The Alternative White Paper As It Concerns The Casuals

For a political language to exist and be striking, it has to have some relation to proposed actions

John Berger


Academics aren’t all a bunch of radical lefties. But quite a few are. Dotted around the arts, humanities, social sciences and STEM, there are many who locate themselves in the wide, open space that is to the left of The Guardian. Yet, despite this relative density, contrary to the mythology of right-wing culture warriors, the University is a hotbed of neoliberal activity. Put bluntly, academics haven’t mounted any serious resistance within their institutions to cuts, to the commodification of research, to the consumerisation of education or to the bizarre quasi-Stalinist system of market discipline meets high-handed state intervention. This culture of complicity, a product of fear as much as acquiescence, is something casualised members of staff are acutely aware of. Vividly confronted by rampant managerialism and marketisation, it is this academic ‘community’ that notes most the absence of any institutional counterweight to their lot.

Thus when an initiative like the Alternative White Paper For Higher Education, In Defence of Public Higher Education: Knowledge for a Successful Society is put together, an alternative to current HE orthodoxy, casuals are prone to sit up and take note (if not overburdened by more immediate needs). Is another University possible? Alas the Alternative White Paper comes up a good way short in this regard. An unfair charge maybe, particularly given the paucity of genuine reasoned alternatives to the HE status quo and the much that is good about the Paper. But unless the Alternative White Paper’s major lacuna–we need to talk about agency–is addressed, then casuals’ material lessons about the University’s relations of production will continue to go unfused with the policy wonkery of the Alternative White Paper.


Silent Staffrooms

Academics are on the whole a supine lot. In the byzantine committee-based ecology of our most prestigious seats of learning, lecturers, readers and professors more or less comply with the letter and the spirit of this Government’s ideological priorities. Casualised staff note this all too clearly. Academic ‘leadership’, top or middle, has done little to address the precarious labour model found in our HE factories: 9-month contracts and zero-hour living are too often seen as lessons in character building, an unfortunate result of the shortage (never the distribution!) of precious resources. The idea that, instead of merely signing letters to The Guardian or Times Higher, you locally lobby and organise around material, relations of production issues like casualisation, alongside students and academic-related staff, is sadly far too vulgar and radical for a great many of our open-ended contracted colleagues. The micro level of power–the tacit, rigid internal doxa of quite a number of academic departments–is to be left pretty much to its own devices. Voting for the Greens or Remain, the occasional cosy, incestuous, bland tweet about how just nice students are, being on a panel whose title contains the word ‘radical’: more than enough.

It is this state of affairs that is arguably at its most telling when it comes to generating an effective campus politics. Yes, academics get that Tory policy in the form of the White Paper (WP), Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, the 2016 Higher Education Bill, and the incoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is to be instinctively opposed. However, what is to done presently within our institutions as an alternative surely needs a look in, too. To moan about reform, to have a right good whinge over a glass of moderately priced vino, without contemplating what to build instead is liable to fall back on private, individual righteousness (me against the philistines) and to indulge in Nimbyism. To quote William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry, ‘[b]lind modernization needs fighting with insightful modernization. Otherwise, ‘we’ are left simply trying to erect blue plaques in remembrance wherever possible, while ‘they’ rev up the bulldozers’.


Down with Current, Up with the New

Presumably it is this exciting task that is the mission statement of the Alternative White Paper (AWP). The document is a collective product of the Campaign for the Public University’s John Holmwood, UCU Left activists and others associated with such bodies as Council for the Defence of British Universities. The AWP calls for ‘a proper debate about the future of UK Higher Education’ (AWP, p. 4) as regards the Government’s latest reforms, currently (July 2016) being rushed through Parliament and the sector. While such rhetoric is hardly a tocsin–one can imagine the facile sentence ‘we need to have a conversation’ slotting right in here–the AWP makes clear its distance from the the status quo, quoting the Magna Charta Universitatum: ‘…its [the univeristy] research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority’ (AWP, p. 34). Holmwood, et al challenge at every turn the values and rationale behind current mainstream HE policy as embodied in the WP, its derivative legislation and sector architecture.

