Higher Education

On the Poverty of the Student Experience

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This is an opinion piece written by NCAFC member Dan Davison for the 50th anniversary of 1968. An early version was distributed as a bulletin for the 2018 National Student Left Conference, ‘We are the University’. Join the debate by writing for us at anticuts.com!

Fifty years ago, we were warned of the spectacle. We were warned of how the commodity’s tendrils were seeping into every corner of social being, suffocating all potential for authentic human life. Now the commodity’s colonisation of society is complete. Under neoliberalism, ’we are everywhere homo oeconomicus and only homo oeconomicus’. [1] Few areas of social life display this bleak economisation of human existence as starkly as higher education. More and more, our academic institutions become degree factories whose vacuous output feeds the ‘knowledge economy’. Under the metricising gaze of the two ‘excellence frameworks’, the marketisation of education set in motion when the Blair Government introduced tuition fees in 1998 has reached its highest stage. ‘The Poverty of Student Life’ [2] that the Situationists described in 1966 is not only greater in 2018: it is happily advertised on every campus as ‘the student experience’.

Five decades on, we students are still here to be moulded into low-level functionaries within the commodity system. The prospect of this dismal ‘reward’ awaiting us beyond our current ‘provisional role’ still drives us to take refuge in an ‘unreally lived present’. [3] Yet the bureaucrats have learned how to turn this transient, comforting embrace of the unreal into a constant, passive acceptance of the commodity system itself. One sees this from how, on many campuses, students’ unions are little more than inane entertainment venues and docile feedback mechanisms instead of democratic bodies that fight for their members’ material interests. The more we conceive of ourselves as human capital, the more student life models itself on the investment firm. Studies and recreation alike are geared towards that hollow monstrosity of modern life that is the LinkedIn profile.

With the shift in the education sector from relying on government grants to relying on fees and rents as income, shiny new buildings line prospectus pages to help universities meet their ever-rising target student numbers, even where campuses already feel the strain of overcrowding. As we saw in Elephant and Castle, these same ostentatious building projects can mask the gentrifying expansion of campuses both here and overseas, depriving working class locals of their homes and livelihoods in the pursuit of profit. Even the suggestion of lower fees for specific subjects in the Tory Government’s latest Higher Education review retains the logic of student-as-consumer, valuating knowledge according to market needs rather than individual human flourishing or any wider social benefit.

Marketisation and commodification leave the lives of education workers no less impoverished than those of students. Under the watchful eyes of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), academics pursue constant validation by artificial metrics in service of the ‘knowledge economy’. These frameworks herald the final stages in the sector’s decades-long shift towards a managerial accounting model. There are few starker illustrations of what is truly valued in education under neoliberalism than the fact that the University of Bath, the very institution that heralded a national media storm over Vice Chancellors’ pay and university democracy, received a ‘Gold’ ranking under the TEF in 2017. Similarly, the cuts to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) that led the University and College Union (UCU) into its largest ever strike were made to shift financial risk away from the universities and onto the individual employee. The rhetoric of ‘flexibility’ veils staff’s anxiety over having to structure their entire lives around casual contracts that provide little stable income and leave them at the mercy of managers. Faced with insecurity in future retirement and present employment alike, for postgraduates and Early Career Academics, the ‘student experience’ leads to a poverty every bit as financial as it is spiritual.

The traditional professoriate mourns the death of older collegial forms of university governance and liberal education. To be clear, we are under no illusions about the bourgeois-liberal universities of yesteryear. Such universities provided general education to a privileged minority so that they could take up positions in the ruling class. This is why, when we call to make institutions democratically accountable, we mean to all those who work and study there, and to their local communities. We do not mean democratically accountable to elite academics nostalgic for the days when they were the ‘guard-dogs serving the future masters’ rather than ‘sheep-dogs in charge of herding white-collar flocks to their respective factories and offices’. [4]

However, the Situationists also warned of the ‘modernists’ who wished to ‘reintegrate’ the university into social and economic life. They recognised what such ‘reintegration’ really meant. It meant adapting the entire university to the needs of modern capitalism. It meant ‘subordinating one of the last relatively autonomous sectors of social life to the demands of the commodity system’. [5] With the neoliberal turn, capitalism has subsumed academia into the logic of the market to the point of commodifying education itself. The descendants of the ‘modernists’ have won. The ‘future cybernetised university’ the Situationists warned us about is finally here. [6]

To see this unsettling truth, one need only look at the extent to which the illusions that the forces of capital once had to impose upon students and workers are now ‘willingly internalised and transmitted’ thanks to metricisation. [7] It is hardly a secret that National Student Survey (NSS) results on ‘student satisfaction’ are essentially junk data and, as part of the TEF, are intended to allow high-scoring universities to become more expensive than low-scoring ones. Despite this, final year undergraduates across the country fill in the survey without a second thought. If the university’s promise of ‘critical thinking’ is to mean anything, then we as students should be dissatisfied with our institutions: dissatisfied with their complicity in job cuts, poverty wages, racist monitoring practices, gentrification, political suppression, and the reduction of all human value to that of capital! What’s more, we should be unafraid to make our dissatisfaction political!

As for how academic staff have responded to this increasingly metricised life, through the felt need to meet submission deadlines in the REF cycle, even at the cost of publication quality, they have come to accept permanent performance monitoring as the basis for differentiated rewards. [8] For all the promises of neoliberalism’s architects that we would be freed from ‘red tape’, bureaucracy is now immanent to work itself. Not only has the ruling class set up new ‘agencies of psycho-police control’: it has made us feel compelled to monitor ourselves and feed the data to those agencies as a matter of routine! [9] The graffitied Parisian walls of May ‘68 warned that ‘a cop sleeps inside each one of us’. The more we watch our every step to meet competitive performance levels, the more that sleeping cop begins to stir.

