on principle, but if I’m honest, I don’t really remember the prospect of our own personal future indebtedness getting talked about much. It certainly didn’t occur to me that the debt I was racking up should have any bearing on whether my lecturers decided to set Boccaccio or Queer as Folk, whether they chose to assess my abilities via written exam or group presentation, or whether I should be excluded from the selective creative writing module on the basis of being broadly talentless in that area.

On the one brief occasion that my lecturers went on strike, it was little more than an opportunity to squeeze in another band practice, or to get stoned watching foreign films. My students, by contrast, talk and think about these things quite a lot; as they’ve talked and thought about the fact that their lecturers and other support staff are currently taking part in massive industrial action over pensions, quite a lot.

There’s the stereotype of the bolshie student, of the ‘do you know how much I’m paying for this’ kind, of course. But far more common are perfectly idealistic and intellectually adventurous young people, who are under considerable and deliberate pressure to think of their relationship to their tutors via the question of whether or not it’s worth getting into all that debt in return for whatever it is we are offering.

As I say, this is deliberate. Not content to simply make the standard argument for austerity, that in straightened times, students should contribute more financially to their education (not my position, but not an absurd one either), policy makers since 2010 have committed themselves to the dogma that incentivising students to think of themselves as empowered consumers was also going to be a panacea for reforming the residually un-marketised sector of Higher Education.

As Stefan Collini puts it, “from being depicted as some kind of anarchist militia bent upon disrupting society while sponging off it, students have come to be regarded as the front-line troops of market forces, storming the walls of those obstructive bastions of pre-commercial values, the universities.”

Small ‘c’ conservatives like to imagine that it falls to them to meet people ‘where they are’, while the left gets caught up with utopian ideas of how it would like people to be. During the French Revolution, it was Edmund Burke who advocated gradual change based on how people actually choose to live now, while twitchy-eyed radicals like Maximilien Robespierre were prepared to guillotine their way to a society of ‘virtuous’ revolutionary subjects which, in the conservative view, simply didn’t exist. But the right has its own fantasies of utopian subject creation too. It wasn’t Karl Marx, but Margaret Thatcher who said ‘economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul’.

Judging by the offensively shambolic rolling out of the reform of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) by our employers’ association, Universities UK, Higher Education leaders must have assumed that ‘the heart and soul’ of the students had indeed been changed rather rapidly. The assumption seems to have been that the fees would already have driven such a wedge between the interests of students and staff, that any traditional solidarity on the part of the former for the latter would be gone, and with it, any media or public sympathy for the strike.

If they’d anticipated any scrutiny whatsoever, it’s hard to imagine that they would have fudged the calculations over the extent of the deficit in the pension fund, secretly allowed individual rich Oxbridge colleges equal footing with other universities in deciding the pension offer, misleadingly treated the initial statements of bursars as the considered view of universities, or planned grotesquely draconian punishments for striking staff. With their student/customers against them, it was thought, the staff would be quickly demoralised, and accept yet another erosion of their working conditions.

It has not turned out this way. Following the lead of the NUS, student unions across the country have voted to support striking staff. Every day on picket lines, students are out in force, university buildings have been occupied, and social media is full of their well-wishings. Polling shows students blame managers, not faculty.

This cannot have been an easy decision for students, any more than it has been for their teachers, librarians, and administrators. Even if only the first phase of the strike runs for its duration, the better part of a half term of teaching will be lost, and many of the questions on final exams will be unusable. Yet the student solidarity with staff has meant the wind is blowing in the union’s direction. Universities UK started this week with a surreal meltdown on twitter, and today may even have seen the nail in the coffin for the proposals, as Oxford University reverses its position on them.

The ambition of the market reforms introduced into universities was to shrink all political antagonisms therein into mere competition between providers for the attentions of a newly docile consumer-student body. What my conversations with students have suggested to me is that we are seeing – on the contrary – a return of the political as such into the university. This is not some happy-clappy story of young people doing right by their beloved tutors while enjoying the holiday from study. The recurring story is one of students realising that ‘the university’ is not a benign and beneficent stable entity, but a site of struggle.

The parallels with June 2017 are irresistible. There too a conservative establishment bet on the ‘heart and soul’ having had its reserves of collective action and its capacity for spontaneity all but eroded, and on that occasion it lost the wager.

Many of our students had their first exposure to political activism in the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn in that election, and staff like me need to recognise the potential that this moment has to unsettle the current order in the universities, just as the election unsettled it in the country.

The comparison extends to the importance of social media too. In the election, the left thrived because it was able to capture the indiscreet abandon of memes and shareable content in a way the right couldn’t match. Our employers have been equivalently slow to realise that they are dealing with the first digitally mediated strike: that their intimidating emails and implausible threats can immediately screengrabbed and spread far and wide. So far,at least two institutions have reversed their positions on punishments for strikers as a result of social media shaming.

A final peculiarity of the strike so far is that it has shown staff and students a glimpse of the university as it could be. Staff report being able to casually read and think at their own pace at the weekend, instead of making panicked last adjustments to powerpoints, marking essays, or grabbing back crucial writing time for publications, which there never seems to be time for in the working week.

On the picket lines, staff meet colleagues from other disciplines that they’ve worked alongside for years, but – despite all the research agenda talk of ‘interdiscipinarity’ – they have never met, and speak to students as equals, with the usual formalities relaxed.

‘Teach Outs’, spontaneous politically-tinged talks from staff, students, and outside artists, journalists, and politicians, offer a form of teaching unshackled from over-managed learning objectives, in pubs and outside squares, so dismantling the strict division between the university and the general public. We have time for these things because we are not working. But there should be time for them always.

James Smith teaches in the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. Follow him on Twitter

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