In 1970, students staged a sit-in in the registry offices of my alma mater, Warwick University. There, they stumbled across shocking files detailing extensive surveillance of students and staff as well as the incestuous relationship between the university administration and big business. The protests, rent strikes, and student occupations of this era earned the university the nickname “Red Warwick.” Acclaimed historian E. P. Thompson gave the institution he once lectured at a rather different name: Warwick University Ltd. In his account of the files affair, Thompson made a much broader point about the trajectory of a marketized higher education system:
The demands of the institution become larger — moving outward from the working life to the private and social life of its employees — and its attempts to enforce loyalties by moral or disciplinary means, by streaming its procedures or by managing promotions and career prospects, become greater. The managers, at the top, need not even see themselves as police-minded men; they think they are acting in the interests of greater “efficiency”; any other course would damage the institution’s public image or would encourage subversion.
In the decades since those words were written, we’ve witnessed the systematic subordination of higher education to the whims of neoliberalism. For staff, that has meant pay cut after pay cut, attacks on pensions, unbearable workloads and growing precarity. And, of course, the disciplinary means to enforce all that Thompson foretold, including pay deductions for staff currently engaged in a grading and assessment boycott. For students, grants have gone, fees have tripled, and the cost-of-living crisis soars. Now graduations are in limbo too.
The grading and assessment boycott by members of the University and College Union [UCU] began on April 20 and is set to continue in the coming weeks, with a significant impact on graduations. It’s part of a long-running dispute over pay, pensions, and precarity that’s seen seventy thousand university staff at one hundred fifty universities repeatedly take to the picket lines over the past few years. Instead of seeking a resolution, more than sixty employers have retaliated with pay deductions of between 50 percent and 100 percent from those taking part, prompting further all-out strikes across a number of universities. With no end in sight, the futures of hundreds of thousands of students remain uncertain.
Collateral damage is the phrase that best describes the experience of students in the UCU’s long-running industrial dispute. But educators and students aren’t two sides engaged in a fight against each other. They are two groups of victims harmed by the ongoing marketization of higher education.
“This dispute has been running since I started university. It’s all we’ve known,” says Trisha, an English literature student at the University of Edinburgh. Throughout her degree, she’s had to contend with COVID-19, constant strikes, and a crippling cost-of-living crisis. And now she’s more than £40,000 in debt and her degree has been deferred. “My second year was fully online. The grading system they’re using to navigate the boycott is based on the system they used to deal with the pandemic. You couldn’t negotiate with the pandemic, but you can negotiate with your own staff. They’re acting like it’s a natural disaster that they can’t stop.”
Trisha is one of more than 160,000 students impacted by the UCU’s grading and assessment boycott — and she’s furious. “Students never thought that the final product, their degree certificate, would be withheld by university management because they don’t want to pay staff more.” Trisha hasn’t received a final degree classification and will be presented with a blank piece of paper at what she describes as a sham ceremony in a few weeks’ time.
Bella, a final-year history and politics student at the University of Cambridge, faces a similar predicament. “We’re going to have fake graduation ceremonies this week. We won’t get our actual degrees. I don’t really know what I’m going to do. I want to apply for a master’s degree, but I can’t do that.” It’s a chaotic and confusing situation as students worry about losing job offers and scholarships. For international students, the situation is particularly bleak as their ability to acquire work visas is shrouded in uncertainty.
“I’m really annoyed they haven’t resolved this yet. I want staff demands met. We also need to graduate. Both of those things can happen and should happen,” says Bella. Trisha sees the UCU dispute as part of a broader battle for the future of higher education and she’s been on the picket lines to show her support. “Their working conditions are our learning conditions.”
Starving University Staff Out
Abi is both a PhD student and a casualized member of staff at the University of Liverpool. “We don’t have contracts. You often don’t know how much you’re getting paid and it often takes six months to receive payment for your teaching.” Casualization is one of the key reasons UCU members are in dispute. One of its most pernicious manifestations is the lack of standardization on pay and conditions. As a result, staff like Abi are not entitled to protections like sick pay, and when they take industrial action, they are far more vulnerable.