If the spectacle truly has reached such an all-consuming stage, then how do we push beyond it? Already we see parallel struggles between the youth and student movements of the 1960s, and those of today. The mass sit-ins at Berkeley for free speech in the face of political repression echo in the current rallying cry for ‘Cops Off Campus!’, and in the fight against the racist surveillance of students under the Prevent Strategy. The spirit of the shop steward movement imbues the latest strikes by cleaners, cinema staff, fast food workers, and couriers, proving that young and migrant workers can lead the charge against the ‘gig economy’. The youth who helped build the Corbyn project in the Labour Party and showed their seismic force in the 2017 general election would easily find their counterparts in the anti-bomb and anti-war movements of fifty years ago.

We should not limit our examples to Britain. Even now, comrades in France are showing the way, staging simultaneous student occupations and rail worker strikes to resist Macron’s attacks upon the public sector. The ‘selection’ process Macron seeks to implement would edge French universities towards a marketised system like the UK’s. In Germany, university and school students have gone on strike under the slogan ‘Education not Deportations’ to oppose the expansion of German and EU border controls. They demand a dignified life and proper access to education for all migrants. In Poland, students and workers have occupied the University of Warsaw in protest against a state attempt to change the university’s governance structures, which would centralise power in the hands of the rector and unelected external governors. The protesters also demand increased funding for education and science, and more rights for workers on campus. All these common struggles lay the foundations for international solidarity.

As in the 1960s, we as students need to unite against the shared root of our hardships. We need to bring together the different blades we have drawn against the neoliberal beast. By this I mean the thriving campaigns on campuses across the country to cap rents; to abolish fees; to pay a Living Wage; to end zero hours contracts and outsourcing; to move to renewable energy. At the national level, we need to democratise the National Union of Students (NUS) into a dynamic, militant force worthy of its name. We fight for a democratic, accessible, and truly public education system with a liberatory curriculum. This common goal finds its fullest potency as a rupture within the very capitalist system that keeps us beholden to commodities and bound in wage-slavery. This is the core lesson that 1968 imparted: the need to wage all these different battles as a living, radical critique of world that is and unify them into a single struggle for the world that could be. This way, we can make ‘the student experience’ mean the affirmation, not the alienation, of human life and creativity: a détournement worthy of Debord himself.

[1] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (MIT Press 2015), page 33.
[2] Members of the Situationist International and Students of Strasbourg University, On the Poverty of Student Life (1966). http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/poverty.htm
[3] Poverty, chapter 1.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Hugo Radice, ‘How We Got Here: UK Higher Education under Neoliberalism’, 12 (2) ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 407-18, page 416. https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/969
[9] Poverty, chapter 1.

University of Warsaw Occupied

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By NCAFC National Committee member Ana Oppenheim

Since Tuesday June 5, students and staff at the University of Warsaw have been protesting against a new law changing the governance structures of Poland’s universities. They have occupied a part of the main campus where the Rector’s offices are located and dropped a banner off the balcony saying “we demand democratic universities.”

The occupation started as a response to the so-called “Gowin’s Act,” named after the conservative Minister of Science and Higher Education. The law sets out to expand the powers of the Rector and establish a new university governing body which includes members external to the university (similar to the UK’s boards of governors). Critics say that the changes will take power away from the community of students and workers and centralise it in the hands of unaccountable management, and that the new board could increase the influence of government ministers and business over academia. Furthermore, the protestors fear that planned changes to higher education funding and expansion of audit culture will privilege big universities in major cities (in order to boost their international league table positions) over smaller and already struggling institutions.

The 11 demands published by the Academic Protest Committee, as the campaigners call themselves, include democratic elections of Rectors and academic community representatives on all levels of management, transparency of university finances and administrative decisions, protection from government intervention into research, investment in housing and scholarships to reduce barriers to access, an increase in funding for education and science to at least 2% of GDP (currently at under 0.5%, among the lowest in Europe, although the government has promised a significant increase) and strengthening the rights of campus workers.

Alongside the occupation, which is said to be the first one taking place at the University of Warsaw in 30 years, the committee has organised a number of teach-outs led by prominent opponents of the Law and Justice government. Protests have also been organised on campuses in Lodz and Bialystok. The campaign has been endorsed by a growing number of organisations, including university departments, academic societies, trade union branches in Warsaw and beyond and the leftwing party Razem (although not by UW’s students’ union.) “Academia is our common good which we will defend as long as it is necessary” reads the occupiers’ manifesto.

Follow the Academic Protest Committee here and tweet solidarity at #Ustawa20 and #NaukaNiepodlegla (which stands for “Independent Science”.)

Report: UCU Rank & File Meeting

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By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

On 29 April 2018, approximately 50 activists from across the UK met at City, University of London. They were there as part of a newly formed Rank and File network within the University and College Union (UCU). This network emerged from the strikes this year over proposed cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which saw a surge in activity within the union at the grassroots level. 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ on 14 April 2018 to an offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK), to set up a Joint Expert Panel that would, among other things, look into the valuation of the USS Fund. Despite this, many UCU members – myself included – saw the handling of this ballot as a capitulation by Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary.

The Rank and File meeting therefore had a central objective of ensuring we do not lose the energisation of UCU’s activist base, especially seeing how 24,000 new members have joined the union since the USS strike ballot. Although the network and meeting both arose from the USS dispute, the common understanding remained that our battle is against larger ills within the education sector, including marketisation and precarity. Likewise, the question of how to intervene in UCU’s structures and democratise the union was central, with the members present generally accepting that UCU’s weaknesses cannot be solved with a change in leadership alone.

We also acknowledged the need to share skills and resources, especially between stronger and weaker UCU branches, and to link with broader workers’ and students’ struggles. Encouragingly, it was suggested that the new network should push UCU to work in closer solidarity with students in the fight for free education. Much inspiration was taken from examples across the world, including the recent West Virginia wildcat strikes and the establishment of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union in California. Although involvement in the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) was suggested to keep the dynamism of the strike alive, no serious case was made for UCU activists to ‘dual card’ as IWGB members or to found another union altogether.

