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.

The Means and Ends of Higher Education

Things I Learnt With Colleagues Last Week

Week 4, and it looks like the combined stupidity of the UUK and lack of preparedness and care by individual University senior leaderships before the current UCU strike action started means that lots of University staff in the UK are still out on strike, not teaching students, not librarian-ing, not providing professional support to researchers, not, public-engaging, and not doing lots of other things they’d rather be doing. That does mean more “learnable moments” for those of us on strike, whether through talking to our colleagues on the picket line (or meeting new ones) or through tweets and re-tweets and blogs. I’ve decided to not have any shame about only now discovering things about my pension, or how the University I work at (NOT for) is run, and instead take my ongoing journey of discovery as an indictment of the very system we are all realising we are part of. After all, none of what we are learning about how the USS pension system has been undermined, or how this is related to the systematic financialization of University funding, or how University governance has been rendered obscure and unaccountable, is actually a secret. Some of it people have known about, and lots of this is actually a focus of robust research. But who has the time to keep up with all this? And who imagined that those representatives of the institutions that one might think were meant to act in the best interests of those who work for Universities would turn out to be, well, less than honest and trustworthy and competent, if not deliberately misleading?

A few things have caught my eye in the last few days, precisely because the focus of my attention has been directed by my colleagues at better understanding the economics of pensions systems and the business models of Universities and because I have had the time to pursue in more depth these issues (there’s a lesson here, surely, concerning what it says about the Efficient Market Hypothesis that it is only when employees are on strike that they have enough time to actually begin to even imagine being able to access all of the information they are supposed by adherents to that abstract principle to have at their disposal in order to function as rational fools).

The first was a great, succinct blog post by Ewan McGaughey explaining the relationship between the planned gutting of the USS pension scheme and shifts in the nature of University governance. As he puts it, the plan to shift risk away from Universities by rendering all ‘pension’ support into ‘Defined Contribution’ schemes in the name of flexibility and choice amounts to recommending a ‘Die Quickly’ Plan. Now, one thing we’ve all learned is that this whole programme of de-risking is related to a broader shift in the strategizing of UK Universities, whereby the urge to reduce pension support as liabilities is intrinsically linked to the imperative to diversify sources of funding in a context of reductions in direct government support. Now, the logics of financialization in higher education are perhaps longer established, and subject to research scrutiny, in a North American context than in the UK, but it is worth remembering that that’s a different context. Thomas Hale provides a short summary of ‘allure of the capital markets’ for Universities at the FT’s Alphaville site (you have to register, but it’s free after that, and totally worth it – he’s been writing about higher education for a while now). It’s good to keep in view the degree to which these transformations in the strategies of Universities are structured by a firm commitment by government since 2010 to restructure the economics of higher education in fundamental ways. The relationship between the pensions dispute and this trend towards financialization is captured in what now, two weeks later, reads like a very old statement from the Vice Chancellor of Exeter, according to which the costs of continuing to support the existing pension system would involve “a reduction to our resources, and would limit our ability to deliver our key missions around research and education as well as our ability to invest in, and improve, the facilities we provide.” This zero-sum representation of what is at stake in this dispute – between investing in uniformly high quality pay and conditions for staff versus a rather obscure sense of education and research ‘missions’ that centre on ‘facilities’ – is, in fact, simply a talking point proffered by the UUK for widespread use. That’s just one of the things we’ve all learnt because of the work of Gail Davies and Felicity Callard and others in reconstructing the explicit efforts of ‘The Voice of Universities’ to legitimise the shift from collective pension support to individualised “Die Quickly” savings plans. (And Exeter’s VC has more recently reiterated the same argument).  

The implicit view that supporting pensions is a liability that gets in the way of delivering key missions rests on a broadly shared imperative for Universities to be able to demonstrate that they are enhancing “student experience” – where this means access to high quality work spaces, to fantastic sports facilities, accommodation, high-tech teaching spaces, and the like. All of those things are crucial to making a University the space that it is meant to, no doubt. The interesting question is how it is that we have arrived at a situation in which all those material things are rendered affordable only by drastically restructuring academic labour markets in increasingly bifurcated ways while also streamlining ‘academic support’ professions.

