30 April 2014

British university lecturers and teaching staff went on a nationwide strike for the fifth time in six months this week to protest against pay cuts and, more generally, against the increasing marketization of the country's higher education system. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) walked out on Thursday in the latest event from a lengthy struggle against the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government's finance-dominated restructuring of Britain's higher education system.



The vast majority of universities in Britain are still public institutions, but like many American universities there has been an ongoing restructuring of higher education that removes public funding and replaces it with either private cash, or austerity. The backdrop of this is that chancellors and wardens of universities are being given above-inflation pay rises (last year's averaged 5.1%) while teaching staff have suffered a 13% pay cut in real terms since October 2008, while arts and humanities departments have suffered job losses and closures after their funding was halved in 2010.



Where British higher education's debt crisis differs from America is in the matter of student debt, since in the UK it has been held by the government rather than the private sector, and it has been a considerably lower burden on individual students than in the USA. Yet British student debt has multiplied in the last 14 years, and the first loan book is now due to be privatised for a fifth of its value



The cost of tuition fees began to be outsourced from the state to student debt in 1998, when Tony Blair's government introduced fees of a thousand pounds. This was tripled in 2005 by the same government, and tripled again in 2012 by the current coalition government, so that what cost $1,665 14 years ago now costs almost $15,000 per year of study.



Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister who as leader of the Liberal Democrat party props up the Conservative-led coalition government, campaigned explicitly against student debt in the 2010 election, yet within 6 months of being in government he had personally introduced the latest fee hike to Parliament. Clegg since issued an apology, not for lying to voters but for “committ[ing] to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around”, leading to a high-level party insider who had calculated the sums for the 2010 manifesto to break ranks and say that everything had in fact been properly costed, and that Clegg was lying about this as well.



Some students have begun to protest many of these policies, standing on the picket lines in UCU strikes in solidarity with their professors, protesting the poor pay and conditions of striking university cleaning staff in the “3 Cosas” campaign, and organising demonstrations against debt privatisation. This student activity, however, has led to a rash of police violence against peaceful protests on numerous occasions, with physical attacks, punitive bail conditions that stifle free speech, and a higher police presence at universities more generally.



Students have since led the Cops off Campus campaign across the country, a movement whose media presence grew when video footage was shared online of a police officer punching a student, and 41 peaceful demonstrators were arrested in the space of a week. Leaders of this rising student activism have observed the remarkable silence of university chancellors when evidence of police violence on their campuses comes to light.



David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, spoke out to condemn the “swelling class of overpaid executives [in education] who spend most of their time figuring out how to weasel more money from corporations”. He argued that these interests are very much connected to the rise in police violence on campuses, noting that “objections to such arrangements are to be met with truncheons, tazers, and police dogs.”



However, the centralizing logic of scarcity and competition, which is increasingly undermining the freedom and integrity of university departments to conduct good research, has found some support amongst students. History students at the University of Warwick arranged for older students to deliver a lecture which was not being given by its professor because he was on strike. Teaching unions in Britain do not allow labour withdrawn in a strike to be repeated at a later date as it undermines the strike.



There is a logic to crossing the picket in this way that could not have existed before. The leader of the University of London Union, Michael Chessum, has warned that “the effects of privatising debt will be to make education more of a commodity”; and indeed, these students who undermined their professors' pay and conditions were not acting as anti-union ideologues – they were simply being careful consumers, making sure that they were getting their money's worth.



The calculating, consumer-driven logic of marketizing educating is changing the way education is valued. Where it was a gift from society to the individual, it is now a transaction, and customers do not behave in the same way as friends. This is not merely true at the level of student debt, but is also reflected in the way universities set their budgets; for instance, departments now have to compete for student sign-ups in order to receive funding, which means that more research is financially driven than ever before, and it now makes economic sense not to give tenure to professors.



Three weeks ago at Goldsmiths, one of the colleges in the University of London, the main building on campus was closed for a day when the ancient plumbing burst and the corridors flowed with sewage straight from the toilets. Goldsmiths has invested millions in a project refurbishing the forecourt of this building, as that will affect future sign-ups and thus more student money, but it has spent very little maintaining its plumbing or heating freezing classrooms in the winter, because these have very low market value in the brochure.



The Goldsmiths example serves as a powerful metaphor of the financialization of higher education: when financier logic replaces the autonomy of a university with the miserly emptiness of corporate branding, it doesn't matter how badly it stinks inside.