Higher education in the UK is on a downward slope. This summer for the first time, I heard colleagues on the European continent saying that they could not imagine themselves applying for jobs in the UK, considering the poor working conditions at universities says Andreas Bieler, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham in the UK, and a member of the University and College Union (UCU).

Interview by Wojciech Łobodziński.

What is the current condition of higher education in the United Kingdom, what stands behind the actions of UCU? My friends from Cambridge or London School of Economics tell me that going on strike became, over the last years, a part of the work culture of university staff, it happens so often. Is that true?

I can understand that someone might say that going on strike is something common among us. And it can even be seen as a part of our work culture. Since 7 September, we have again been balloting for industrial action. But I think, actually, that we as academics don’t like this continuous disruption of studies, of lives of our students, and after all we don’t like to disrupt our research. I am a trade unionist here at my university, and it takes a lot of time to get a ballot and action on the road. So why do we have those eruptions of industrial action?

Since 2010 there has been quite a dramatic transformation of higher education in the UK.

First, there was a shift towards financing universities via tuition fees from 2012 onwards, with annual fees increased to £9000. The second step was the removal of the student cap that was fully realised in 2015-16. Up to then there was a strict cap that described the possible number of students at the university. Now every university and every department can recruit as many students as they manage.

So basically we have a system in which universities fund themselves through tuition fees, and can recruit as many students as they want.

What does it create? It’s a completely new context for academia. Universities stop being universities in the traditional way of understanding this term, and become a private market actor competing with other universities for students.

What is the impact on the learning process and the life of universities, what has changed here?

First I have to say that a lot of finance is shifted into prestigious infrastructure projects, such as new sport centres, dorms, but also marketing and advertising. Then students come on open days, see those flashy buildings and the whole offer of the university in the rainbow colours painted by the marketing division. Advertisement is very important, in the end, you need to attract students. Open days are a part of that.

At the same time, where does this finance come from? You have to cut it elsewhere. Since 2010, there has been a continuous pressure on cuts implemented in the studying area of universities activity. In short, the pensions of university staff have been cut four times since 2011. Salaries, thanks to inflation and stagnancy of real pay, have been eroded by 20%. 

And then there is flexibility…

More than 30% of academics are on precarious, fixed-term contracts. In that situation, even if people don’t like industrial action, they don’t have any other way to improve their living conditions. There is no alternative. 

So what does it look like from a student’s perspective?

Very good question. Because it’s not only us, it’s also about them. If you check university pages there are those marvellous discourses on university experience… Reality is very different.

Students leave university with an average of £50 000 debt. Because they have tuition fees plus maintenance. You have government loans, but at some point you have to pay them back. Furthermore, the size of seminar groups has increased. 15 years ago, it was 12-13 students per seminar group, now it’s 25. It goes without saying that this has an impact on learning value.

At the same time, because of cuts, the offer of courses has been narrowed down. In short, not only staff but also students have suffered from this new environment in Higher Education in the UK.

So if you are an independent researcher in some niche, you cannot go on with your seminars, because the offer has to be suited and attractive. At the same time, it cannot be too broad, because you need to cut financing of the academic staff?

You have to teach modules that are popular among students, I teach a couple groups, we share them among 1-3 academics. It is not automatically connected to your specialisation, but you try to make it so. You can teach something around your topic, but it is not guaranteed. 

The current campaign of the UCU is about pay, casualition, equality and workload. Let’s start from pay, what is the average one in the UK? 

It is very difficult to name the average, because there is a huge disparity between lecturers and professors, some of the latter being on very large salaries. The figures from last year show that 33% of people are on fixed-term contracts. So this is not just about the level of pay, but also precarity which is problematic. 

And what does it mean, when we see the surveys saying that more than 30% of academic staff skip meals, to save some money?

Well, that would be people on precarious contracts, who deliver for example one module of 5 hours a week. These are the colleagues who can’t make more money. If you have a stable position at the university, the income is good enough to live on, it depends on your family circumstances of course.

So the equality from the UCU campaign, what is it about?

It’s about the ending of the fixed-term contracts culture. We want full time contracts for everybody. For example, some colleagues are employed until the end of June, unemployed over the summer and then re-employed in September to teach the same material. We want to see the end of it, also of hourly paid contracts, because those people cannot get any paid holiday, any leave, they are on zero time contracts at times. We want direct employment with the university, not some agency employment that allows this. 

I have to ask this question, because I cannot imagine such a work culture implemented in Italy, Poland or France. How is it possible that such measures even took place? 

So it’s this change, of being financed by tuition fees, and removal of the cap. This has created pressure on universities to cut down on pay and pensions…

Yeah, but have there been any pushback of the Labour Party, unions, students organisations? 

