The Austerity University #2: The composition of UCU membership

So – as I wrote here – it was inevitable that the 2% pay increase would be accepted by UCU.

Dear colleague,
The result of the higher education pay ballot is as follows:
A total of 30,141 valid votes were counted, giving a turnout of 52.6%. The eligible votes were cast as follows –
To accept the offer and call off the marking boycott:
25,239 (83.7%)
To reject the offer and commence the marking boycott at the earliest opportunity possible:
4,902 (16.3%)


What caught my eye, here, were the figures. A few quick points – judging things by eye, to save time.

If 30,141 people is 52.6% of the UCU membership, then total UCU membership is shy of 60,000.

Is that a lot, or not? Well, according to HESA statistics, that’s about one third of total UK academic staff employed by UK HE institutions (i.e. not including non-academic staff, who outnumber academic staff): 2012/13: Total academic staff: 185,585.

Interestingly, HESA break this down further:

Academic staff by academic employment function 2012/13
Activity Full-time Part-time Total
Teaching only 10730 36065 46795
Teaching and research 75710 18890 94600
Research only 34810 7540 42350
Neither teaching or research 1250 590 1840
Total 122500 63085 185585

 So, here we see a breakdown into the (more or less) three categories of academic staff we encounter in the university department: “bona-fide lecturers” (BFLs), Research Assistants (RAs) and Teaching Assistants (TAs).

What’s really interesting is that non-lecturer staff – RAs and TAs – almost equal the number of BFLs. And I remember a survey like this going around, by the by; many TAs are actually PhD students (doing research) or post-docs who are at least trying to find time to research. Consequently, a number of TAs and RAs might be concealed within the ‘Teaching and Research’ fold.

Now, here’s my speculative argument. Most of UCU’s academic members come from the BFL camp. For BFLs joining UCU is a no-brainer. Most of their peers are in UCU. A leaflet comes around. The Department Rep talks to them. It’s not really a question, whether or not they can afford the dues. And they’re going to be sticking around long enough that the  admin involved doesn’t seem a hassle for nothing. Above all, UCU talks to them: UCU is addressed to the BFLs, above all.

Can the same be said of RAs? Who are RAs anyway? Mostly these are postgraduate or postdoctoral researchers. Most of them are in the sciences, embedded within insular research project teams. For most of them, the terms of their fixed-term contracts are fixed: they couldn’t particularly give a shit whether pay goes up 1% or 100%, as it doesn’t affect their stipend. (Plus, they’ve more urgent data to consider!) And, they’re not particularly loyal to any one institution, because loyalty is a bit misplaced when you’re chasing around the country from one fixed-term contract to another.

So, to cut a long story short, I imagine RA recruitment to UCU is the lowest of all of these categories. If you’ll forgive my flippancy, let’s just say that there are around 40,000 non-unionised workers here.

TAs are a different matter, because they are located right at the centre of many of the antagonisms caused by the austerity university: from pinched budgets, to the devaluation of teaching, to the troubled job market, to the introduction of fees. Consequently, they are  more available for recruitment to a project aimed at critiquing and resisting the austerity university. On the other hand, there are a number of problems with TA recruitment. First, the precariousness of TAs is disempowering: they tend to avoid confrontation in the workplace. This is particularly true given the perceived need to keep senior BFLs onside for references and employment opportunities.”In the final analysis”, TAs will put up with almost anything, because they perceive their problems to be temporary – soon they’ll be done with the PhD, soon they’ll get a job, &c.The problems they encounter are always “exceptional” (except, of course, they aren’t at all!). Second, the actual experiences and desires of these TAs can be quite diverse – across departments and faculties, between the arts and social sciences and the hard sciences, and across universities, as well as in terms of the TA’s career position – e.g. a first year PhD student with a fees-waiver or someone 4 years out of the fold, still trying to secure a BFL contract. Consequently, percieved problems, demands and ‘solutions’ may be at odds – e.g. to the unemployed postdoc, fee-waivers might appear to be part of the problem, whilst for the PhD student struggling with their finances, fee-waivers are an opportunity. Third and finally, many TAs do not see UCU as their union, and UCU does very little to engage and recruit them. For example, one of the few UCU campaigns touching on the issues TAs face is the very, very quiet ‘anti-casualisation’ campaign. Many TAs could precisely see this as an attempt to shut them out of HE employment; it certainly doesn’t speak to their concerns and needs in any clear way. Meanwhile, in the workplace, there is next to no attempt to actively raise awareness amongst TAs that they can join UCU and to encourage their participation in local branches.

Again, then, I suspect UCU recruitment of this 40,000 strong body of academic staff is very low. Of my TA friends, about 1 in 20 is in UCU.

All of this is to say:

UCU lost this pay fight. Part of the reason why they lost it is that they are not strong as a union. Why are they not strong? Partly it’s because their membership is only one third of total academic staff. More, they tend to represent the BFLs: that is, the interests of the ‘labour aristocracy’ within academic HE employment. This basic fact leads to the sort of conservative campaigning we’ve seen: a pay-fight on behalf of the (relatively) most comfortable strata of academic workers. How could we expect anything ‘radical’ to occur in this situation? The labour artistocracy identifies its needs with the economic growth and ‘success’ of the university – even if it questions certain priorities and disagrees with the specifics of certain proposals. This massively limits its availability for a project of critiquing and resisting the austerity university (and austerity more generally).

Those who want UCU to be a ‘fighting’ union, then, those who oppose the ‘austerity university’ and want to see a concerted struggle for a ‘radically different’ type of university, should focus on how UCU might recruit this 80,000 strong contingent of precarious workers – and particularly TAs. For it is within the teaching-only staff that many of the antagonisms of the austerity university are focused; consequently, it is from this contingent that the most radical approaches will emerge.

Alternatively, one could suggest this: TAs are not going to get anywhere within UCU, given the burden the lumpen labour aristocracy represents. Perhaps they’d be better taking a lesson from the Tres Cosas campaign – perhaps TAs should start self-consciously organising themselves, through the ‘pop-up union’ model. But, how can the necessary sort of political consciousness emerge amongst the fragmented TA body? That’s a problem I’ve pondered since 2009, when, along with about 10 PhD students, we attempted just this. I still haven’t found an answer.

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