The Rank and File network has no steering committee as such, but now has several working groups that we broke into following general discussion of the network’s aims. These working groups are on democracy, anti-racism (including migrant workers’ rights), the Higher Education pensions dispute, and precarious labour. Given my history of union activism around casualisation, I joined the precarious labour group, which saw a healthy discussion of everything from practical demands, such as moving precarious staff onto fractional contracts, to common interests to which we can appeal in our campaigns, such as high workloads and the gender pay gap.

Overall, the Rank and File meeting was promising, but the onus falls upon the newly connected members to turn its initiatives into concrete gains. We have a vision of a better union in mind: now we need to bring it into reality.

Organising a Rent Strike at Bristol Uni: What we did, how we went about it, its successes and failures

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Written by a Bristol activist.

Between 2016/17 activists from Acorn Community Union, Bristol Reclaim Education and other groups came together to start a campaign against university halls rent increases. It was Acorn Community Union plus other student activists (including newly elected Student Living Officer Stephen Le Fanu) who initiated Bristol Cut the Rent at the end of the previous academic year (2015/16). Bristol Cut the Rent was inspired by the similarly named UCL Cut the Rent campaign which between 2015/16 had launched one of the biggest rent strikes in higher education history at University College London – UCL had launched anamazing rent strike where over 1000 students took part, coupled with big demonstrations, rallies and flash occupations of management, the campaign won over £1.5million in cuts, bursaries and rent freezes despite UCL’s attempts to intimidate rent strikers and student journalists who uncovered and spoke out against UCL’s profit-making in university halls.

Bristol Cut the Rent at the end of the 2015/16 academic year launched a meeting and a protest over proposed rent increases which garnered a lot of support. The following year Bristol Cut the Rent launched a rent strike campaign to encourage first year students to withold rent en masse as a way to protest and gain leverage over the university in order to demand rent cuts, rent controls and transparency in rent costs.
The following is an account of how those involved in the organising went about organising a rent strike, th successes, and the failings of the campaign and what we can conclude. Just to clarify however I was just one of those involved in the campaign and can’t necessarily speak for others. Nevertheless I think it’s important to reflect on campaigns you have been involved, what happened, what went well, what didn’t and what we can learn from that.

By no means would I say that the Bristol Cut the Rent 2016/17 rent strike was a success, however it was one of the few in times in Bristol University’s history when students at the university had taken collective (and technically illegal) action against the university and the very fact that this was done and how it was done should be told.


Rent Strike Weekender

Those who had been organisers and activists in the UCL and Goldsmiths Cut the Rent campaign, both of which had secured pretty big wins using rent strikes as a tactic, organised a “Rent Strike Weekender”. This was a weekend of workshops on rent, the housing market, university marketisation as well as practical workshops on how to organise a rent strike, how to do the social media campaign, how to go into negotiations with management, etc. Around 4-5 of us from Bristol went down to the weekender. At the weekender itself there was easily 100-150 people from over 25 campuses who had come to learn and
share their knowledge.

What I found particularly inspiring and interesting about the rent strike weekender was how much doorknocking and face-to-face conversations were stressed. One of the Goldsmiths activists explained how they had been inspired by the organising around the had read about during the Poll Tax rebellion where organisers did waves of doorknocking and literally had meetings in people’s kitchens in countless housing estates.

A brief timeline of the rent strike

November 2016
– we started doorknocking in University Halls (UH is the cheapest halls but nonetheless had very high rent, it is currently £110 a week and will be increased)
– a week and a half later there was a meeting of 30+ students in the University Hall bar

December 2016
– a pledge system was put together where students signed up to pledge to rent strike if 100 other students agreed to do the same
– Doorknocking was done in many other halls including Hiatt Baker, Badock, Durdham as well as Northwell House and city centre halls.

January 2017
– the pledge was only a few people short of the 100 needed
– the rent strike was not called due to there not being enough participants

February – April 2017
– periods of negotiations were had with university management who only partially agreed to give us a breakdown of the costs halls running and maintenance.
– doorknocking began again but not to the same extent as in November and December
– a new pledge was put together with 150 people needed to call a rent strike
– this target was not reached and in the end around 40 or so students took part in a rent strike
– the campaign’s final major action was a demonstration at the university
– in the end the campaign won a pledge for more bursaries for rent, a rent hike of 3.5% instead of 4.5% and a breakdown of the ingoings and outgoings of in university halls.

Doorknocking and having conversations with students and our struggle to get information
Doorknocking was probably the most important aspect of the campaign and the main way in which we actively engaged, talked and listened to people. Doorknocking and the engagement you do through conversations is the often invisible and often considered “less sexy” work of the campaign. I personally find it one of the most fun parts of campaigning and organising because you are not shouting things at people or buildings you are talking to people as people and getting them to understand the power they have collectively. However, when it comes to doorknocking and conversations it can be done well and it can be done badly. In hindsight I think our approach was partly good partly bad and it is something that we could definitely have had training in by good, principled and successful organisers.
When doorknocking we introduced ourselves by our names and why we were doorknocking. We would then ask them an open question like “We think you pay too much rent, what do you think?” More often than not the person agreed. We would then explain how much rent has gone up in the past years and that we knew that there was a way to respond and demand rent cuts. In most of our conversations we almost immediately talked about going on rent strike. We would ask if the student knew what that involved. If they didn’t we would explain. We would then ask what they would think about doing this kind of action. This would usually result in a bunch of questions like what the university response would be, does it actually work, etc. To all of these questions we had answers which we had learned and knew from the UCL and Goldsmiths Cut the Rent campaign. We knew more or less what the response from the university would be at most points both with regard to home and international students. By being open and honest about the risks as well as the power of taking this kind of action we gave people the confidence and understanding to take action.

However, although we did this we only partially got students involved. Our approach and how we saw ourselves for the most part was a group that would try to maneouvre the campaign with a certain amount of students in halls participating too. We always wanted to students in halls to get involved and participate however the language we used and the way we engaged was not the type that actively engaged students. Reading more organising advice from successful organisers like Jane McAlevey I realise that even quite small things in conversations make a big difference when it comes to encouraging and building confidence. E.g. instead of saying “Thank you” at the end of a conversation it’s better to say “Good talking to you”, “See you later”, “Look forward to seeing you soon” because we are not thanking them for doing something we want to say “hey it’s your rent and your problem we’re just here to give you the info and help you along seeing as you want to do something about it, we’ll help make decisions but it needs active democratic engagement from everyone for it to be successful.”