The trelationship between the substantive issues behind the current pension dispute and the shift towards capital investment strategies amongst Universities is neatly captured by Philip Roscoe, discussing the origins of the strike in decisions made by UUK in 2017: “In the summer of last year USS asked employers – via Universities UK – whether they wanted more or less risk. It might seem a silly question, for out of context everyone wants less risk. But universities have a particular agenda. USS is what is known as a ‘last man standing’ scheme, meaning that should institutions start to fail, risk would pile up on those still operating. And university managers, now thoroughly versed in the language, practices and salaries of business, are obsessed with avoiding risk. Risk has practical implications, for under current accounting rules employers must carry full pension liabilities on their balance sheet. This affects administrators who, seeing themselves primarily as curators of rankings in a market-driven system, are diverting all the funds they can into an arms race of building and infrastructure investment. Universities can borrow very cheaply – often at less than the cost of inflation, and almost free money is too good a ticket to be passed up. But lenders are not going to offer such preferential terms to borrowers with huge pension liabilities; for a university, the covenant of USS begins to loom as an enormous blot on an otherwise shiny credit rating.”

The integral link between the pensions dispute and the financialization of University expansion plans involves a search for new sources of revenue, in a context of declining direct funding from government and uncertainty over the reliability of student fee income, the real value of which is declining year on year anyway. (Let’s not forget, in the midst of realising just how badly managed British Universities have been, that the changing political economy of higher education has its source in the determination of Tory-led governments since 2010 to try to make higher education conform to ridiculous models of markets and competition. Universities’ turn to capital investment programmes as a way of seeking enhance ‘student experience’ is an index of a motivated effort to enforce a competitive spirit on higher education institutions, and the move to ‘de-risk’ pensions liabilities is a central element of the resulting and still emergent business model in which getting better loan rates is the driving imperative.)

The transformation of the economics of higher education represents an opportunity for growth for certain fields of private investment, and that’s why there is so much consultancy by the likes of Barclays and KPMG flying around – it serves as a way of introducing potential investors to potential borrowers. Here is pwc summarising the new landscape of higher education funding:  “In an increasingly competitive market where all Universities are striving to offer their students, staff and visitors the most positive and rewarding experience possible, the quality of the built environment, the accommodation offering, and the delivery of estates services are playing a more critical role than ever before. In response to this, Universities are developing exciting and ambitious estates plans that propose significant investment in new facilities, and innovative ways of delivering services.” Now, the key thing about this emergent field is that buildings and facilities require long-term financing, and traditional lenders – banks – “are unable to write loans with the same duration and pricing levels of the past”. All of this is a source of some excitement:  “New sources of finance, as well as new commercial modes for securing this finance, are therefore needed and are being employed across a variety of projects in the sector”. As NatWest nicely put it, capital debt markets “have capitalised on the lack of bank liquidity for longer-duration financing”.

The most publicly visible example of Universities turning to debt capital markets takes the form of individual institutions – ones as very different as De Montfort and Cambridge – issuing their own bonds (an instrument of indebtedness sold by the issuer to the holder, e.g. what governments do). This trend serves as a way of securing long-term finance that bank lenders are not prepared to extend. But the logics of financialization are not only evident amongst institutions who have leveraged credit in this way. For example, the University of Exeter’s financial strategy is quite prudent – the University is “relatively highly geared”, that is, it’s focussed on paying down relatively high levels of debt accrued from past investments. This is one reason, of course, why pension commitments show up as a risk (not just a liability) for this type of institution.  For Exeter, “Pensions” are listed ahead of “Impact of the EU Referendum June 2016” when it comes to discussing financial risks: “The settlement of the USS 2017 actuarial valuation is a key risk, both financially and in terms of industrial relations, with the national trade unions agitating to protect current pension benefits. Current expectation is that the valuation will be settled within the current funding envelope, without increasing costs to the employer or employee but the likelihood that future pension benefits will have to be curtailed is high.” That was written a year or so ago I guess.

Of course the idea that pensions are ‘a material liability’ is just technical vocabulary, it’s not necessarily ripe for deconstruction. But when financial balance-sheets become ‘enveloped’, shall we say, in a wider process of actuarial de-riskification then the idea of pensions as liabilities gets translated into the idea of pensions as a risk, and helps to generate the search for securing the ‘resilience‘ in higher education financing.

