Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

“They don’t want to turn the universities into sweatshops. They’ll be institutions of higher perspiration.”

That was my conclusion about the trajectory to which our managerial overlords aspire, as I was trying to convince a colleague that he should support the UCU, the British academics union, and its escalating strike action. I walked the picket lines for the first time on Thursday, during our two-hour strike. There were about 20 of us there, and only a few were senior academics, which is somewhat disheartening. There were almost as many reporters as strikers, so I got to talk to    all of them. Their questions were interesting:

  1. Why do you think you deserve more pay, in this time of wage restraint? Other workers aren’t getting raises. I think they should join unions and demand higher wages too. It’s not a law of nature that we have “wage restraint” for everyone but the CEOs and fat-cat bankers. It’s a reflection of political decisions and power imbalance, and the effect of words like “time of wage restraint”.
  2. How much more pay do you think you should get?  We could start with the 13% that our wages have been cut by (in real terms) over the past 5 years. Or the 5-10% that vice chancellors’ salaries were raised by on average last year.
  3. How has the low pay affected your life? It’s not about me. I’m one of the lucky minority with a permanent job at the top of the lecturer pay scale. I’m earning somewhat less than I would have if I’d stayed in Canada, and the cost of living in Oxford is high, and things would look different if my partner weren’t working full time, but I have a pretty comfortable life. But most of the universities in the UK are replacing permanent posts with casual academic labour, and they have significantly less pay and less control over their work lives than I do. Furthermore, we’re competing for top people in an international market, and competing against the private sector, and every small drop in salaries relative to other countries and other professions worsens the prospects for the long-term excellence of British universities.

From my perspective, the struggle over pay is just the most concrete point of dispute, in what is really a long-term battle over the fate of the university in Britain. Maybe it’s not even the right issue to make a stand on. Since the fall we’ve been “working to contract”. In Oxford, our contracts are so vague, and the traditions show so much deference to the individual needs of academic staff (something compelled by the need to negotiate the complicated college-university split) that it has no practical effect on my work. But other universities seem to have implemented a sort of academic Taylorism, with minute demands unbounded by any constraints of contract. The union has published reports from academics about how this has improved their lives. So maybe that should be the target. We could start by establishing strict enforcement of our contracts as the baseline — who can object to that? — and then negotiate additional pay piecemeal for voluntarily performing extra duties that are now simply added onto the job.

The real fight is over the future of the “research university” as we know it. Increasingly, official university rhetoric points to possibly “irreconcilable tension” between research and tutorial teaching. Now, the premise of the research university has always been that teaching and research reinforce each other — while at any given moment an academics may not enjoy the way they are forced to split their time, everyone benefits when scholars are teachers and teachers are scholars. But in the UK, increasingly, the money comes in at the research end, and the funders are becoming ever fussier about not letting their money be diverted into projects — like teaching, even graduate teaching — which, however worthy in themselves, are not their mission.

What is a university administrator to do? If you’re a management-school type of modern administrator, you try to maximise research income by reassuring the people with money that their contributions will go to the proper purposes, while the top researchers won’t have their attention distracted by any irritating students. And since you probably can’t get away with spinning off the unproductive teaching side altogether, you turn it into a profit centre by cutting costs, hiring a few famous academics at high salaries to give a few lectures a year, and farm out what used to be the main business of academics to temp workers, or maybe a call centre in Bangalore.

Even the government is pushing in this direction. For instance, as I commented here, when the universities build new buildings, the government is willing to pay them effectively a hefty subsidy if they will ensure that no undergraduate teaching will take place on the premises.

So I think the fight over pay is a proxy for a larger struggle over workers controlling the means of production academics controlling the principles of the university. Again, my job is anomalous, because Oxford still has a (barely) functioning academic government, with real (though atrophying through disusue) power. But for British academia as a whole, I think only a union provides a possibility for concerted effort to defend academic values in a business-centric ideological landscape.

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