At the time of writing, the afternoon of Thursday 8 March, we seem to be in the endgame of the USS dispute. Oxford University has reversed its position on USS, after a botched attempt to stop its Congregation debating the issue; Cambridge is on the point of doing the same. In the last week, a number of other Vice-Chancellors have made proposals for a reasonable way out of the dispute, which would allow them a face-saving settlement. The principal difficulty at this stage is that the employers are in such complete disarray that it is hard to know who is negotiating. As a union, UCU may find itself in the position of having to establish a temporary employers association in order to have someone competent to talk to.
The employers have provoked a strike which has led to thousands of people joining UCU, to many thousands taking sustained strike action, and to the collapse of the moral and formal authority of university “leaders”. Our employers have shown themselves to be venal and mediocre, stupid and corrupt. What more can we learn?
“… reckless without hardihood …”
This dispute was not necessary but the employers chose to provoke it. We had been assured after two previous disputes that USS was “sustainable” and that it was safe for the future. Insofar as we can tell what happened, and the bloodletting on the employers’ side should be entertaining later, it seems that the employers believed they had a chance to finally break the bonds of mutuality between institutions and institutions, and between institutions and their staff, which hold UK higher education together as a system. The motives for this attempt to break out of commitments to staff are obscure but the move towards financialization of higher education seems to be at least one reason. In short, universities (actually their senior management) want to run as businesses rather than as centres of scholarship and they cannot do that if they are obliged to allow their employees a dignified retirement.
So the employers, heedless of the risks, took on their staff. They clearly did not think we would resist them, or that we would resist them for very long, or that we would have the support we have had from students. When they were faced with solid opposition, which increased every time they said something stupid, they did not have the stamina for the fight they had started. Their representatives, Universities UK, were unable to maintain a position, and this only became more difficult for them as their members split, and their own incompetence became apparent.
“… greedy without audacity …”
Vice-Chancellors are the symbol of personal greed; their collective avarice is now notorious. In George Lakoff’s words:
Pensions, even by those who advocate for them, are often framed as a benefit—“extras” granted by an employer to the employed. Yet what is a pension really? A pension is delayed pay for work already done. As a condition for taking a job, a pension is part of your earned salary, withheld and invested by your employer, to be paid later, after retirement. So if an employer says, “we just don’t have the money to pay for your pension,” that means that he has either embezzled, stolen, or misspent your earnings, which by contract he is responsible for paying you. Your employer is a thief.
We have come to a consciousness of ourselves as sellers of labour, and come to understand that we are worth more than we are getting for it. Our employers, greedy though they are, did not have the audacity for anything more than picking our pockets. They resemble cold-calling con artists whose story falls apart under questioning because they do not have the spirit to stay in character. They do not believe their own lies, even temporarily, so they are as unconvincing as it is possible to be. They are not liars, but bullshitters, and a bullshitter is always found out.
“and cruel without courage”
The cruelty of university “leaders” is obvious. The combination of overwork, spurious metrics, casualization, and a culture of bullying management have led to a crisis in mental health in UK universities. The detailed, personal, daily cruelties are well known to any of us who take on individual cases in the workplace.
The collective cruelty in this dispute is new. Numerous universities have tried to bully staff into taking on work which they had not done while on strike, in a blatant attempt to break the strike. Staff have been threatened with pay deductions up to 100%, for taking action short of strike which consists of working to contract. In other words, employers are treating working to contract as breach of contract.
Because they are stupid cowards, the employers backed down when they faced resistance. Even after two weeks of strike action, they did not understand that they cannot do this anymore. An informal academic boycott was imposed on those institutions and they quickly faced student resistance, external examiners withdrawing their services, and alumni informing them they could forget about any future donations.
The individualized cruelty continues, reaching some quite foul depths. At my own university, Bath, students occupying part of the senior management area were denied access to toilets while they remained in occupation. Students, including young women, were obliged to urinate in bottles in front of security staff. Someone in senior management either made this happen, or chose to let it continue, and nobody stepped in to put a stop to it.
If you want a vision of the “university” we have rejected, imagine that.