Now, you might think that if you are already busy paying down lots of debt, you’d calm down about taking on a lot more. Well… the University of Exeter actually has an ambitious future capital investment strategy (‘Iconic Buildings on what used to be a Car Park’, for short). Exeter’s Capital Strategy proclaims “The next ten years will see us invest £428.5M in our campuses, estate and infrastructure. We are building the estate we need to deliver world-class research and an internationally excellent education, accommodating our students and our world leading academics in exceptional teaching, learning and research spaces.” As I said, there’ll be less car parking space as a result. And it’s not quite clear, from the outside (that is, for those working at this University) where this money is meant to come from. This investment strategy also sits alongside the University’s “People Strategy’, which has the sub-heading of ‘Attract, Perform, Retain’ – I’m not sure how any of those aims is meant to be enhanced by undermining University employees’ pension provision which, as UCU members have helpfully reconstructed over the last week or so, has been systematically pursued by British University senior management for a while now. 

Exeter is certainly a good an example of the recent spending spree on new buildings that characterises British higher education, a phenomenon that is rooted in a widely shared understanding that this is the secret to attracting students. And if building buildings is crucial to recruiting students, then in turn servicing the debt that finances that building depends on being able to guarantee future student income (an aside: one of the things that working through the logics of this dispute does underscore is just how important teaching students remains to the changing meaning of ‘the University’, including ‘research intensive’ ones). In his discussion, Hale helpfully identifies just how important rankings are to this process of financialization, playing two related roles in mediating demand of “student-consumers” and in “the overall marketing process of debt issuance” (i.e. in reassuring investors that Universities looking for credit are actually any good). Rankings are, of course, just one part of the ‘avalanche of numbers’ that has swamped HE – loads of ‘data’ is used to manage Universities internally so that universities can act in certain ways externally, as it were, for accountability and justification purposes for sure, but also to establish and maintain institutional credit worthiness (remember that next time you are congratulated for achieving a better position in a methodologically dodgy league table). But more precisely, rankings and league tables are now built into systems for finessing the calculation of the risks of different sorts of assets, liabilities, and both estate investments and human capital.

Needless to say, this sort of estate-led expansion of HE is not without its controversies.

It should be said that developing expansive capital investment strategies does not only involve individual Universities directly raising capital through bond issues. Again, pwc is helpful here: “We are, however, seeing significant interest from certain large investors to increase their exposure to the higher education sector through property-related income that is backed by a strong covenant”. What is being referred to here is the turn to using “lease based structures” that allow Universities to access capital with long maturities indirectly (and therefore not messing up the balance-sheet). That line about large investors ‘exposing’ themselves to the HE sector is, of course, meant to be ironic: it’s not really the investors that are exposed in these deals, which actually depend on the assumption that investing in University estate is a safe bet. This second form of ‘innovative’ higher education financing through the credit markets involves Universities partnering up with specialist financial companies, of which University Partnership Programme (UPP) is the most visible in the UK. UPP is a University accommodation developer, that provides to Universities  ‘special purpose vehicles’. Basically, they raise the capital for Universities and build and run student accommodation, and ownership of the buildings only passes on to Universities when the original debt is paid back (that might sound familiar). UPP describe what they do in the following way: “Our vision is to deliver the very best student experiences, in partnership with great universities. Our mission is to create exceptional academic infrastructure and support services in partnership. We design and develop high quality, affordable, student accommodation, academic infrastructure and support services. Our unique partnerships enable universities to make best use of their assets, freeing up university resources and improving services to students.” That last bit about ‘freeing-up’ resources is important, because this way of financing building projects allows Universities to keep the costs of investment off their balance sheets – thereby enhancing their on-going borrowing strategies. Nothing to worry about there then. 

It’s worth slowing down a moment, and recognizing that the emergence of this debt-fuelled model of higher education is rapidly evolving – until very recently Universities were able to raise capital on favourable terms because of an implicit assumption that they were in the last resort guaranteed against failure by government. That’s no longer such a wise assumption. Government now not only seeks to facilitate new entrants into HE but says out loud it will not automatically prop-up a financially failing University. This effort to enforce marketisation is one reason why it is important to differentiate between arguments that HE is currently an imperfectly functioning market that could be made more perfect, and an argument about why it might not be a good idea to imagine that it’s sensible to imagine it should or could be in the first place. Of course, Universities remain very heavily dependent on government funding in all sorts of ways, primarily in terms of credit-extended to fund student fees as well as direct grants and research funding. It’s not clear that the model of financialization of higher education upon which the trashing of my pension has been premised is actually even sustainable.