For instance, the AWP unpicks the supposedly link in the WP between the WP’s stated goals of greater access–‘[f]or the first time, all approved higher education providers will be required to demonstrate their commitment to widening participation and fair access’ (WP, p.57)–and markedly better teaching, and the actual consequences of the WP’s policy proposals. Take the regressive outcomes of the TEF. In order to boost the key TEF metric of student satisfaction, and thus gain official approval to raise their tuition fees, universities will prefer bland, comfort food teaching to the test, innovative pedagogy suffering as a result. In order to boost another TEF metric, employability, universities will be inclined to recruit those students, privileged, moneyed, who have an inbuilt social advantage when it comes to securing a glittering occupation (AWP, pp. 28-29).

The funding model of HE comes under direct attack in the AWP. Firstly, far from the state getting out of the university business as the libertarian talking points around the student ‘customer’ suggest, a government debt management regime exists, interfering and poking its nose in, to cover ‘the shortfall between annual outlay and annual repayments’ of student loans. This commitment, ‘close to £90bn’ (AWP, p. 9), means that the government has to have some means of controlling and securing repayment, hence TEF and its function of justifying the risk of fluctuating repayment rates through the employability metric. HE becomes a cunning fiscal wheeze to make good on the government’s outlay; students and educators are liabilities that need guaranteeing, not an investment bound to generate new, hitherto unrecognised social value. The funding of universities is to be governed by the extent to which individual institutions can guarantee repayments in the form of ensuring ‘good’ jobs for its post-students, while the true financial burden, the burden, for example, placed on students and teaching staff through universities’ fixation on investing in large capital projects to pull in the punters at the expense of investing in teaching labour, is sidelined.

By its very definition a HE market will consist of those staff and students lucky enough to be at a so-called ‘top’ university, and those who aren’t. If deregulations means a slew of providers ‘low scale, lower fee and low quality’ (AWP, p. 5), it is the debt-averse student who ultimately determines certain providers’ viability, not the virtues of a good state-sanctioned HE service. Moreover, universities, in being encouraged to focus on the short-term needs of an incoming generation of fee-paying customers, are subject to no countervailing tendency to root themselves in the local communities that support them: if London Met were to go bust, the effect would just not be contained or limited to those whose responsible, deserving (in the pure logic of the market) of its consequences. The externalities involved in such a law of the jungle are ignored.


There’s a ‘But’ Coming….Where the Casuals Come In

When compared, though, with its ugly WP twin, the AWP has a strategic silence. Unlike the WP with its commitment to the dynamic logic of the market–‘[c]ompetiton between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game …Higher Education is no exception’ (WP, p. 8)–there is no comparable organisational insight in the AWP into the collective action, the campaign necessary to oppose and replace the Government’s, and its willing henchmen such as Universities UK and the Higher Education Policy Institute, policy platform.

If the ‘real’ WP is about creating a market that, in theory, will work of its accord, establishing and defining individual entities, properly costing and administering transactions between them, and then letting rip (albeit with regulators charged to intervene where there is market failure, for instance in the case of widening participation), then one might expect its alternative to sketch out the ‘other’ dynamic, one based on social solidarity and collective decision-making. Not so in the AWP. As a casualised member of staff, all too aware of what happens when the market is let rip, and when power resides with the buyers as opposed to the sellers of labour, the apolitical, slightly stand-offish nature of the AWP is marked: less ‘what is to be done’ and more ‘what someone could do but we haven’t really given a thought as to whom’.

Are the writers of the AWP crossing the fingers and hoping that Vice-Chancellor’s read and acknowledge ‘you have a point there’, or were they addressing themselves to the strategic challenges of mobilising university workers, core and periphery, around an alternative institutional university arrangements? I fear the former.

I don’t want to be too unfair to the AWP. Its constative value should be stressed (if not its performative). In it, Holmwood, et al argue for proper public accountability, accurate social costing as regards the value of higher education, and a UK state committed to stepping back and preserving academic freedom and curiosity-driven research. These together constitute a decent, humanist liberal democratic University, ‘open institutions that educate their students in the values of critical debate’ (AWP, p. 34), and that allow good scholarship to flourish. Holmwood, et al re-appropriate concepts Minister for Universities and the less dangerous Johnson brother, Joseph Edmund, sprinkles around in his ‘Foreword’ to the WP: ‘open democracy’; critical thinking; education for all ‘irrespective of their background’ (WP, pp. 5-6). Critically, for Holmwood, et al, the government’s further deregulation of HE, allowing private, for profit providers to enter the fray, competing for the student buck by cutting educational corners, diminishes the state’s regulatory capacity to provide a decent education for all, whatever nightwatchman power it still retains.