Again we did get some students actively engaged and organising and that was very important to the campaign. However, we failed to get the majority of students engaged.

Another issue we had when it came to doorknocking is that we could not give a straight answer on how much we could win. We had done our homework to some degree however getting some very basic information from the university proved difficult. The university for a long time refused to give us information about the costs, ingoings and expenditure on halls deeming this information as “commercially sensitive”. We were told that a differently worded Freedom of Information request might have been more successful. We never did this and instead just ploughed on ahead.

Due to this lack of information we failed to be direct about how students could win. The most reasoning we could give was pointing out how much the university would spend on expansion and pointing out the above inflation rent increases that had been happening but it wasn’t possible for us to say exactly how much money the university had been making from rent and what type of rent cut was possible to get. In the end we got a breakdown of costs and income from the university regarding halls. The university claimed that they had made a deficit however the categories of this account were very vague including unexplained financing of “other” costs accounting for around £5m, rental paid to lease owners (ca. £13m) and “loan financing” £2.7m. Moreover, some other ingoings of university halls were omitted in the “budget” including the amount made from conferences.

Moreover, sabbatical officers had seen different budgets from the university and heard different claims from the university management including that they didn’t budget for halls.

Given this confusion it was not possible for us to say properly where the university would get its money from to finance a rent cut exactly because the university was so obstinate in being transparent.

Lessons learned
In the end I learned a lot from the campaign about the work that people need to put into the campaign. In the end I think the campaign would have benefitted best from having someone who had helped in a successful rent strike or majority workplace strike. And going forward I think it is important for anyone doing community and/or work-place organising to learn from those who are doing it very well, such as United Voices of the World (UVW), the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union (BAFWU), the Picture House workers campaign, as well as strikes by good branches of bigger more bureaucratic unions such as those who helped organise the St Barts strike with Unite in 2017.

A very obvious thing but something that we didn’t take seriously enough is doing our homework on what might be called the “cost of concession” – the amount of power you need to win whatever it is that you want to win. We didn’t have a clear idea about how much we could win, and what it would take to win that. When it comes to a rent strike the power of it comes from the fact that for quite a few months you are en masse witholding a large amount of money that the university wants. However, to make the strike very strong, and this requires students building a significant amount of solidarity, students would have to threaten an indefinite rent strike until their demands are met. Unfortunately many of us who talked to students about rent striking sold it on the basis that it is a very safe action since the university won’t want to call evictions on so many students. Whilst this is certainly true, it’s not a good basis on which to build something that needs to to actually be very strong.

Assuming we had had a good idea of the “cost of concession” and a good strategy to present. E.g. mass petitions + rallies led by students in halls + demos led by students in halls + occupations led by students in halls + an ongoing rent strike. To actually turn it into something with mass participation would have involved bringing the campaign into more parts of students social life. E.g. getting other, in particular “non-political”, societies to support the campaign, getting live-in seniour residents onboard, getting lecturers and professors to support the campaign. This large amount of support for the campaign can only be built by taking those who will take the rent strike and getting them to lead it, since they know what support would be best to get in their wider student life.

Finally something that we did not do but we ought to have done is knock on literally every door. And even more importantly getting to a point where it is basically only those taking rent strike action who are knocking on doors. We got some rent strikers doing doorknocking but not enough to that it was rent strikers democratically and mass participationally taking rent strike action.

In the end, helping organise the rent strike was a very new thing for all of us and it changed the way I organise quite a lot. I really encourage students and non-students to take the initiative and organise more things like this and join up with housing and work-place struggles outside of university. It can only make the struggle against marketisation, for free education, and for free and accessible housing more of a reality and all the things that will liberate us more of a reality.

Reflections on the UCU Strike: Where Do We Go From Here?

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By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrad & Education Workers Co-Rep and Cambridge UCU activist. Photo by Andrew Perry.

On 14 April 2018, 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ to the offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK). Industrial action, including action short of a strike (ASOS), is now suspended. UUK’s offer aims to end the ongoing dispute over intended reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. As explained in a previous article, these changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, spelling the effective end to guaranteed pension benefits. In their offer, UUK proposed to establish a ‘Joint Expert Panel, comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides’, to ‘deliver a report’ and ‘to agree key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund’.

NCAFC advocated a ‘No’ vote in the ballot, finding that the proposal offered little in the way of concrete guarantees and noting how it could see UUK continuing to use the contested November valuation for the USS, despite the pension scheme’s ‘deficit’ being fabricated. On 13 March, UCU rejected a previous proposal drawn up by the union and UUK’s representatives during negotiations, after UCU members demonstrated outside the union’s national headquarters and local UCU branches called on the national leadership to turn down the deal: an outcry that trended online with the hashtag #NoCapitulation. Moreover, between the announcement of the new proposal on 23 March and the closing of the ballot on 14 April, many branches came out in opposition to the offer as it stood, preferring a deal with clearer and more reliable assurances. On social media, this position was often identified with the hashtag #ReviseAndResubmit, in humorous allusion to the peer review process for academic journals.

Whilst the 63.5% turnout for the ballot on the new proposal is not something to dismiss out of hand, the result comes as a disappointment for many strikers, as well as those who have stood in solidarity with them. I will lay out some major criticisms of the UCU leadership’s handling of the ballot and offer a few explanations for the ballot result. I will then make some critical observations about how the National Union of Students (NUS) conducted itself throughout the strike. I will end on what I hope will be a constructive and optimistic note on how we can build upon the gains of the strike, particularly the unprecedented energisation of UCU’s rank-and-file.