And it’s worth noting, in the middle of all this, just how variable the subject of ‘The Student’ has become. It’s easy to bemoan the idea that students are increasingly treated as consumers, but it in fact students are figured in various ways in contemporary higher education policy and strategy: as future recruits, they serve as security against which Universities can secure loans; they are quite publicly presented, amazingly, as superficial air-heads who are easily dazzled by ‘shiny buildings’ when making life-changing decisions; they are expected to be only ever motivated as utility-maximisers by the promise of future earnings in their choices and expectations and satisfactions (giving rise to a weird sense of what ‘vocational‘ means in education, which is reduced to quite instrumental ideas about value for money; which doesn’t leave much space for the idea of a calling, a passion, a life’s worth of mission); and, rather importantly given the debt-leveraged nature of all this building work, as reliable rent-payers. And this disaggregation of ‘The Student’ into a dispersed range of abstract singularities facilitates in turn the re-aggregation of “student voice” and “student experience”, always and only ever spoken-for by University managers.

It’s Not Neoliberalism!

Now, at this point, I want to step sideways and make what might appear to be an arcane theoretical point: I want to say out loud that I think none of this can be helpfully analysed with reference to extant conceptualisations of neoliberalism. My reason for saying this here is because I have made this case on a couple of occasions as contributions to local UCU-related teach-outs in the last week or so, so I thought as a matter of good faith I should reiterate the argument here too. The framing of the wider context for this dispute routinely falls back on the terms of a popularised discourse of ‘the neoliberal University’ set against an idea of Universities as a public good that has come to define a whole space of critical imagination for the academic left and beyond. It’s worth slowing down a moment and considering what difference it makes to think about higher education as a public good or as a means of achieving the public good – and noticing that in neither case are market mechanisms necessarily inimical to desired collective outcomes. I happen to think that the analysis of processes of the marketisation, financialization, and consumerisation of higher education in the UK needs to be freed from the weight of the theoretical edifice of critical discourses of ‘neoliberalism’ (and I think this not just for academic reasons but also because I think it contributes to bad political strategy). I don’t want to rehearse a lengthy academic argument here, so I will try to be quick: leaving aside the complete incoherence of ‘neoliberal’ as either an explanatory or descriptive term, and the fact that all critical theories of neoliberalism tend to suffer from a somewhat unhealthy identification with their putative object of analysis (this is related to the methodological basis of most social science research on neoliberalism, which for all the talk of ‘political-economy’ tends to be based on fairly simplistic forms of discourse analysis (without even admitting it) and interviews with elite actors; or, for those late to the game, it is related to having no regard for the empirical at all, preferring to simply show the normative inadequacies of a set of theoretical propositions that are presented as having already been perfectly realised in the world). To cut a long story short, prevalent theories of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ – whether the carpet theory of roll-back and roll-out variegated neoliberalization, or those of a more sophisticated poststructuralist variety, turn on stark contrasts between states and markets, or between the political and the economic – or, at a deeper level, between bad individualism and virtuous sociality (there are broader issues here about what kind of social theory is at work in critical analyses of ‘neoliberalism’, which tend to be reliant on functionalist theories of the state and of ‘subjectivity’, and devoid of effective understandings of the rationalities of action) .

There are at least three reasons why this whole framework of analysis doesn’t really help in analysing what we are all learning about the political economy of higher education through our involvement in this dispute. They all deserve more attention than I can muster here, but I’ll mention each in turn:

  • First, it disallows the possibility of any positive knowledge of the economic (at best delegating that knowledge to a tradition of Marxist analysis that is certainly worth taking very seriously). And if there is one thing we’ve all learnt these last couple of weeks, it’s that it’s really useful to be able to know about the economics of finance.
  • Second, as already intimated, risk the central theme linking the use of rankings, pensions as liabilities, and the financing of capital investment (again, that’s what Gail Davies and Felicity Callard  have been excavating). And risk is quite central to modern concepts and practices of public life, in a way often underestimated by critical theories. There really is something called the ‘The new risk agenda‘ that is being embedded in bought-in, consultant-led higher education strategising, management and administration. It’s a world in which future pension liabilities show up as a financial risk while leveraged on- and off- balance indebtedness doesn’t, no-one takes seriously the risk of undermining the professional confidence of University staff in senior leadership, and all those flakey metrics are used to make it appear that future student recruitment is a lock-in. There is certainly a debate to be had about ‘the privatization of risk‘, although that’s not quite what is involved here – it’s more like a process in which privatised models of risk, via actuarial practices and the operations of debt markets, have become integral to the delivery of new understandings of the ‘public benefits’ of HEIs.
  • Third, and picking up on this suggestion, entrenched critical discourses of neoliberalism find it very difficult to acknowledge that the marketisation and financialization of higher education involves the reconfiguration of the relationship between the means and ends of the public dimensions of higher education, rather than the diminution of the public qualities of University life in the face of unrelenting privatisation (the values of efficiency, accountability, freedom and choice that legitimise that reconfiguration are, after all, no less public values than, say, equality or justice). It is presumed that market mechanisms – in this case financialized practices – can only ever undermine properly public values (and it’s never explained why this infectious relation cannot work in the other direction as well).

The example of pension provision, which is what our dispute centres on, should remind us that there is no necessary reason why private means cannot be used to secure public goods (in that respect, Adam Smith remains a rather insightful theorist of modern public life). The history of pension provision in the UK from the early 20th century until the introduction of George Osborne’s “Freedom and Choice’ reforms in 2015 illustrates that it’s perfectly possible to combine private markets for investments with specific tax regimes to deliver welfare outcomes.


Should Universities Calm Down?

I guess my point is simply that higher education isn’t a public good – there are multiple public goods associated with higher education (and they might actually be proliferating even as the means of achieving them is being narrowed). At its most straightforward, as subject to the Charity Commission, Universities in the UK are obliged to demonstrate that their activities deliver Public Benefit to all sorts of constituencies (have a google, you’ll quickly be able to find the annual reporting of how your University’s delivers Public Benefit). It is possible to imagine various configurations of the objects, subjects and mediums of public life rather than holding to a stark contrast between two separate, and opposed realms. The marketisation and financialization of higher education, expressed not least through heavily leveraged capital investment programmes, represents a re-configuration of the means and ends of the public qualities of HE. And it’s not just done in the name of public values (to think that this will do as an analysis requires you to still believe in the concept of ideology, which you just shouldn’t). To illustrate my point, consider the evaluation of the capital investment by the research-intensive Russell Group Universities between 2012 and 2017 produced by the economics consultancy BiGGAR Economics in 2014 (great name). It should be said that most of the increase in capital investment by Universities is driven by a relatively small set of research-intensive institutions. The evaluation found that almost 100,000 jobs would be supported by more than £9 billion of projected investment – spending on “a wide variety of different types of project from new libraries and student accommodation to major urban regeneration projects and world-leading medical facilities” – and that every £1 invested will generate £4.89 ‘gross added value’  – these claims being arrived  at by using a “specially developed economic model”, the details of which are not made publicly accessible. These impacts will be felt over different time-scales – the total added value is divided between short-term impacts (the impacts of building the buildings), longer-term operational impacts (which derive from what goes on in the new buildings once they are built) and long-term ‘catalytic’ impacts: there at least 6 dimensions to this latter category, which anchors the really strong claim involved, namely that capital investment by Universities does not just amount to a redistribution of central government moneys but contributes to the active generation of new wealth. The six dimensions are ‘graduate productivity’, ‘medical research’, ‘commercialisation and innovation’, ‘enhanced research competitiveness’, ‘tourism’ (basically, parents coming to stay in University towns when their kids graduate) and ‘improved learning environment’ (which loops back to securing future student recruitment).

The report has a lovely conclusion, in which it is asserted that “Investing in a high quality learning and research environment” allows Universities “to attract and maintain the best students and researchers”. In this vision, capital investment projects are integral to the building of the ‘human capital’ that is central to both teaching and education. What a lovely idea. Unfortunately, no-one told the authors of this report that the specific business model upon which these programmes of capital investment depend actually requires that academic labour markets are increasingly bifurcated and students increasingly treated as assets – so that the ‘human capital’ part of that equation is actually sacrificed to the ‘capital-capital’ part.