These virtues, as promoted by the AWP, are ones I am sure that are shared by anti-casualisation HE activists. The fact that teaching is held in less regard than research in the political economy of HE, and thus under-invested in–‘…increasing amounts of face-to-face teaching performed by junior academics on insecure contracts’ (AWP, p. 32)–assures the research ‘stars’ of today, meeting today’s late capitalist utilitarian needs, are entrenched at the expense of researchers of the future stuck in roles which offer no time for research. Instead of academics being viewed holistically, the quality of their research and teaching seen in the round, it is all reduced to one-sided quantitative indicators, the TEF being another prime example, which encourage careerist gaming and discourage curiosity-driven knowledge generation. In terms of positive academic freedom, the voice of staff on casual contracts is often marginalised in our universities in favour of managers and budget-holding members of permanent staff: why risk speaking up when the perceived target of that ‘criticism’ holds your job in their hands? The TEF, for all its claims that it will, to quote Jo Johnson ‘link the funding of teaching in higher education to quality (WP, p. 6), and ensure teaching will no longer be ‘the poor cousin of research’ (WP, p. 12), does not address the input problem, the contractual material status of staff who teach, and, rather, goes down the route of high-handed ‘bureaucratic monitoring’ (AWP, p. 32)

If the WP is so admirable in its diagnosis of our ills, why the criticism? Let me initially respond by way of an anecdote. When discussing with UCU colleagues from a nearby University an event around the WP precursor, the Green Paper, I ventured inviting Andrew McGettigan, he of The Great University Gamble, a shrewd analyst of HE’s current configuration and AWP contributor (AWP, p. 2). The response, sotto voice: ‘not those bloody PowerPoints again’. Months latter, listening to McGettigan at a UCU-organised set of presentations, listening to his quasi-Gradgrindian mantra about the importance of facts and knowing what’s what, that PowerPoint comment hit home, not out of data antipathy, but out of a longing for the language of action, of performance, of the urgency still to what is to be done, Lenin’s (or Chernyshevsky’s) urgent question.

The PowerPoint comment comes back again now, reading the AWP.

Policies; proposals; directives; strategic choices to be taken by associations of students and staff; the type of organisational demands and opportunities that a campus left needs to take; less isolated writing, more interconnected praxis: these are the organisational challenges that require careful deliberation. They are barely touched upon in the AWP. A sober assessment of the balance of forces on individual campuses; a political (not abstract macro-policy) deconstruction of the modern University; the delineating of the social trends and groups that can worked with to implement objectives; and a detailed account of the agents and agency needed for the reconstitution of HE (when the AWP states ‘[w]e need a proper debate’ [p.4] who is this ‘we’?): these are tasks which need actioning and accounting for.

Perhaps the only real list of firm policies in the AWP is in the academic governance section. It ends with a list of fairly solid proposals for increased non-managerial academic representation on academic boards, based presumably on the Scottish experience. Even here, though, this section seems to ignore ‘how?’. In the case of the WP, its authors, its backers, know the full spectrum of the WP has high politics, executive agency behind it, the consent of campus civil society be largely damned. This luxury, going back to the ‘collaboration’ points of my introductory remarks, is not afforded to academic counter-hegemonists. We need to sketch out our agents of change. We need to consider different groups of staff and students, the identities at play in the University, the makeup of campus civil society. Holmwood, et al may have better things to do than simulate Gramsci in his cell wrestling with practical conundrums of power and agency, but one would have thought they’d have at least given it a try. Academics aren’t fighting back: why is that?

