Working in Universities, Living With the Axe
[Also print out joint AF/Solfed student and workers bulletin given out on the demo that included this article]
For workers in universities cuts are nothing new. For years retiring academics have been replaced by cheap contract teachers, or by no one at all. Cleaners, porters and administrators have been 'rationalised' and their contracts attacked. Except for a minority of academic superstars and, of course, an increasingly bloated management, everyone in the sector is now doing more work for less money. University workers have lived with the axe for a long time now – many of us have never known anything else. The coming 40% cut and Browne's 'reforms' are the brutal climax of a process that's far from new.
The process began in the 1980s with years of chronic underfunding, made worse in 1992 when former polytechnics converted to universities and were brought into the same, inadequate, funding model. In 1997, the Dearing report, commissioned by Tories and implemented by Labour (sound familiar?), first introduced student fees (the student grant was already long gone and the Student Loans Company already up and running ready to take over the (mis)administration of fees). In 2004 fees went up as the cap was raised. Now, with variable fees and the almost complete removal of government funding for teaching yet another crucial step is about to be taken.
These attacks are not 'Tory cuts', they are part of a consistent policy going back decades through different governments. The Browne report builds on Labour's 2009 Higher Ambitions strategy which all rests on years of 'reforms' and cuts. This is not about saving money. It is about who should benefit from university education and how.
Browne makes it clear that students choosing between courses and universities should be forced to make an economic choice – how much money will I make out of this degree? The massive debts that students will be forced to take on ensure this. What this means, of course, is that it is employers who decide what matters in a degree – not students and certainly not staff. Indeed, Labour made this very clear suggesting that businesses should 'have a crucial role in the funding and design of programmes' and 'universities should become more flexible in providing for business demand.' To make this possible, universities should compete for funding 'with the winners being those universities who can best respond to these evolving economic changes'. Higher education is to become an appendage of business, with universities competing for scraps and students bending over backwards to meet employers demands. Business is to use the university system to dump its training costs onto first the government and then, through the loans system, onto its own workers.
This is, yet another, massive transfer of wealth from ordinary workers to businesses and corporations. University workers will have their pay and conditions slashed, students will sit in bigger, more expensive, 'business aware' classes simply for the chance to keep their head down for thirty years to pay off crushing debts, while bosses and the city make out, once again, like the bandits that they are.
However, all this can be resisted. The plan in 2004 was for variable fees, which was defeated by the lecturers' strike of 2006 – the new money went to increased salaries rather than into cut price, 'business friendly' courses. This time, with the axe swinging harder than it ever has before, it will take much more than that, but it can be done. To get what they want, national pay agreements must be broken up and a new casualised, flexible workforce created. The mass redundancies and course closures are all part of making this possible. Coordinated action between workers and students to make business as usual in the university impossible is what is needed. Strikes and occupations as we have seen in Sussex, Nottingham Trent and elsewhere are needed, but on a grander scale. This is a difficult fight, but it can be won.
This was one article in the anarchist bulletin handed out on the Demo-lition 2010 demonstration of student and education workers on the 10th November.