Sophie Berry discusses the wider implications of this month’s pension dispute
As the dispute over pension cuts enters its fourth week, staff and students continue valiantly picketing and occupying universities across the UK. With vague and conflicting information about negotiations coming from senior management and university ‘representatives’ UUK, now more than ever, the power disparity between academic staff, senior management and government is under intense scrutiny. It is time that institutions consider how far the values of social justice, morality, fairness and empathy will continue to be side-lined at the cost of economic growth.
In large part, the success of the ongoing strikes relies on genuine and widespread student support. And, although it is clear that a vast number students do fully support the collective action, a large proportion have begun to confront senior management with petitions of monetary compensations, refunds and complaints surrounding the ‘value for money’ of their degree. Of course – as one particularly fiscally-minded student recently pointed out to me – for a consumer, this is a natural response. If a customer pays for a product that does not arrive, he or she would be given a full refund and perhaps even receive additional compensation for the inconvenience.
This logic would make sense if you were buying a washing machine but such consumer-mindedness is worrying in a university context.
“The comparisons being made between degree programmes and business transactions only reaffirms the encroachment of neoliberalism in higher education.”
Neoliberalism, a term which can often found straddling the realms of socio-political and economic scholarship, has in recent years moved to the forefront of debates over the future of higher education. Widely used to describe the insertion of markets and profit to many areas of society, in universities specifically, neoliberalism describes the conceptual transformation of higher education as a ‘public good’ to an ‘economic good’.
Traditionally, higher education institutions have played two vital roles in society and the economy: education and research. Regardless of discipline, universities intend to educate young people, prepare them to be informed citizens, help them have successful careers, and eventually to assume roles in for-profit, non-profit, and government organisations. The role of the university in the production of new knowledge should be to inform the education of future generations and underpin technological progress.
In this way, the relationship between institutions and the government was assumed to be mutually helpful; the state provides funding to universities to enable academics to conduct pure research which benefits society in a variety of ways. For example, breakthroughs in social sciences may emphasise social justice or social mobility, whereas biological sciences breakthroughs may relate to issues of public health or climate change. Pure university research therefore exists as a hub of ‘public good’ and, to the government, is a desirable societal investment.
However, as the global economy has become more knowledge based, a ‘third stream’ of activities has been added to these traditional roles: prioritising outreach to private companies and advancing technology to help stimulate economic development. The UK government, like its counterparts in many other countries, has refocused attention on enhancing the flow of benefits to this third stream, even if comes at the expensive of invaluable social benefits. Companies will prioritise investment in applied research to quickly increase profit, yet are much less willing to invest in pure research as these benefits are not always obviously or immediate.
“This priority realignment has not been welcomed by the vast majority of academics but, nonetheless, it continues to be facilitated by senior management teams.”
The unpopular belief that universities should be run as businesses is particularly unwelcome at UCL. A poll into staff’s satisfaction that was conducted last year found that academics feel ‘unvalued’ and ‘part of an anonymous revenue-driven machine’. Yet, with management ignoring expressed concerns, it seems that both students and staff have become accustomed to routine institutional failings. For many students therefore, the ongoing disputes over pension cuts are seen as only the latest chapter in the continuing saga of inevitable neoliberal intrusion. This profit fuelled rhetoric that exists at top institutions only continues to naturalise the prioritisation of ‘economic good’ as something that all universities should seek to achieve.
Common issues in UK universities such as huge increases in prices of tuition, discussion of varying fees based on ‘subject value’, bursary funding cuts, student psychological service funding cuts, wildly disproportionate senior management salaries, and even disruptive building works, can all be traced back to this agenda. For non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) departments particularly, this notion of subject valuation is very concerning. In the same way that students from different disciplines cannot be assessed by the same examination, the value of each discipline cannot be assessed by its graduates’ salaries.
There is no doubt that developments in subjects such as pharmacology will produce profits on a much larger scale than in historical scholarship, but this is not to say that the discipline is any less valuable. Devaluing of disciplines will occur if proposed ‘subject valuations’ and reflective fee variations are applied. As discussed in recent government talks, students of STEM subjects could pay a much lower fee rate, whilst non-STEM students would continue to face extortionate tuition. Not only do non-STEM courses cost less to run, on average, students studying these subjects will not earn incomes that match their STEM peers, therefore leaving these students disproportionately disadvantaged after they graduate.
Over time, this pervasive emphasis on ‘economic good’ will see non-STEM courses deemed unattractive and non-essential – a claim that has already begun to be reflected in government funding cuts. Therefore, in order to keep up financially, disciplines such as the arts and social sciences are forced to make up for lost funds elsewhere. One extremely unfavourable approach to cover these cuts that has already taken hold across universities nationally is casualisation of staff.
“Despite being one of the most highly skilled and prestigious professions in the UK, university teaching is now dominated by zero-hours contracts, temp jobs and other forms of precarious work.”
Irrespective of academics’ having typically spent years earning doctorates or other qualifications in order to teach, more than half of them manage on some form of insecure, non-permanent contract. In 2016 the Guardian revealed that this figure stood at around 53%, yet – unsurprisingly, university management across the UK has been very reluctant to provided exact figures for those on insecure contracts.
Most concerning, this lack of transparency which surrounds both insecure employment and pension cuts persists while institution management oversees multimillion-pound building projects. Without caps on the number of students entering universities, institutions continue to expand in order reel in as many fee-paying students as possible. At UCL alone, student numbers had doubled in little more than a decade to 39,000 and there are plans to expand further. Yet, in a poll conducted last year, 86% of academic staff admitted that teaching facilities, including staff availability, was not adequate for the number of students. As a result, increasing class sizes and decreasing contact hours is causing the quality of academic study to deteriorate.
However, for many students, choosing where to study is no longer dependent on class sizes, the quality of teaching or the makeup of the course, rather, their choice is guided by the employability prospects of an institution. The Higher Education Academy has even gone as far as to embed ‘employability’ into national teaching frameworks. Here, rather than prioritising the academic skills that each discipline offers, academics are now expected to ensure students develop ‘knowledge, behaviours, attributes, and attitudes to enable graduates to make successful contributions to the economy’; this is an unkindly ironic task given the lack of job security that academic staff themselves face.
Concern surrounding markets and profiteering in higher education is not new. However recently, this neoliberal focus has moved away from emphasis on individualistic development, and morphed into a vicious pursuit of maximising economic growth at any cost. With the government failing to ensure that higher education is properly funded, this structural problem will get worse unless an intervention is made. But, as academic staff and students have made very clear in recent weeks: senior management can no longer ignore how far they are willing to prioritise their profits over their people.