After protesters managed to get inside the Vice-Chancellor’s office at the University of London a month ago they discovered private documents detailing the failure of UoL’s controversial programme of outsourcing and evidence of collusion between senior managers and the local trade union. Meanwhile, David Willetts had his own revelations after it was estimated that the government’s Higher Education scheme, which justified a threefold increase in the tuition fee cap beneath the twin banner of austerity and sustainability, was likely to cost the government more than the previous system.
These are separate events, but they have something in common. One is the big, now well-worn picture: neoliberalism, having enmeshed itself as consensus across the governmental and managerial class, is breaking apart as an ideology. Yet the hegemony it installed has left those at the top with a strange kind of paralysis, unable to react to crisis except to shout in panic, “Quick! More of the same!” as the ground falls away beneath. One might glimpse here at the bathos of the University of London report, where extensive detailing of the way outsourcing had both cost the University more money and delivered a worse service, led to the only possible conclusion: an even more extensive programme of outsourcing and privatisation. As Aditya Chakraborty’s piece in the Guardian notes, ‘The report admits that the university executives "were not ready" for this new bigger contract.” Don’t worry though, the document reassures: “this is nothing to feel bad about because we have learned a lot”.
The second theme is a particular characteristic of the university sector, but which has its rhyme elsewhere: an oligarchic layer of technocratic managers, many with no connection to academia, wheeling out privatisation against the interests of the staff and students who actually constitute the university. The response to any backlash has been consistent: police repression, suspensions, and a judicial clampdown, banning protest on campus and dragging students through the courts. Recently this saw one student fined over £1000 for ‘criminal damage’ after they scrawled, in chalk, a protest message on the University of London foundation stone (leading academics to publish an open letter with detailed instructions on the appropriate use of cloth and water). Much the same strategy has been adopted in Birmingham, Sussex, Cambridge and elsewhere.
Add to this the tendency of university managers to pay themselves increasingly vast salaries and it becomes hard to think of a more apposite analogy for the university today than a corrupt, authoritarian micro-state. The sector has come to consist of a litany of private fiefdoms each populated with their own mini-Mugabe, working in concert for themselves and against everyone else within them. Think of the way all legality was abandoned when police violently evicted an occupation of Senate House – the University of London headquarters. As Brenna Bhandar noted, “The idea that university managers can treat our campuses like the kinds of property normally protected by injunctions from trespass – landed estates, private houses, private corporations – is a symptom of the extent to which neoliberal ideology is now embedded in our universities, along with the political repression that inevitably accompanies privatisation.” After the three days of rowdy protests and 41 arrests that followed, the @UoLondon twitter feed could have been lifted straight from a golden age of Pravda as their press team flooded the account with all news except the news, and senior managers posted soppy tributes to Mandela.
Every time 3Cosas (the outsourced cleaner campaign around which much recent conflict with UoL has materalised) demonstrate they have been met by a retinue of Metropolitan Police, a nominally public body which in reality acts more like the University’s private security. Since the start of the academic year police had been noticeably more visible on campus, with undercover officers posted outside the Student Union and vans regularly patrolling the streets. Both the SU President and Vice-President have been arrested on separate occasions, the former for “failing to notify Police of a public procession” and the latter for intervening in a Fresher’s Week ‘Stop & Search’. In fact I struggle to think of anyone involved in university campaigns in the past four years who hasn’t at some point been detained. That the police are actively targeting campuses is confirmed by revelations at Cambridge that the police have been trying to recruit student activists as informants. No doubt economic data showing student protest in 2010 had cost the Met £7.5m played a role in casting students as the latest ‘enemy within’. Back at the University of London, the Student Union – a recent focal point of resistance to outsourcing – is being arbitrarily abolished, and the London Student newspaper, which has energetically investigated the practices of management, is being stripped of its funding. From the end of this academic year they will no longer exist.
A corollary of this picture concerns the large trade unions. Whilst you might expect Unison, the UCU and the others to be a natural locus for defending the university against the predation of its managers, the documents revealed a very different picture. Whilst officially backing the demands of 3Cosas, it emerged that Unison were in fact meeting with managers to discuss tactics that would allow the trade union to, in the language of the report, “counter the TC [3Cosas] campaign”. The cleaners since left Unison, joining the small, syndicalist IWGB. Together they crowdsourced a strike fund from supporters, launching several days of strike action which won the workers two out of three of their demands. Far from representing the interests of labour against capital, Unison closed ranks with the University of London against the perceived threat of a vibrant grassroots campaign consisting of assertive Latin Americans rather than the union’s quiescent old guard. The UCU have likewise been accused of a strategy of de-escalation in the current dispute over academic pay, following initial strike action with a call for a ‘two hour strike’. UCU described it as an “escalation”.
This is weak stuff as the whole government strategy for Higher Education is beginning to unravel. After yabbering about how students simply “didn’t understand” the proposed fee rises back in 2010, Willetts has been forced to admit exactly what students had been stating from the start: the policy would cost the government more money, had nothing to do with a sustainable future for universities, and everything to do with a crass implementation of market ideology. Some hope might be gleaned from the explosive force with which, as though out of nowhere, a #copsoffcampus movement appeared on the scene and spread across the country after the ULU evictions. Unlike the tuition fee protests, there was no vote to lose and dispel the energy; instead it sits latent, amorphous and uninstititionalised and with the potential to be ignited over any flash-point. By the end of that week I witnessed the extraordinary sight of police vans fleeing anytime a student demonstration got near them, so afraid were they of the bad publicity and escalating tensions in the context of the Mark Duggan trial. They had been utterly outmanoeuvred, politically and on the streets. It pointed the way to an emergent counterpower.
All the more vital: a fight over ideology was one thing, but these revelations take us into new and ever more masochistic territory. The government and the universities are effectively spending more and more public money in order to laden that public with debt, more and more to pay outsourcing companies to make the lives of the workforce as poor and precarious as possible. With no legitimacy they have been prepared to use extraordinary levels of coercion to enforce this arrangement. Though this mixture of incompetence and myopia has failed even by their own standards, they have nonetheless rewarded themselves with pay rise after pay rise, and intend to fix the crisis with the only answer they know: more of the same.
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