Look at the language and ambition of the WP. ‘We will simplify the regulatory landscape’ (WP, p, 9); ‘…two specific, clear goals on widening participation’ (WP, p. 14); ‘Summary of decisions’ (WP, p. 18); ‘…have a power’ (WP, p. 66), ‘the creation of UKRI will act as a driver’ (WP, p. 79). Here is a no humble treatise. Here is a catalyst, firing off policy, arrogant yes in assuming that executive agencies know best and not acknowledging how contested its propositions are, but highly astute in drawing up a problem/crisis–alleged poor teaching and few incentives to improve it; a lack of competition equals complacency amongst former polytechnics; a need to finish the job of previous HE reforms–and looking to solve it though intervention and active governance. Here are proponents of neoliberal education diagnosing and strategising simultaneously.

The AWP, when it comes to such action-orientated plotting, is deficient therein. Its conclusion lacks any core demand. It highlights that academics are not innately wise dispensers of knowledge, that research is about sanctifying a method of collegial collaboration, that private imperatives are a threat to democratic epistemic endeavor. But the conclusion has no provisional plan to enact the democratic university, no identified agent and directive policies to do so.


Making a Difference, Making an Impact

Strikingly, the AWP ends on a depressing objective note: ‘[h]igher education is now fully dependent on political authority and economic power’ (AWP, p. 34). The subjective is silent. When Holmwood, et al say ‘[t]his Alternative White Paper aims to correct…imbalance’ (AWP, p. 4), it seems curious that the rebalancing is primarily transcendental than immanent; that is, the changes that the AWP alludes to–greater academic involvement and freedom, more state regulation of resource (…greater restraint…[AWP. p. 8]), developing ‘strong working relationships with community partners to ensure successful outreach work’ (AWP, p. 17)–are left to some higher power to make good. Despite skewering the Government’s formal commitment to social goods by showing the contradictory outcomes of their policies, Holmwood, et al don’t go further and suggest how is it that a we wins, how a we can position itself to bring about the beginnings of an alternative University.

To go back to the causal lot, as a peripheral members of the academic club, given access to the photocopy if we’re lucky, casualised members of staff could be that agent, marginalised but au fait, through their experience of the shop floor, with the lacunae of the modern University. Casualised staff, in other words, are well positioned to foster alliances with students, particularly postgraduate students, to release the untapped pool of potential amongst underinvested in, subordinate short-term casual staff, and are thankfully wise to the romantic, idealist elitist guff professors and senior staff sprout in promoting the idea of an ‘Aκαδήμεια’ set against the UK’s bureaucratic-authoritarian state.

The lack of discussion concerning UCU (or any other membership body) is indicative I feel. UCU is not the answer to everyone’s prayers in and of itself, but when it comes to collective action, unless the Council for the Defence of British Universities is about to kick off, it contains the core dynamic of an association of diverse academic actors coming to work together for a common purpose, the starting point for an alternative University. The WP has the Office for Students, TEF, research bodies, enthused civil servants and a wish to create a new HE architecture; according to the AWP, sans a union or mutual clubbing together, we only have a shallow, ill-defined ‘we’.  

Now, the drafters of the AWP may contend they could do only so much, could go only so far. They had no brief for a edict-filled, peremptory manifesto, although for those Fighting Against Casualisation in Education activists attending the ‘founding’ meeting of the AWP, the Second Convention for Higher Education, it was clear that the AWP was intended to have some sort of popular, Convention-backed mandate. This is why some of us came. It was thus particularly jarring, not to say disappointing, to see how the nascent participatory animus resulting from an open meeting such as the Convention was used to give a seal of approval to a document Holmwood, et al had already effectively drafted. The Convention was, in effect, some sort of democratic cover. This was a wasted opportunity. The organisational imperative of an alternative University, hinted at at the Convention’s rhetoric, was neglected; the AWP is, to put a twist on a well-used phrase, an academic exercise, a revision/extension of Holmwood’s previous AWP. While it must give Holmwood, et al great comfort in being so right at least twice, this is somewhat of a small mercy compared with an honest assessment of how to mobilise and formulate academic private dissent into public counter-reformist zeal and concrete institutional political intent.