1. The UCU Leadership

One of the most significant problems with the ballot is the manner in which Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, presented the available options in her emails to the membership. More specifically, Hunt conflated the more hard-line ‘no detriment’ position with the less hard-line ‘revise and resubmit’ position, and then framed the ‘No’ option on the ballot as a mandate for ‘no detriment’. A significant number of UCU members favoured ‘revise and resubmit’, considered ‘no detriment’ unrealistic, and would have been willing to pursue further industrial action in pursuit of demands shaped by a ‘revise and resubmit’ position. As Hunt presented the ‘No’ option as a commitment to bargaining for ‘no detriment’, we can safely assume that many members who ordinarily would have rejected the offer instead accepted it. Moreover, whilst it is established practice for a union’s executive committee to make recommendations in such matters, it appears that the recommendations Hunt gave to members were hers alone.

Unfortunately, UCU’s national leadership has a long history of failing to pursue effective industrial action when needed. As we recognised when UCU called off its marking boycott during the 2014 pay dispute, when the national leadership clearly does not support further industrial action, members become demoralised and are left to believe that, if they do vote for further action, the action will be tokenistic and ineffective. With staff members losing significant pay on strike days, one can understand why the leadership’s visible lack of commitment to seeing the strike through to the end would have had a dissuading effect on UCU members. Indeed, one would be forgiven for a certain cynical suspicion that the ballot was called during the Easter break precisely because it would be a time of year when student support for the strike would be less visible on campus and when there would be no picket lines to generate feelings of solidarity.

In many respects, the contrast between the ballot on the one hand, and the wave of demonstrations, open letters, and branch resolutions for #NoCapitulation on the other hand, is instructive for the problems with an atomistic approach to democracy in a national organisation. When members are in a room with others who have shared their struggle, the fostered feeling of solidarity boosts confidence, and one can actively participate in a structured discussion that lays out and debates the available positions. When members have to vote as geographically separated individuals, that atmosphere of solidarity and accompanying confidence are lost. Moreover, in the context of the present dispute, those members who were not active during (and, presumably, less supportive of) the strike ended up receiving disproportionate guidance from the leadership’s communications.

Nevertheless, I urge student and trade union activists not to assume the worst of those UCU members who voted to accept the deal. Apart from the leadership’s handling of the ballot and general lack of effective leadership, there are numerous understandable reasons why members would choose not to continue striking. With classes finishing for the year, the most disruptive part of the industrial action would have been the marking boycott. Since this would affect students’ reception of marks much more directly than cancelled lectures, one can sympathise with staff members’ fear of ‘hurting’ their students or losing student support by continuing the action, even if a victory for the strike would actually have helped students in the long run by resisting a systematic attack on learning conditions. Likewise, one can understand why the prospect of standing on a picket line when the campus is less busy would be quite bleak for many strikers. Once we have more data on the number of UCU branches that came out against both the rejected and the accepted deals, along with a breakdown of the ballots cast, we can better account for why members voted as they did.

2. The NUS

In a previous opinion piece, I criticised the NUS leadership for demonstrating no support for the strike beyond than a lacklustre joint statement (itself released more than a week after UCU’s industrial action ballot result), despite it being the clear policy of NUS’ National Executive Council to provide much more concrete assistance. That was at the start of February. Individual NUS officers might have made supportive gestures and commentary during the strike period, but as an institution, the NUS remained conspicuously absent. This means that the 26 campus occupations and other surges of campus activism in solidarity with UCU materialised in spite of the NUS rather than because of it.

NCAFC assisted many of these occupations by helping coordinate them online, and – in some instances – by sending members to boost numbers and expertise. This resulted in approximately 40 activists from 13 different campuses across the UK meeting in London to share their experience and draft a joint solidarity statement, with further cross-campus connections being drawn now. Similarly, NCAFC administered both the popular ‘Students Support the UCU Pensions Strike’ Facebook group, which allowed activists to share materials, and the @Occupation_hub twitter account, which kept abreast of direct action in support of the strike. Still, all this is no substitute for the material support of a national union tasked with fighting for our interests as students. In other words, if there was any moment at which the NUS should have lived up to its name, it was at the height of campus activism in solidarity with UCU. The NUS could have officially sent representatives to the occupations and committed itself to defending student protesters from victimisation, especially those on visas who take an especially high risk when participating in direct action, but they did nothing.

The NUS thus finds itself in a curious state of double removal. It is removed from the mass political drive for free education that has seen expression in the Corbyn surge and in Labour’s significant gains in the 2017 General Election. Likewise, it is removed from the fertile layer of grassroots campus activism that made the recent wave of occupations possible. As of the 2018 NUS National Conference elections, the NUS leadership is split evenly between the left and the right, but the right still holds the presidency. However, if the experience of the UCU strike has taught us anything, it is that any attempt to rebuild the student movement must amount to something far wider and bolder than putting left-wingers in office.

3. What Next for UCU?

Even though our current position is intensely dissatisfying, we have made genuine gains through our activism. UCU membership has increased by the thousands and seen unprecedented energisation at the grassroots level. Now we must ask how we rank-and-file activists can prepare for the (almost inevitable) next round in the dispute should the talks with UUK fail and, more pointedly, how we can transform the union itself. I wholly understand the temptation for left-wing members simply to jump ship from UCU. As it stands, UCU has all the trappings of a bureaucratised union disconnected from its more militant base and the UCU Left faction, dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), serves as little more than an electoral machine. For these same reasons, I understand suggestions to ‘dual card’ with smaller, more dynamic unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

While all available options should considered carefully, I do wish to stress that there are significant advantages to a large, national union, not least in respect of collective bargaining. Since university employers in the sector have to deal with industry-wide unions such as UCU, it is harder to drive down wages on individual campuses and make the sector even more closely resemble a market than it does already. Moreover, one should bear in mind that the character of unions can change dramatically. Many of the large national unions now infamous for bureaucracy, such as the GMB, grew out of the ‘new unionism’ of the 1880s, which replaced the older ‘craft union’ models. This shift from craft unionism to new unionism meant an upsurge in militancy and the bringing together of different workers in the same industry to fight for collective gains rather than to defend the special interests of a uniquely skilled ‘labour aristocracy’. Conversely and more recently, rank-and-file activists transformed the traditionally conservative and bureaucratic Chicago Teachers Union into an energised, combative body. As such, we should not be overly dismissive of what we could achieve within UCU, building upon the kind of grassroots revolt we saw with the #NoCapitulation surge.
In short, whether one chooses to start a new union or to reform an existing union, there are no shortcuts to effective workplace organising. For now, we must keep engaging with UCU’s activist base and ensure that its newly tapped potential does not dissipate. With new rank-and-file networks emerging in the wake of the ballot result, a glimmer of hope appears in the darkness. It is a hope that springs from a single, potent realisation: we are the union.

