University life is inspiring and depressing at the same time. I’ve encountered real professionalism, way beyond-the-call-of-duty support, and, most preciously, an infectious enthusiasm for my research. It’s perfectly obvious, and I say this as an experienced line manager, that university lecturers and university workers are sinking under an ever-increasing workload with austerity and precariousness the mood-music. This in the context of ever-increasing senior management pay. You can see that what might once have been an admin job or part of one budget, has been cut and ends up being put on the shoulders of lecturers. They have untold pressure to keep students happy. In addition, they have to keep producing important research in metrics-driven (and thus distorting) frameworks. I look in awe at what they have to put up with now that education is being morphed into a commodity. There are endless tasks that don’t get rewarded financially or professionally. They willingly write references for years after a student has left. I recently spent a weekend at an off-site for postgraduate researchers, this was in addition to the normal working week. One of my supervisors doesn’t get paid for his supervision work for me because he’s now working at a different university.
Small but telling example. The library here seems to have stopped paying for new books about ten years ago. So this means I have to find the books in other libraries, using ‘inter-library loans’ (St Andrews seem to have them all… they’ve obviously got more money to spend on Scottish history). The library, presumably in the light of this cost-cutting, thought they would drive efficiency by putting people off using the inter-library loan system. They started charging £7 a book. This was really good, I was told in my induction. Departments started having to pay for them so demand went down and it was more manageable. So now, there is an ‘inter-library loans’ co-ordinator in the department (a professor no less) who manages this and dispenses magic numbers. But, I can’t write to that person directly, I have to get my supervisor to write to request these books, then I get my magic numbers and then I can go to the library. So saving money has put a ridiculous admin task to two seriously over-qualified academics.
When I look at those who don’t have a permanent job status and it’s even more dispiriting. This is called ‘casualisation’ - which of course is happening everywhere, but doesn’t mean it’s right. I’ve talked to researchers like myself, but younger, who tell me the they would have to give up on the idea of having children if they wanted an academic career. It can take ten years of temporary contracts to get a permanent job. I have no doubt non-teaching staff have comparable challenges. I declined to take up teaching work here as it would have meant earning well below the minimum wage after you factor in preparation and marking. People do it to get the experience.
My favourite podcasters, State of the Theory, recently featured the strike and discussed how strikes in the United States were considered almost historical, something that happened elsewhere. I really like that this strike is big and bold. It’s national and it’s messing up the university’s carefully planned teaching year, as it should. But what’s great about it is that for a whole cohort of students striking, collective action, is something that they may be experiencing for the first time in their lives.
As a child of the 1970s and 80s strikes were ‘normal.’ My generally gentle father would get het up about two things: religion and the unions. At the breakfast table, in my private convent school uniform, I would be told how the Soviets were trying to overthrow our country by infiltrating unions. There was a venn-diagram overlap to religion because if the Russians took over they would shut down the church. Fortunately, I went to a state school for my sixth form. I found a kind of Marx For Beginners book in the college library and my perspective started to widen. Not sure if they’d have had that kind of book in the library at my posh convent school. It was still the Cold War in 1984.
I didn’t become a revolutionary. I’m a sometime member of the Green party, and, as some of you know, about ten years ago I thought I’d change the world with ethical and sustainable consumerism. Inspired by Naomi Klein, I thought we could effect change by changing the way we consumed. It didn’t make a difference. Apart from some nice people, most people aren’t swayed in their consumer habits by ethical or sustainable considerations. At least not enough to have any kind of impact on the environment and living standards. I was swimming against the current. People need to, reasonably enough, get through the month with food on the table and their mental health intact.
Fast forward a few years, and a self-confessed London burnout refugee, I moved to Scotland. I don’t have the energy to fight like I used to. Ethical consumerism still assumes an acceptance of a consumer economy, and it assumes the consumer is more powerful than they really are. This internalised view that There is No Alternative to liberal economics is what I feel sad about. That we can achieve anything, that there is a way to transform it, was endearingly naive. At the same time, the need for an income meant I did a series of what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs. This generally meant working digital technology on projects that were nearly all eventually shelved as senior management kept their vanity preened and the stock market tamed.
Korean German thinker Byung-Chul Han has been helpful in explaining the way the system has given us a false sense of hope of our own power. At the same time we have detached ourselves from any collective sense of support, from society or from our fellow struggler. We’ve become ‘self-entrepreneurs'. But, it’s not possible to succeed in the current climate: too much is stacked against us, apart from the odd lean-in-style exception. It’s a time for the middle-ranks, those of us with university degrees, to feel the precariousness that assailed industrial workers decades ago. As Han articulates, the internalisation of this idea that we’re responsible for our successes and failures creates this burnout and the concomitant effects on our mental health.
Thus I initially approached the university strike with lethargic sympathy. Who has final pension schemes any more? My research peers, in their twenties, don’t expect to have pensions at all. I could feel the outrage but not the energy. But universities, research, teaching, aren’t bullshit jobs. They aren’t ethical businesses that are in a system that will always outmanoeuvre them, or does but as a green-wash accessory to hard core market-driven economies (aghh CSR!).
But universities are effective: people teach, people learn, people think, people grow. Strikes work: people connect, people feel strong together. Senior management stop and think, students support the staff and there is a national conversation about learning. We need to debunk the view of education fitting into a consumer-framed logic. The new government ranking system for universities, based on future income prospects is doesn’t stack up. The pension debate is quite simple. University workers have been sold the pension as a compensation for low salaries and the ‘not enough money in the pot’ argument is based on bogus analysis.
Han was right. I’d internalised the dissonance and shut down. But recognition is part of the road to recovery as the psychotherapists say. You realised you’ve internalised a normative view, but the realisation means you have some way of seeing outside that system. Read, relate and have the imagination to start thinking of an alternative. It may not provide a perfectly formed alternative but the process has started and those alternatives will start to circulate, in the academy or elsewhere. David Graeber’s work on historical alternatives is a good place to start. As is Sara Ahmed, who’s work on feminism is helpful in giving you to tools to see the normative at play and how to build your strength to resist and negotiate around the roadblocks. I keep hearing Mark Fisher mentioned in all this; so that’s where I’ll be going next. The strike is showing students that there is another way of being, and it’s a friendly one that brings people together. We need to find a way out of this burnout, this internalised orthodoxy of ‘the entrepreneurship of the self' and simply to wake up. It will help us withstand the effects of the constant attack on our public good jobs, or living with our bullshit jobs. Don’t be friendly to get better ratings on your sharing or social media platform. Be friendly because it is healthy.
So maybe STRIKE isn’t so bad after all. It’s re-normalising the word if nothing else. The strike is bringing students, administrators and lecturers together, showing how collective action is still worth it, and it looks like their pensions may be safe, for now.