Laughably, it is sometimes said that the educated left have followed their master Gramsci’s advice and taken over the education of our youth, instead of the impossible task of convincing a national polity that they should vote left-wing leaders into office. Nothing, as casualised staff can testify, is furthest from actuality in our universities. In fact, we need to start such Gramscian maneuvering. The AWP, an excellent encapsulation of the sort of humanist, liberal University that an in denial Government spokespeople would claim that the Government is in principle for, does not set the scene adequately. It allows, by not asking the right questions, leftist academics to continue to burnish their weak countercultural credentials, evincing indignation, declaring an emotional affinity with the principles of the AWP, with all the force of a Facebook like. Holmwood, et al do not even venture to pose the fundamental questions: what are you going to do? And if you can’t, what can be done to get you and others to a place where you can. Those of us on the academic left who are reflexive about our work grasp the distance between the vision of education in the AWP and the notion of HE held by successive governments and successive generations of Heads of School, Deans and Senior Management Team is one thing; the issue is how to fight it. Candidly, we don’t need another white paper; we need a strategy. This is how we should be devoting what little time and resource we alt-academics have.


Victory for King’s College London GTAs (but the fight isn’t over yet…)

GTAs at King's College London

What has been won and what remains to be done? In our final post of 2015/6, Fair Pay for GTAs takes stock of our achievements thus far and outlines plans for the future.

The academic year is winding down and those Graduate Teaching Assistants who’ve signed up to teach again in the new term will notice some improvements to their contracts! These significant gains were made possible by the courage and dedication of all those who contributed to our campaign.

From the organisers to the GTAs and students who signed our petitions to the union reps who fought alongside us, each and every one of you deserves a well-earned pat on the back.

First thing’s first: what exactly have we managed to win for GTAs in 2016/7 and how does it compare to where we started/what we asked for?

1) Essay marking

  • 2015/6: 5,000 words per-hour
  • What we asked for:…

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#UnisResistBorderControls Campaign Zine Project

Three months ago, the Justice4Sanaz campaign launched the #UnisResistBorderControls campaign at SOAS. This urgent campaign brings together grassroots activists and campaigners to oppose widespread abuses against non-EU international students and staff within the British higher education system.

The neoliberal higher education system in the UK is guilty of marginalising non-EU international scholars and students. Universities use non-EU international students, especially those who are Black and people of colour (POC), as “cash cows” to prop up a neoliberal university system that exploits non-EU, EU and British students for their tuition fees. Meanwhile, VCs enjoy pay-rises and inflated six figure salaries. In addition, as Fighting Against Casualisation in Education has consistently shown, the neoliberal higher education system marginalizes lecturers and university workers on casual contracts, contracts which disproportionately affect women, Black people, and POC.

The university also works hand in hand with the Home Office and UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) to effectively act as border control on campus. Non-EU international students, academics, lecturers and university workers routinely are met with state and institutional violence because of their immigration status. As a result, these groups often feel isolated and marginalised within the Ivory Tower. Both universities and the Home Office use this isolation to further abuse and treat with contempt non-EU international university students and workers. This year, a report showed that Home Office Secretary Theresa May wrongfully deported almost 50,000 non-EU international students. Similarly, reports continue to emerge of non-EU international students and researchers being detained by UKVI and placed into detention centres; see, for example, the case of Dr Paul Hamilton, who was arrested and detained for 10 days at the Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre with no warning while his application to stay in the UK was in the midst of being processed. Kate Blagojevic from the campaign Detention Action explained in this Guardian piece about Morton Hall,

“People are held without time limit in high-security immigration detention centres such as Morton Hall. Their mental and physical health deteriorates rapidly and they often find it hard to access legal representation. People can be held for months or even years but ultimately don’t know how long they will be locked up for.”

In 2014, the Justice4Sanaz campaign chronicled the exploitation of non-EU students and lecturers alike in a statement published in Ceasefire Magazine. In that statement, which was endorsed by over 100 academics and activists, we implored the UK “to speak out and take the lead as professionals and intellectuals against turning the country’s higher education institutions into a racist money making endeavour, destroying the spirit and integrity of the very idea of knowledge and learning.”

