The Austerity University — #1

Today members of University and College Union (UCU) received a consultative ballot form, asking them to vote on a ‘full and final’ pay increase offer from HE employers of 2%.

This may be a moment, then, to reflect on current trends in Higher Education; to reflect on the ongoing workplace struggles within academic institutions; and to consider the strategic possibilities that are open to those of us who work in HE.

The relevant context here is the neoliberal ‘austerity’ project: not simply cuts to public services, but also the structural factors that caused the financial crisis of 2008, and the ways in which the state and capital seek to use the crisis to restructure political and economic hegemony. First, the crisis was not produced by state overspending, but by a decline in profitability and by consequent problems in capital circulation. The crisis continues not simply because cuts to public services are stunting growth, but because investors are reluctant to invest capital. This is the context in which to understand the vast hordes of capital being accumulated by universities. For example, Lancaster University currently holds around £16.2 million in its coffers.

The UCU have responded to this, asking why these vast sums of money are not invested in staff. But, the probity of this question has been stunted by the moralism and narrow pragmatism in which it has been framed: it is unfair not to raise staff pay, especially given that it is actually possible to do so. I think it worth pushing this a bit further. Several tentative theses emerge here:

1. The crisis, the success of the austerity strategy, and the novelty of the new £9000 fees regime (giving rise to discourses of the ‘student experience’ and ‘new services efficiency’) provide an unprecedented opportunity to cut university wage bills.

2. The novel emergence of a highly competitive HE market has led to an enormous pressure for universities to grow, economically. Consequently, restructuring and investments are increasingly dominated by the profit motive (that is, investment of capital for the purposes of increasing capital). This has had a massively detrimental affect on arts, humanities and social sciences departments, where most of the contractions have been and from which most of the staff unrest has arisen.

3. Following from the above, capital must increasingly be channelled away from consumption and towards investment, so that productivity can be increased. This is a component of neoliberal austerity strategy more generally. Whilst employing more staff could be described as an ‘investment’, the wage bill is increasingly being understood as the ‘unproductive’ consumption of capital by workers.

4. Most attempts to increase productivity occur in HE by increasing the exploitation of non-academic and precarious academic staff (i.e. library staff, caterers, cleaners, but also PhD students, research assistants, teaching assistants). Yet, cuts to pay and pensions, increased working-hours, and diminishing budgets obviously affect full-time academic staff too.

5. Finally – for now at least – there is consequently a changing understanding of the role of the lecturer, within the larger recomposition of class and production (including the HE sector) under austerity. Particularly with the devaluation of teaching in the new HE economy, academic work is becoming less and less about the provision of a specialist service; increasingly it is about the performance of abstract labour. However, because of the pressures described above, as well as the increasing competition around research, this affects different disciplines differently, as well as affecting staff differently within departments. The desperation of the expanding reserve army of academic labour, as well as the emergence of private HE enterprises, compounds this situation.


There is a lot more to write, here, but for now I want to end on this question: has the UCU approach to this emerging struggle engaged any of these broader problems? To be fair, UCU has engaged in a broader (if not broad) critique of austerity, even if it is not entirely clear on what ‘austerity’ might mean. At some institutions connections have been tentatively made between reductions to lecturers’ pay packets and the problems faced by indebted students, intensely exploited non-academic staff, zero-hour contracts and so on (marred obviously by its dove-tailing with the Labour Party line). Less interestingly, they’ve attempted to generate populist resentment about the remuneration of management. Still, the answer is clearly no: UCU have basically fought this as pay dispute. That is to say, they have fought this in the most short-sighted, timid and conservative manner possible.

So, is it any surprise that UCU are now offering this pseudo-ballot, framed by text underscoring how ‘full’ and ‘final’ it is? (The Lancaster branch actually included this line twice, and in bold.) Is it any wonder that the UCU exec is jumping at this exit-strategy with astounded relief? Of course, the ballot offers the possibility of UCU members refusing the pay offer. But, beyond UCU’s obvious preference for capitulation, the way this dispute has been fought – from its timidity to its populist moralism to its general failure to build clear alliances between different groupings of staff and with students – signals clearly to the membership that it is in their interest to vote ‘yes’. The ballot, then, is merely a face-saving exercise – one that allows UCU to walk away with its authority and legitimacy just about intact.

For the real problem UCU faces, right now, surely, is a revolt by the membership. And I don’t mean, here, that its membership is more militant than the leadership. On the contrary: that many must be wondering now why they agreed to strike, when it has resulted only in them losing pay and in a damaged relationship with their students. All of this is to say, having acceded to the pay-cut represented by the pay offer – having lost this fight – building future strike campaigns is going to be more difficult than ever. HE management is thus reaping a double reward here.


So, of course I voted ‘No’ to the pay deal. Firstly, because I’m not a tenured lecturer, but a precarious, under-employed teaching assistant, and this pay-deal represents fuck all for me. I’m screwed either way. Secondly, for the reasons above. Third, because I hate to capitulate. Finally, for the lingering idiocy that goes by the name of ‘hope’: the hope that my ‘no’ vote will meet with the paper voices of all the other mad bad dangerous discontents, and in the ensuing chaos we’ll guillotine a few heads.

Chris Witter

One thought on “The Austerity University — #1

  1. Pingback: The Austerity University #2: The composition of UCU membership | Notes from the 21st Century

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