The Means and Ends of Higher Education (Take 2)

Here is the revised version of the original post I wrote in the middle of the strike earlier this week exploring the theme of ‘the means and ends of higher education’, published as part of the online archiving of strike material at the Journal of Cultural Economy.

Archiving the 2018 UK Universities Strikes

Hey ho everyone, in case you are looking for some relaxing reading over the long weekend, those nice people at the Journal of Cultural Economy has just posted an online archive of some of the material generated on Twitter and on blogs over the last month or so investigating the wider contexts for the strike action by staff at pre-92 higher education institutions in the UK. This includes collated twitter threads by Gail Davies on the role of consultancy in shaping the landscape of HE pensions ‘reform’, Felicity Callard on the way in which what’s going on now in 2018 stretches back at least as far as 2014, and @etymologic on the cross-cutting networks that connect up UUK, USS, and other high-level HE advocacy and regulatory agencies; and re-published blog posts by Philip Roscoe on the construction of the USS deficit as an economic ‘fact’, Penny Andrews on what has been exposed by this dispute, and a re-versioned blogpost by me orn The Means and Ends of Higher Education (this includes a slightly filled out analysis of the example of the University of Exeter’s attachment to its capital investment programme – a reminder, ahead of further developments in this dispute next week that the key issue in all this is not the valuation of the USS scheme per se, but the question of how much risk Universities are willing to bear – that’s the issue that connects the pensions dispute to a series of broader issues that extend far beyond this dispute and will not be resolved by it whatever the outcome, all the way down to how we are micro-managed through annual reviews, income targets, poorly designed student appraisals, etc etc).

Thanks ever so much to Liz McFall and others at JCE for putting this together. It’s an important step in curating material that deserves wide accessibility both in the immediate term – this material leads off in directions that all UCU members should consider before deciding on the UUK-written ‘proposal’ to be balloted next week – and going forward, in facilitating ongoing rigorous scrutiny of UUK and other powerful actors in the future.

Just Doing Our Jobs

A colleague asked me today, in all seriousness and genuine anxiety, whether being involved in writing an open letter addressed to the senior leadership of our University, outlining a list of concerns about management structure and governance revealed by the handling of the pensions strike, risked staff members being accused of bringing the University into disrepute.

I wonder? There is quite tough opposition to even get into the Top 3 for THIS week:

There’s been this:

And this:

And this:

I’m not sure we are the problem. We’re just doing our jobs – as social scientists and humanities scholars and scientists – by helping people to reflect meaningfully on the attachments they have to the worlds they inhabit.

The Crisis of Legitimation in Higher Education

I wrote this blog less than half way through the UCU/USS strike, as an attempt to say out loud to myself how I was likely to feel when I went back to work in light of what had already emerged about the background to the dispute. Rather than write another one for today, the first day back for me and my colleagues here at Exeter (though still on Action Short of a Strike), I thought I’d just re-post it, with an invitation to imagine that it’s all now written in capital letters – because none of this seems LESS true now.

Pop Theory

You can tell that University administration has become dysfunctional when it becomes normal for everyone to refer to senior managers from the VC downwards by their first names. After all, properly functional, responsible bureaucracies are supposed to be anonymous and depersonalised – yet Universities in the UK increasingly organise themselves internally as if the effective operations and achievements of the whole institution can be accounted for by the forms of authority projected through the charisma of their ‘leaders’ (This is a just warped expression of a more basic and much cherished principle of University governance, whereby Vice-Chancellors are selected from ‘the ranks’ as it were, moving from practicing academics to senior management positions). Of course, the relationships that really matter in Universities are those structured by conventions of pastoral care between students and teachers, and by respect between professionals, not those structured by weirdly personified hierarchies of cascading “strategy”. In…

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1. Narrative of a Strike

A really long read – but well worth it… Narrative of a Strike, in 5 or more parts….

narrative of a strike

Writing the history of contemporary events is a perilous enterprise. For those living through a rapidly-changing historical sequence, like the current Universities strike, events themselves can recede into a blur. What is happening in our Universities has been astonishing and moving, exhausting and energising; it risks leaving many bewildered at the sheer pace of changes.

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Sad Beautiful Tragic

A couple of weeks ago, LEGOVC (the real one, or the real pretend one, it’s difficult to tell) asked me whether there were any songs by a certain someone that spoke to the cause for which University staff in the UK have recently been striking (we go back to work next week, wiser and with our eyes wide open, while maintaining Action Short of a Strike). LEGOVC (the pretend one, who is plastic) has helped us learn in the last few weeks that it’s always good to laugh with other people and at yourself. And, now I think about it, I don’t think a plastic figure can pretend, which might mean that it’s real, but only real plastic.

Here’s a first go at a list. I’m afraid it’s the titles that might most resonate, but if you listen carefully, and depending on quite how you have experienced the strike action, one or two of them might have a deeper ring of truth for you too. And if not, well, they’re still all great pop.

  1. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
  2. Hey Stephen
  3. Tell Me Why
  4. Blank Space
  5. Bad Blood
  6. I Knew You Were Trouble
  7. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
  8. Shake It Off
  9. Never Grow Up
  10. Everything Has Changed

 

10 Things I’ve Learnt From Being on Strike

1). Don’t underestimate students. And not only the occupying ones (but ‘wow’ to them, too).

2). My University stole my money. So did the one’s I used to work for. And they were happy that I hadn’t noticed.

3). Twitter IS a space for intellectual analysis.

4). To listen. And to be careful what you say “Yes” to.

5). If you say out loud that the University you work at has an “institutionalised culture of bullying”, everybody nods AND shrugs at the same time and it feels normal. But also that the shrugging might be about to stop.

6). That a “liability” is not the same as a “risk”. And that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with either.

7). “I think we need to call into question the basic assumptions of your analysis” CAN work.

8). That the Dinosaur Cafe is awesome, the Devon and Exeter Institute is a hidden treasure, the WEA really are lovely, and that Billy Bragg can still excite. And to get carried away.

9). Snow days in the middle of industrial action are heaven sent.

10). People bring different things to a mobilisation: knitting, cakes, crochet, placards, nerdy skills, sociable skills, organisational skills, bells, sunglasses, insider knowledge, incisive analysis, babies, dogs [not cats], Canadians, plastic building bricks (apparently), layers, obscure Latin quotes that don’t piss people off, anger, relief, and irony, hugs, Duncan, playlists, retweets, cynicism, sacrifice, coffee.

11). That what my Head of Department says is right: “We’re Good at What We Do”. All of us.