Striking for freedom from arbitrary exercises of power in UK universities

The UK's recent academic strikes were a cry against domination.

Matthew Chrisman
3 April 2018
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King John signs the Magna Carta. Source:

Why were university workers on strike?

It can be tempting to think about the strike in feudal terms. That is, you might think university workers are like an ancient guild, keen to protect their traditional way of doing things, stymie market forces on the university, and above all to retain attractive pensions.

It can also be tempting to think about the strike in inter-generational terms. That is, you might think that university workers are protecting their own generation’s interests at the cost of their students’ interests.

Here, I want to explain why I think these are the wrong way to think about the strike. Or at least why they are untrue to my motivations for striking.

The liberal tradition in political philosophy has focused on liberty conceived as freedom from interference. Roughly speaking, political liberty is people staying out of each other’s way in pursuing their own interests. Our political institutions should be structured to maximize such liberty while protecting other rights and promoting other values.

More recently, however, some political philosophers – most notably Philip Pettit – have argued that a different sort of liberty is most important when it comes to evaluating our political institutions. This is freedom from domination. By ‘domination,’ he has in mind the idea that someone else has the standing to exercise power over you arbitrarily. That is to say that their standing to make choices that affect your will is unchecked. There are always going to be cases where one person has authority over another in some respect, but domination occurs when someone has the capacity to exercise power over someone else arbitrarily or unchecked. 

So we have two conceptions of political liberty freedom as non-interference, and freedom as non-domination that we might apply to the ongoing industrial action. (The idea to apply this distinction to the ethics of striking comes from Alex Gourevitch’s excellent paper ‘Quitting Work but Not the Job: Liberty and the Right to Strike’.)

Labour relations in modern capitalist economies almost always involve exercises of power. Management tells workers what to do. And workers do it in order to get paid. Universities aim – maybe more than other institutions – to be workplaces where exercises of power by management over workers is not arbitrary. This is why universities are usually governed by a faculty senate and why policy decisions usually receive extensive consultation. Indeed, sometimes it can be frustrating how slow everything changes at a university, since one rarely has an unchecked power to make a decision affecting others.

Nevertheless, in the recent pension decisions, I think we have witnessed an arbitrary exercise of power, as part of a trend towards imposing more “market discipline” on UK universities. The recent valuation of the pension scheme was based on an arbitrarily imposed unrealistic discount rate. Moreover, as is now well known, the UUK employers group underwent a consultation whose legitimacy is highly dubious and then arbitrarily (based on a minority position) agreed to dramatically decrease the risk profile for the pension, which has caused the projected deficit.

In this context, I think we shouldn’t view university workers as a guild seeking to protect ourselves from interference in some traditional way of doing things. We are members of a society that cherishes higher education and academic freedom. This isn’t freedom as non-interference (just leave us alone to do our own research and teaching). It’s freedom as non-domination (stop exercising power arbitrarily over our working conditions).

Moreover, I think it’s dead wrong to see university workers as on strike to protect the older generation’s interests at the cost of the younger generation’s interests. Any person with nothing but labour to sell in the modern economy is vulnerable to exploitation through arbitrary exercises of management power. This is even more so if you are committed to your place of work as a calling and a community, not just a job. Striking provides a way to guard against that vulnerability.

Indeed, the people most vulnerable to this kind of exploitation are the younger university workers and those who aspire to work in the university sector. Moreover, students benefit most from a university sector with robust academic freedom, where pedagogical decisions are made on educational grounds rather than by the arbitrary whims of “market discipline”. 

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Photo by Keith Wilson

So, if asked why I am striking, I say it’s for the younger and more vulnerable. I say it’s to preserve our university’s focus on high-quality education. I say it’s to protect academic freedom as freedom from non-domination. No one should have the standing to exercise power arbitrarily over the educational community we so cherish.

These remarks were first made at a Teach-Out by Philosophy lecturers in support of the strike at Edinburgh University, March 19th, 2018.  

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