Our Demands: Statement from the Occupations Summit

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Activists from 13 campuses who had been in occupation have come together on Sunday 18th March to share our experiences, learn from each other and plan how we can unite together in support of UCU for the struggle ahead.

We stand in full solidarity with UCU and are demanding that:
1. Universities UK ends its attempts to push through this pension scheme and gives in to the opposition from UCU.
2. The strike is mediated by a genuinely independent body, not one appointed by Universities UK.
3. That Universities UK publish a gender impact assessment on the USS pension reforms.
4. Universities release reports on their institutional responses to the USS consultations to September Risk valuations, clarifying their decisions and the process behind them.
5. Universities should guarantee that students will not be awarded results lower than their predicted grade, in response to disruption caused by UUK. If students achieve results better than predicted, then that result will be accepted.
6. No pay is docked for staff taking action short of a strike. That hourly paid staff whose teaching hours all fell on strike days do not have their pay docked.
7. No-one, staff or student, face disciplinary action or other victimisation for protesting in support of the strike.
8. Strike days are not classed as “mandatory attendance” for students, especially international students.
9. International student visas be extended to cover delayed graduation dates
10. Workers on Tier 2 & Tier 4 Visas do not face legal threats for participation in strike action

We believe in education that is democratic, accessible and liberated, with living grants for all and no tuition fees, funded by taxing the rich. We want a radical transformation of our education system from the bottom up.

We are calling on our universities to: pay the living wage and provide in-house and secure contracts for all campus workers; cease all blacklisting of workers; implement a 5:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid staff on campus; divest from fossil fuels and arms companies; end all compliance with PREVENT; initiate rent caps and pass ownership and running of accomodation to students.

Read the report from the summit here.

Occupations Summit: Activists from 13 Campuses Come Together

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National Committee member Monty Shield reports

Around 40 activists from 13 campuses who had been in occupation have come together to share our experiences, learn from each other and plan how we can unite in support of UCU for the struggle ahead.

Taking stock
After a hugely inspiring four weeks we had a collective discussion of the national situation. Leading off, Swansea UCU activist Cath Fletcher gave an overview of the recent history of the UCU and the context of the strike, and Cambridge postgraduate teaching assistant and UCU member Dan Davison spoke of the effect of the 2010 student movement on his current involvement in the occupation at Cambridge University.

National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) activist and NUS Presidential candidate Sahaya James, who played a key role in the occupation at UCL, called for the National Union of Students to orientate itself towards the emerging leadership of the student movement: the grassroots activists who have made these last four weeks as significant as they have been.

Activists from as far away as Scotland and other campuses a long way outside of London contributed to the discussion. And it is clear that there is a deep resolve from all activists present and across the country to build on the great upsurge of student-worker solidarity action until we win this dispute. Detailed notes of this discussion were taken and will be released soon.

Learning from the past four weeks
The second part of the day entailed skill-sharing workshops. Activists split into groups, first listing the successes of their occupations and other campus actions, then listing obstacles they had faced and mistakes made. Groups fed back to the whole room, and invaluable lessons were learnt that activists can take back to their local groups for future direct action. Notes were taken and a best practice guide to occupations will be produced and circulated soon.

Going forward
In the next few months we want to organise together to take this wave of student solidarity to the next level of effectiveness and national coordination.

We voted to release a joint statement of demands immediately following the meeting and want to work together to develop this further together over the coming months. And already local occupation summits are being planned for London and Scottish campuses.

NUS

The meeting also voted to endorse two candidates for NUS full time office positions: Sahaya James for President and Ana Oppenheim for VP Higher Education. Both these activists are running on a platform for transforming NUS into a bottom up grassroots organisation that fights with lecturers and campus workers for a free, democratic, accessible and liberated education system. The were also endorsed to a large extent because of their key involved in recent occupations they have been a part of.

Sunday’s summit has laid the groundwork for linking up even more occupations.

To get involved contact the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts on facebook or email us at [email protected] You can also reach us by tweeting or messaging @occupation_hub.

If you want help with setting up an occupation on your campus, you can read this short guide to occupations here and look out for the best practice document that will be coming soon.

Marketisation Must Be Abolished, Not Adjusted

By NCAFC National Committee member Dan Davison.

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On Monday 19 February, Theresa May launched the latest funding review for higher education. Acknowledging that the UK now has ‘one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world’, May put forward that the review would ‘examine how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed’. Such promises follow Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ suggestions last Sunday that students might be charged variable tuition fees according to their specific degree’s economic value. Indeed, the themes of ‘meritocracy’ and greater ‘value for money’ infused May’s speech, which floated such options as adjusting the repayment period for graduates and bringing back maintenance grants, but excluded abolishing fees altogether.

These shifts in position from Government figures almost certainly reflect pressures brought first by the student movement in the wake of the 2010 anti-cuts protests and later by the Corbyn-led Labour Party, which has committed to abolishing fees, reintroducing grants, and setting up a new National Education Service to allow people to access education throughout their lives. Nevertheless, such concessions from the Conservatives mean little without directly tackling the underlying problem of marketization. In other words, such tinkering around the edges of tuition costs and debt repayment not only comes across as a ‘too little, too late’ gambit after years of slashed funds, course closures, and fee hikes, but also explicitly reinforces the very education-as-commodity logic that gave ideological cover to this systematic gutting of the sector.