Also in 2014, the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Black Students Campaign (BSC) passed motion 102, entitled, “Black International Students.” In this motion, the NUS and the BSC resolved to support Black international students by creating a “know your legal rights” workshop and to campaign to “eliminate discrimination from any attendance monitoring practices.” However, in the past two years, the NUS and BSC have failed to act on this motion, or to work with grassroots groups to challenge racist and xenophobic policies within higher education institutions and the Home Office.

This brief history shows that while student activists and the public are aware that the current immigration controls affect refugees, asylum seekers and those languishing inside detention centres, very few consider how immigration policy affects non-EU international students, scholars, and university workers. There has been very little done by student and community activists to counter the exploitative surveillance regime instituted by the Home Office. Urgent solidarity and action is needed to protect not only asylum seekers and refugees, but also non-EU international students, scholars, and staff.

In response to this need, on the 5th of March, #UnisResistBorderControls had our first meeting. We were joined by representatives from Movement for Justice By Any Means Necessary, SOAS Justice for Cleaners, Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (FACE), #DontDeportLuqman campaign, and the Save Kelechi campaign along with a barrister specialising in immigration law from Garden Court Chambers, Ms Bryony Poynor, who discussed at length about the changing landscape of immigration laws and policy.

A write up of the meeting can be accessed here.

Three weeks after our meeting, we wrote a statement that was published on Media Diversified and endorsed by over 40 academics and activists, stating:

“#UnisResistBorderControls wants to see a fundamental end to UKVI and PREVENT surveillance and the intimidation of non-EU international students, scholars and university workers. We want to see universities and unions take a strong stand against such policies and to cease using these racist and xenophobic measures to disenfranchise and marginalize non-EU international students, scholars, and university workers. We want to see provisions in place for non-EU internationals to be able to seek recourse against their higher education institutions without it affecting their visa-status and/or having their precarious immigration status repeatedly threatened. We call on British students, lecturers and university workers to not collude or be complicit with the border controls culture on university campuses. #UnisResistBorderControls stands in solidarity with Luqman Onikosi (#DontDeportLuqman), Kelechi Chioba (#SaveKelechi), Lord Elias Mensah Apetsi (#SaveLord), Sanaz Raji (#Justice4Sanaz) and the many other non-EU international students, scholars and university workers who are not publicly known, but are oppressed by both Home Office violence and exploitation by their universities. End border controls and the culture of surveillance on our campuses!”

As the next step in our campaign, #UnisResistBorderControls will assemble a zine in which non-EU international students, academics and university workers outline their experiences within higher education and with the Home Office. The zine will also include a “know your legal rights” section.

With the support of FACE, we are collecting testimonies, stories and art work from non-EU international students, lecturers, and university workers who have face institutional and state violence to include in this zine. We plan to publish the zine in the 2016-2017 academic year.

Topics for discussion in this zine include:

– Racism and xenophobia on and off campus

– Being denied the right to rent because of your visa status and/or having difficulties in finding a place to rent because you are non-EU international (especially Black and POC)

– Home Office & UK Visa and Immigration

– Sexism & Sexuality

– Disability discrimination

– Employment discrimination

– Lack of academic and pastoral support

– Mental health issues

– Bullying and mobbing in higher education

Please send your testimonies, stories, and artwork that might relate to any of the topics outlined above. Please indicate in your message if you would like to have your name cited with your contribution, or if you would prefer to remain anonymous. Finally, please include the university at which the incident occurred, along with your course (BA/BS, MA/MS or PhD). Send all materials to:

Photo: UK Border, Terminal 4, London Heathrow by David McKelvey

Flyer for UCU National Strike (May 25-26)

FACE has produced a flyer for the two-day UCU national pay strike. Download it here, print it off and hand it out on your picket line! We believe that creating a fair and equal higher education system is about much more than headline pay figures: we’re striking to resist the racial and gender pay gap, unpaid teaching and the broader spread of casualisation. If you support these aims, please take a minute to Tweet a picture of yourself with the flyer to @FACEanticas.

Still No Fair Deal for Hourly-Paid Teaching Staff at QMUL

Photo: Pooley House, by TECU Consulting UK

Queen Mary Against Casualisation

Queen Mary is one of the worst institutions in the country for its reliance on casualised teaching staff. 66.1% of teaching at the university is delivered by staff on precarious contracts. This is precisely what QMAC have been campaigning against over the last two years.