In order to mitigate the impact of the grading and assessment boycott, universities are increasingly turning to PhD students to do the work of full-time staff. Abi herself was contacted by a university in the North West last month. “They emailed me saying I was on their list of people who had previously expressed an interest in teaching, asking if I could mark scripts. I don’t know any of their courses. I’ve never even been to their university,” says Abi. “That shows universities were never prepared to negotiate. They were always going to do to students what they’re doing now.”
Many students were totally unaware that a grading boycott was going on as universities stayed silent. “It wasn’t until Thursday that our university actually sent students an email to say they might not get their marks back. The fact that they haven’t even been communicating with students shows how much they really don’t care.”
During a recent open day, students at the University of Liverpool, independent of the UCU branch, gave out flyers to prospective students and visitors in support of staff. There’s also been visible student support on the picket lines.
“Students get our fight, particularly the issues on casualization and pay. They are people that work in the gig economy. They are underpaid, undervalued, and on insecure contracts. Every student I spoke to said that they understand why we’ve taken action and that they know we’re not to blame. No one enjoys losing half their wage or their entire wage while they’re still expected to do all the other work.”
One colleague, Abi says, had just one paper to grade, but she’s been deducted 50 percent of her wages for more than two months over an essay that would have taken her less than an hour of her time.
Nikki joined Cardiff University on a permanent contract as a history lecturer in February after three years working at the University of Cambridge. She’s been on strike throughout her time in academia. “I’ve seen my job get harder and harder and my pay go lower and lower.” Amid the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, the last few years have been particularly intense. “I was supporting my students through something atrocious, but we had so little support. I was working way into the night recording lectures.”
Nikki only met her colleagues in person a year and a half into the job. On campus, she took on an additional role as the director of student experience, a responsibility she describes as two years of firefighting, supporting students with issues like housing and mental health. On top of that, staff like her were told they had to revamp the entire curriculum every single year. This meant additional time spent on designing new modules and writing lectures from scratch. “The workload hasn’t slowed down. It is never ending. We’re getting more and more students. Clearly, they’re making a lot of money out of us.”
Nikki is facing a 50 percent deduction from her pay going back to April 20. “I’m being deducted from when I was first assigned the [grading] even though we don’t usually [grade] papers until later as we have multiple other tasks. I think it will put me below the minimum wage.” Nikki is a grade six lecturer, which means she’s at the bottom of the pay scale.
“I’m so exhausted and so fed up with striking. I just want the university management to sort it out. They’re constantly forcing us to strike by underpaying us and cutting our pensions.”
Abi has taken a year longer to finish her PhD because she’s had to work two to three extra jobs to make ends meet. She’s now decided to quit academia altogether. “It’s hemorrhaging people. I’ve seen three resignations in the last few days from some of the best scholars that I know. I know friends using food banks. We hear horror stories of staff living in tents.”
Students, too, are feeling the pinch. Abi has noticed a growing problem with attendance amongst her students. When she inquired further, she was told they are working thirty hours a week on top of their studies. “They’re struggling too. They get it. The very idea that a vice chancellor earning half a million pounds can wade in and say to the students that they are on their side and staff are against them is just ludicrous.”
“We’re not getting a fair deal at all,” says Bella. “Universities treat us as cash cows. They have our money already, so they can do whatever they want. Everyone’s fuming. We put in three long years of hard work and we have nothing to show for it. We joined during COVID when it was illegal to socialize and went straight into a lockdown. This is entirely on the shoulders of UCEA [the Universities and Colleges Employers Association] and university management thinking they can just fob off students and staff. They’re willing to throw us under the bus to maintain their stubborn position. It’s extraordinary the lengths they’ll go to not negotiate.”
Bella has worked with students at other universities to build solidarity. And pressure from students like her looks like it’s beginning to work. “Cambridge was one of the first universities to publicly call for UCEA to resume negotiations. We started the campaign to get them to do that. We are seeing more and more universities calling for negotiations to resume.”
UCEA seems determined to prolong the dispute and grind staff into submission, but both students and staff are fighting back.
As E. P. Thompson wrote decades ago:
The managers drive headlong towards confrontation after confrontation. Because neither efficiency nor productivity were ever, in the long run, achieved by the manipulation of people, by limiting their rights, by defrauding them of their own initiatives, by denying to them participation in the control of their own affairs.