This is perhaps most obvious from the suggestion that tuition fees be varied by the subject’s economic value. Education is far more than a financial investment in one’s future: it provides a substantial benefit to society as a whole by fostering skills and knowledge, as well as individual fulfilment by allowing people to seek new personal and intellectual horizons. One cannot reduce this worth to a price tag based on whether the private sector happens to consider a given skill or field of knowledge vital for its internal operations. Whilst many students’ experience of the current system may well be a monotonous grind to gain a set of numbers on a sheet of paper that will hopefully find them a job, the only manner in which we can break people free from such a life-sapping existence is by radically altering the way we have come to conceptualise education itself. It calls for us to be able to see and treat education the way we see and treat healthcare: as a public good that everyone is entitled to access, supported by the redistribution of wealth. This is why I advocate a free education system based on taxing the very richest so that anyone can go to university, as opposed to treating those who complete their degrees as obligated to give back money through student loan repayments or a ‘graduate tax’ for the ‘privilege’ of receiving a special service.

We most clearly see the spectre of marketization lingering above the funding review when we consider it alongside the ongoing industrial action by education workers organised in the University and College Union (UCU) to defend their pensions. On 22 February, a wave of pickets hit 61 universities, with a further 13 strike dates to follow in an escalating pattern. These strikes are over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. The proposed changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively spelling the end of guaranteed pension benefits. The significance of this dispute cannot be overstated. Academic staff are posed to lose up to 40% of their retirement income – which for the typical lecturer could amount to as much as £200,000 – and other pension schemes will almost certainly follow in USS’ wake. Put bluntly, if UCU loses the dispute, it would sound the death knell for financial security in retirement across the entire education sector.

The role of marketization in all this is simple: the reforms to USS are driven by the felt need to shift as much financial risk as possible from the universities to the individual workers, which in turn is driven by the felt need to make universities more attractive to commercial investors. In other words, senior management are cutting staff pensions in order to maximise profits. This means that student hardships, such as extortionate rents, rising fees, funding cuts, and overcrowded campuses, and staff hardships, such as the proliferation of casual employment contracts and the stripping of pension guarantees, are symptoms of the same underlying problem.

Indeed, there is a striking thematic parallel between the suggested differentiation of fees according to economic value and the infamous ‘excellence frameworks’, which outline artificial metrics for success in the education sector. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) ostensibly evaluates the impact of academic research, the newer Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) does likewise for teaching quality, and the recently proposed Knowledge Excellence Framework (KEF) will purportedly ensure that knowledge produced by universities is put to good use. All these frameworks are deeply flawed. In the case of the REF and KEF, commercial interests largely determine whether produced scholarship is ‘impactful’ or ‘useful’. Moreover, the pressure on academics to keep churning out and submitting articles to keep their jobs or gain promotion perpetuates and deepens a ‘publish or perish’ culture amongst staff, to the detriment of well-being and research quality alike.

As for the TEF, its two major metrics are employment rates and graduate earnings on the one hand, and the National Student Survey (NSS) on the other. Even on their own terms, these are wholly unreliable metrics. After all, a student could very easily have the most skilful and understanding teachers imaginable, yet still struggle to find a well-paying job after graduation, whilst NSS results are basically junk data. More fundamentally, the TEF was established with the ultimate aim of allowing high-scoring universities to become more expensive than low-scoring universities, thereby making education even more hierarchical and commodified. This is why the National Union of Students (NUS) passed policy in 2016 to boycott the NSS until the higher education reforms are withdrawn, and why Students’ Unions and activist groups across the country are continuing the boycott this year. In short, like the pensions cuts at the heart of UCU’s dispute and the proposals in the higher education review, the ‘excellence frameworks’ demonstrate the grave effects of marketization upon staff and students alike.

Until and unless we overhaul the entire education system to prevent managers from running universities like businesses, May’s promises will continue to ring hollow. This is why the call for staff-student solidarity must fall upon receptive ears. This is the point at which the common struggle of students and workers on campus is most starkly apparent. Much of the sector has already withered in the malignant presence of marketization. Nevertheless, if staff and students realise how viewing education in terms of ‘value for money’ has led to the predicaments they face today, they can organise to fend off the latest wave of attacks upon education and to lay the foundations for a radically different system. Only by noticing their shared material interests can students and workers form the kind of solidarity needed to defend the education sector we have, and to bring forth the education sector that could be.

NUS and UCU: Unite and Fight Better than This!

By Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

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As covered in a previous article, members of the University and College Union (UCU) overwhelmingly voted for strike action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the primary pensions scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. These changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively ending guaranteed pension benefits, with the typical lecturer set to lose as much as £200,000 in retirement. Following the end of talks between UCU and the employers’ consortium Universities UK (UUK) without agreement, UCU has announced 14 strike dates at 61 universities, beginning 22 February.

On 30 January, Sally Hunt, General Secretary of UCU, and Shakira Martin, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) released a joint statement on the USS action. In this statement, NUS expresses its concerns that ‘the imposition of these cuts in the face of sector wide opposition will lead to a demotivated and unhappy workforce and consequent recruitment and retention problems as staff vote with their feet and move elsewhere’. Accordingly, in ‘full solidarity’ with UCU, NUS has asked its members to:

  • continue to call for the university employers to recognise the seriousness of the situation and agree to meaningful negotiations either directly with the union or via ACAS
  • write to their institution head to complain about the impact the strike will have on their learning
  • participate in local demonstrative solidarity action during the strikes in support of UCU members.

Whilst we in NCAFC welcome staff-student solidarity action around the strike, the overall response from NUS has been thoroughly unimpressive. First, although the UCU industrial action ballot results came out on 22 January, we did not hear any official statement of support from NUS until 30 January. For the union tasked with fighting for the collective interests of students in this country to take over a week to give public backing to a vital and visible struggle of workers organised in the national union for academic staff is nothing short of disgraceful.