We are fighting back right now, as I mentioned we are currently balloting on industrial action. 

And ten years ago?

They do it always thanks to this salami strategy, piece by piece. If we push back, the reduction is not as big as it was expected. But then we have to push back once more, and once more, and we are here now. Of course we are constantly trying to mobilise and act on all the various issues around pensions, pay, workload, gender and BAME pay gaps as well as casualisation.

Higher Education in the UK in general is on a downward slope. This summer for the first time, I heard colleagues on the European continent saying that they could not imagine themselves applying for jobs in the UK considering the poor working conditions at universities.  

There was a time in history when being a British academic meant something. It was related to prestige and fame, also to good working conditions. It was the most prestigious job to get in the academic world. What is the awareness of society? In the end, academia is not only about teachers and students, there are also parents and families behind that. 

As a result of the changes discussed above, students have been transformed into customers, and that is the way they behave. So our library has a customer service desk. Students say that they pay, so in exchange they want a good degree.

As for the working conditions of academics, we need to remember that working conditions across the UK have deteriorated over recent years.

Are there any surveys on how many people would prefer state funded higher education?

Just like with the nationalisation of water, which is even popular among Tory voters. 

We don’t have exact numbers, that’s one of the issues right now. 2017, when the Labour Party election manifesto included the pledge to abolish tuition fees, this may have been the last opportunity of reversing the situation. At the time, this was a hugely popular policy proposal.

Right now we are facing the question of how we can become more visible, when there are so many strikes. Last year we were on strike for 18 days, and the university just didn’t bother. As long as they can charge their fees and students cannot claim a refund, there is no problem for them. We couldn’t achieve anything. Clearly, we need to rethink our industrial action strategy in these changing circumstances.  

 But is there any reflection on the Tory side, that universities are going down, that the education system does not provide education?

I think as far as I understand it, they would say that if you have competition the quality is higher. This makes academics better researchers, better teachers and so on. This corporate culture is strictly combined with their free market ideology. They believe in that, really.

And then there is this neoliberal idea that universities should be there to provide qualified people for the labour market. Nothing more nothing less. You as a student invest into your degree, which is an investment into your very future resulting in a better paid job. This is a very instrumental, individualist outlook in line with general Conservative thinking.

For me that’s interesting… Universities and staff they have, should have a big impact on the society, through media and so on. In Italy every philosopher publishes pieces in newspapers, they take part in the tv shows, debates, and they visit local culture centres as experts on different issues. 

That’s intriguing. The role of academics is different in the UK . There is no direct impact on society. When it comes to the economic crisis, it would draw on some academics from finance and business schools, but even in this area the media often seeks advice from people working for investment banks, for example. This notion of public intellectual that is present in Italy but also France, does not exist in Britain.

What we do have are left-wing academics, who are active in Momentum, Peoples Assembly, and trade unions, for example. So in that sense academics take part in social life, but there is no culture of that in the broader meaning. It’s very different from Italy and France. 

Is there any vision of higher education shared by TUC, Labour Party and its voters? Any common sense program on that?

As UCU, we had much better contacts with the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was its leader. And the same story goes for the rest of the trade unions. What we have at this moment is this Enough is enough campaign, which is supported by the broad coalition of trade unions, for example RMT, but also UCU. TCU is also involved in a way. This is a joint campaign to defend working people from more cuts and erosion of real value pay. The inflation is so high that salaries could be eroded by 20% a year. You have noted that the Labour Party isn’t directly supporting trade unions. We can organise ourselves on labour matters, like workload, equality, pay etc. We do that.

But it’s always about defending, resisting more cuts, not about any positive actions. We have had at Nottingham University a campaign for an Alternative Financial Strategy at our University, we think the way it is right now is very risky from a long term perspective. We have here a document on teaching principles, about how the learning process shall look like. But these are discussions, and now the main issue is to move from industrial action to positive thinking and campaign for a different university, not just pay.

We have to move from a defensive struggle into a creative struggle. That’s one of the main problems of the current Enough is enough campaign.

Of course we have to defend working people, but we have to move from that into the future, and into wider society.

And what is according to you the future of the industrial actions in Great Britain and your struggle, as the UCU, is there any clear perspective? 

As such, struggles are always open-ended. We cannot predict the future. It is encouraging to see this revival of trade union militancy including our UCU. Provided we can combine our actions with the strategies of climate change activists and Black Lives Matter protests, more fundamental change may well be possible. We’ve got to remain optimistic. La lotta continua!

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham in the UK. His most recent book is Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe (Zed Books, 2021). He is also an active member of the local committee of the University and College Union (UCU) at Nottingham University. 

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