Queen Mary university has finally decided to review some hourly paid teaching staff’s pay and conditions, and accepted the need to integrate them into the pay spine — something that should have happened 8 years ago.

Whilst QMAC welcomes the decision to treat us like any other employees of the university, there are some worrying developments in the manner in which HR are proposing to implement these changes. Previously TA pay was paid on a 2.5 multiplier — meaning that the pay for each hour of teaching was multiplied by 2.5 in order to accommodate preparation and marking. The university is now proposing to…

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Yes to the pay campaign, but more importantly, yes to a proper fight against casualisation!

If you are a member of the University and College Union (UCU) and work in Higher Education, over the past couple of weeks you will almost certainly have been bombarded with emails, adverts and messages exhorting you to vote YES to strike action over this year’s pay offer. You will also have received a ballot through the post giving you the opportunity to vote for a strike or to vote for action short of a strike.

There are, as there usually is during our national pay negotiations, plenty of reasons to vote for a strike. As the UCU points out there’s the sustained decline in our real wages (14.5% since 2010), the ongoing pay gap between men and women (£6,103 a year), the number of teachers and researchers in Higher Education on fixed term and casual contracts, including the 21,000 teaching staff on zero-hour contracts. For those reasons, we at FACE give a resounding YES to national strike action this Autumn and we’re happy that the union has raised casualisation in the sector as one of their demands.

However… We are, like many people in Higher Education, wary about what exactly a YES vote will mean. We’re wary that what it will mean is HE workers being marched to the top of the hill for a single 2-day strike, staying there for a brief, half-hearted marking ban, before being marched back down again when the employers offer us another fraction of a percent. We’re wary that little effort will be made to energise branches and improve union organisation in Higher Education. We’re wary that activists will be wound up to fight, but that the official union will be looking to de-escalate as quickly as possible. We’re wary of being told that the dispute is about a long list of things but that, in the end, a pay increase will be all that really matters.

And we’re wary because to a great extent that is exactly what happened in 2013-14. Back then the joint pay demand put forward by the UCU, UNISON and Unite contained a whole bunch of lovely goodies. There was an end to low pay, action on the gender pay gap, a cap on Vice-Chancellor pay, an increase in London Weighting, an end to zero-hour contracts, fractional salaries with time for admin and prep for all hourly-paid staff, new agreements on disability leave, and agreements on limiting workloads. But what was the actual substance of the fight our unions waged? How often did the union talk about anything other than the headline percentage figure? How much progress has been made on those issues, given that they’ve been raised in almost the exact same format two years later?

Our experiences of the UCU’s priorities in previous fights have made us wary of our union’s priorities. We worry that these issues will be treated as marginal, when to the people our unions are seeking to represent, they’re really not. For casualised workers in Higher Education, pieceing together fixed-term, hourly or zero-hour contracts, being paid for a fraction of the time they actually spend working, an extra 0.5% doesn’t mean very much. 0.5% on a casual contract is 0.5% of whatever we can cobble together and 0.5% of whatever arbitrary number of hours our employer decides we are working. We worry that any progress the UCU makes on the gender pay gap will inevitably be partial, and slanted towards senior permanent faculty, if the casualisation which disproportionately affects women and people of colour is once again sidelined.

Moreover, we worry that with the rise of temp agencies like Unitemps and the now dead (and unmourned) TeachHigher, as well as the point blank refusal of universities to consider taking low-paid catering, security and cleaning staff, back in house, there will still be many thousands working in HE for whom national action on pay will bring not even the meagre benefit in-house casualised staff will get.

We worry, but we have hope. We have hope that this time YES will mean something more. Not just YES to a fight over a percentage point on our hourly rate, but YES to a real fight over what employment in Higher Education really means. YES to a real end to zero-hour contracts across the sector. YES to an end to gender pay discrimination. YES to realistic job descriptions that pay for every hour worked. YES to an end to contracting out exploitation to unscrupulous employment agencies. YES to really, genuinely dismantling discrimination in Higher Education. YES to mobilising casualised staff and permanent staff to fight against all forms of exploitation in Higher Education.