Second, the actions that NUS has finally requested from its members range from tepid at best to misguided at worst. Especially objectionable is the call for students to ‘write to their institution head to complain about the impact the strike will have on their learning’. This risks shifting blame onto the education workers standing up for their rights. Make no mistake: complaining to management about the disruptions caused by a strike is tantamount to complaining about the strikers themselves, and management will capitalise on this. Moreover, even if one were to frame such complaints in a manner that more squarely blames the employers’ consortium for imposing the pensions cuts, focussing on the strike’s impact on students obscures how the most hazardous financial costs are those borne by the workers themselves because they are not receiving wages on their strike days. This is especially true of staff on hourly-paid or similarly insecure contracts of employment.

Whilst all this would be cause for disapproval in isolation, it becomes utterly damning in light of the policy passed on 6 December by NUS’ own National Executive Council (NEC) when the UCU industrial action ballot was ongoing. Amongst other things, NUS NEC resolved to ‘produce materials including posters and leaflets that SUs can use to help explain to students what is happening and why our staff need support’. No such concrete support from NUS is anywhere in sight. Furthermore, in the space of time between the passing of that policy and the release of the ballot result, Shakira Martin never publicly wrote to UCU pledging support for their campaign or to the employers’ consortium urging them to reverse the attacks on staff pensions, despite these being clear NUS NEC commitments.

This brings me to the overarching problem with NUS’ lacklustre showing. The pensions cuts at the heart of UCU’s dispute are only one aspect of the bigger picture: marketization. In other words, the hardships facing academic staff, such as the casualisation of employment and the attacks on pensions, and the hardships facing students, such as tuition fees and extortionate rents, all stem from the systematic effort to transform education into a commodity and the education sector into a free market. What should be at the forefront of staff-student solidarity actions around the strike is the message that this fight is every bit as much the students’ as it is the staff’s.

This is why, in addition to avoiding classes on strike days, I urge all those students who rightly refuse to see education as something to be bought and sold to do as follows.

  • Join UCU strikers on picket lines.
  • Find ways to provide financial support for strikers. This could be through UCU’s general ‘fighting fund’ or, better yet, a student-supported strike fund for your local branch.
  • Explain to your fellow students why, no matter the short-term pains of the strike disruptions, the long-term devastation to our conditions of learning, teaching, and research is too great for us to focus on how the strike might inconvenience us as individuals now.
  • Link the defence of staff pensions to other collective actions against the marketization of education at both the national and the local level, such as the NSS Boycott and campaigns against course closures.
  • Pass motions in your Students’ Unions (like our model motion here) in support of UCU’s action.
  • Lobby your Vice-Chancellor to come out against the pensions cuts and to use their voice in the employers’ consortium to press for conceding to UCU’s demands.
  • Use your student and local media to keep solidarity with staff visible.
  • Organise sit-ins, rallies, and other highly noticeable demonstrations of support for the strike.

Students and workers have begun to unite and fight against the pensions cuts, but we can and should go much further than NUS has gone so far. We are not only battling for education workers to enjoy some security in their retirement: we are battling for the future of education itself.

Solidarity with striking staff: Acting like consumers is not what’s needed!

Tyrone Falls, NCAFC South-West Rep, offers a response to proposals that students should demand fee refunds for days and lectures disrupted by strikes. For a contrasting view, see this article by NCAFC International Students’ Rep Bobby Sun. Want to write an opinion article for our blog? Email [email protected]!

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At KCL a campaign has recently been launched by students to demand a refund for days and lectures lost due to strike action by UCU. The slogan for the campaign reads: “Our conscience should be free, refund our fees”. Whilst it’s understandable that students are annoyed that their lectures and seminars will be cancelled, presenting it as an either-or situation – either we have to strike-break because we are not getting a refund or we stand on the picket line because we are going to get a refund – creates a false dichotomy. Ultimately, staff are on strike because their pensions are under threat. Moreover, if these reforms go through they pave the way for further cuts and restructuring of universities. Therefore, the strike is to stop conditions worsening in education. This ought to be cause enough to support it.

However, there are further reasons why this campaign is the wrong approach. Firstly, it accepts the logic that students are consumers; secondly, the way it’s formulated now, it doesn’t strengthen solidarity, but instead says we might show solidarity if we get a refund; and thirdly, it misses the point that the people most immediately affected by the strike are lecturers, particularly those on more precarious and lower-paid contracts.

Solidarity with workers based on defending education not consumerism

A major issue with this campaign is that it embraces the logic that students are consumers and that education is a commodity. Rather than calling out this view of education – that you can attach a price-tag to the education you receive – as a myth, the campaign accepts it. Of course, you might reply, ‘Yeah, I’m against this logic too but the fact is that’s the system we have and we have to work with it’. You can still reject this logic and look to how we can best support the strike. How can we best make links with other workers that will set up structures to fight for a free and democratic education? Unfortunately, behaving like consumers who are paying for a service does nothing to question this model’s underlying logic, and so does nothing for people to become conscious and persuaded that education based on fees and consumerism can never be fair.

Lecturers are fighting cuts to education – this is why we should show solidarity

Again, I can see why students are annoyed that they are missing lectures. However, it is unfortunately normal that strikes negatively affect people other than management. However, if you understand why it is that lecturers are going on strike and agree with them, then you should be supporting the strike anyway. For any support of the strike to be real and genuine, it has to come from people appreciating why it is that workers have been forced to take this action. This is how we should be talking to students and others about the strike. If an en-masse refund campaign were done together with strikers purely for the tactical purpose of causing administrative disruption, then it would be different. However, as currently formulated, the campaign basically says that you can be unsupportive of workers who are taking action, losing pay, and trying to stop further cuts to education, if you don’t get a refund.

Those most affected by the strike are the lecturers

The third issue with the Refund Our Fees campaign is its focus. Yes, people are missing lectures and (based on a marketised view of education) they are losing money. However, those who are most affected by the strike are the lecturers, particularly lecturers on precarious and low-pay contracts. These workers will be losing out on big chunks of pay to defend their pensions. As people who are sympathetic to the lecturers’ actions, our focus should be first and foremost on how can we support striking staff to get over this difficult period and win. We should be asking: “How can we best build the morale of strikers, or help with strike funds, or get other students to understand what is at stake and genuinely support the strike?”

Victory to the UCU strike!