YES to all these, and YES to making them central not marginal to our fight in 2016.

Photo: ‘UCU’, by Simarchy.

The BME attainment gap, education and ‘the student experience’ at King’s College London

In 2014, King’s College London embarked on an enormous project to assess the value of ‘rebranding’ the university as ‘King’s London’. The project failed, with students overwhelmingly opposing the proposal, though nonetheless cost an estimated £300,000. Though the change did not go through, it was an instructive moment. Dropping the word ‘college’ might seem superficial, yet it indicates the university’s current identity crisis, its confusion as to what it is, what it’s for, what it does. A college is evidently place for education, but King’s London could be anything; a consultancy firm, a property developer, a tourist attraction, a hedge fund… anything.

The vocal opposition from students, however, suggests that despite the attempts to turn them into passive consumers, many retain a commitment to universities as a place of learning. This commitment was displayed again a few weeks ago, when students from the King’s Ethnic Minority Association (KEMA) stepped up their campaign against the BME attainment gap, which is 7% higher at King’s than the national average. They pushed for an open meeting with the Principal, Ed Byre, to air their concerns. They spoke with anger and passion, sadness and fear about the despair and alienation they sometimes felt in the university. It was powerful and moving. It was also evidence of how deeply they cared about their own education, how invested they remained in the university, even as they recognised that it was failing them.

When the students spoke, they were concerned about the fundamentals of teaching and learning; classroom dynamics, module choices, teaching styles, marking criteria. They were worried about how the Prevent duty and Islamophobia were corroding their relationships with their teachers; they were appalled at the lack of diversity on reading lists; they were disappointed by the lack of academics of colour. Unfortunately, universities seem increasingly preoccupied by issues tangential to teaching and learning. The relentless pursuit of the ‘student experience’ has reoriented focus away from education itself, diverting time and money into shiny new buildings, apps, and websites, none of which addresses the racial inequalities in higher education.

As the KEMA campaign has gained in strength, so has the KCL Fair Pay for GTAs campaign. King’s College London relies heavily on GTAs, employing around 700 across the university. In some departments, such as English, GTAs deliver the majority of the first year teaching. The reliance on PhD students and early career academics on precarious contracts is part of the wider trend towards casualisation in Higher Education. It is also evidence of the university’s dismal attitude to teaching in general, seeing it as incidental rather than central to its existence. Take marking, for example. The current contracts see GTAs required to mark a 1500 word essay in just 18 minutes. It’s impossible to do justice to a student’s work in that time, so GTAs work well above their contracted hours to deliver fair feedback. Feedback is crucial to student development, perhaps even more so for students from less privileged backgrounds who will have received less personalised attention throughout their education. As many GTAs can vividly recall being undergraduates, they shoulder a huge sense of responsibility to give fair, honest, detailed feedback, despite the poor payment.

Worse still, the already-notorious Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the proposed government solution to the uneven quality of teaching looks set to entrench the disparities that are already rife. Early plans for the TEF will see mass data collection in the style of the National Student Survey, with students ‘ratings’ for teachers gaining increasing power in determining hiring, salaries and contracts. This change will likely be a disaster for equality, as there is plenty of research showing that women and ethnic minorities are consistently rated lower than their white, male peers in student feedback, even under controlled tests.

In response to concerns about inequality, universities like to invest in outsourced programmes to school teaching staff in equality and diversity issues. But no amount of ‘implicit bias training’ can improve the education of BME students in a system in which teaching and learning are themselves derided. It’s time to put education back at the top of the agenda. Not ‘the student experience’, not ‘luxury accommodation’, but the very basics of teaching and learning. This process begins with investing in teachers, putting money into better training, more permanent teaching roles, and fair contracts for those who do teach on a part time basis.

Casual contracts disproportionately impact on those whose position in academia is already the most precarious: young black and working class academics. These are precisely the teachers who are most able to give BME undergraduates the sense that university is for them, and that it’s possible for them to achieve highly and stay in Higher Education.

Bridging the attainment gap and making universities into spaces where students and staff from all backgrounds can flourish will not happen overnight, but the first step is simple: invest in the very thing the students came to ‘experience’: education.

Photo: King’s College Diagonal, by Istvan