The BiGGAR report illustrates that even when the impacts of higher education are, as they increasingly are, presented as accruing to individuals (the future salaries of students) or private entities (‘industry’) then this is understood as being a means through which wider public benefits can be generated. It’s just one example of how far the reconfiguration of higher education has involved a trend by Universities to claim to ‘doing everything‘ for everyone (social mobility, productivity increases, technological innovation, instilling civic spirit, solving climate change, etc., etc.); and the associated adoption of management models that are shaped by the imperative to provide evidence of that capacity to deliver for both instrumental reasons and accountability reasons.

So, again by way of example, the University of Exeter makes regular use of economic consultants to help it publicly demonstrate the benefit of increasing number of international students that it has bought to the city and region, part of a broader imperative to demonstrate the economic impacts of the University locally and regionally. And in case that sounds a little too economistic, then the University also makes strong claims about acting as an anchor institution the generates all sorts of social and cultural benefits alongside economic ones. The “anchor institution” idea has taken off in government and other public agencies around HE, and it’s an interesting example of travelling theory, whereby the original sense of the potential of certain public institutions driving regeneration in deprived and ‘vulnerable‘ localities and regions has been turned into a generalised narrative about Universities driving innovation and growth anywhere and everywhere. The specific combination of justificatory logics behind these sorts of claims about local impact is not peculiar to Russell Group institutions, it’s common across the whole HE sector. And one of the key roles of the not-so-loved UUK is to scale up these sorts of claims to the national level.

Now, to return to my theoretical hobby-horse, I don’t think neoliberalism or ‘privatisation’ or counterposing ‘people versus profit’ actually captures what is going on here (And I realise that “It’s complicated and contradictory and complex” doesn’t make a great slogan. It’s much worse even than Rectify the Anomaly, although I am personally increasingly drawn to the idea that University staff should campaign around the slogan “We Have a Right to be Well Managed”). Those slogans (and that’s what ‘neoliberalism’ really is remember) ask us to buy into a moralistic contrast between bad privatised, competitive, marketised, individualised practices versus good, virtuous, sharing ones. As I said, I think the ‘neoliberal’ frame leads us to misrecognize the degree to which what is at stake is a dispute between different understandings of the public responsibilities of higher education, and especially between different understandings of the best means by which to achieve the public purposes of higher education. I happen to think a better place to start is to take seriously  Rowan Williams’ characterisation of the current trends in higher education restructuring as being shaped by a “half-baked utilitarianism“. It’s a suggestion that has more purchase in analysing the dynamics of the changing world of higher education, and it is neatly illustrated by the line parroted by VCs that I mentioned at the start, in which the costs of sustaining decent pensions systems is set against the sacrosanct requirement to continue to invest in expansion: that zero-sum line exposes how the calculation of the value of the public benefits of higher education – in terms of social mobility and productivity improvements and that innovation and economic growth that is meant to follow from a credit-led expansion strategy – is totted up and then the ‘sufferings’ resulting from gutting staff pensions are simply subtracted from the total: what you get is a projected  overall increase in an aggregated utility function.

In the UK, a shared sense of hubris continues to drive higher education policy (by government) and strategy (by Universities), around which the contradictions and conflicts between these actors revolve. It also lies behind the increasingly toxic mess of top-down, vicious, paternalist, patronising management systems that has come to characterise University life. A significant proportion of University staff have decided to call BS on the whole complex of funding, financing, and management over the last few weeks. As this dispute moves towards its fourth week, what is becoming increasingly clear is that it is not just that the governance of collective University decision-making is in crisis – that much is clear enough when the constituent members of UUK are themselves complaining that this organisation can’t be trusted – but that the whole model of individual University governance is itself in need of urgent reassessment. It’s easy to fixate on the responsibilities of VCs in all of this, but McGaughey is surely right to suggest that it is the whole edifice of upper-level University governance that needs to be democratised: “in every university, staff, the University and College Union, and students should demand every governing body has a majority elected by staff and students.” The reason why ‘democracy’ is the answer to the crisis of British higher education exposed by this dispute is not so much because ‘neoliberalism’ is opposed to democracy (the two are rather closely entangled), but because what everyone keeps calling ‘neoliberalism’ is really a specific assemblage, shall we say, of practices and meanings of accountability, freedom, and public value. At least that’s my argument, and I’m sticking to it.



The Performance of Pensions

The current dispute in UK universities over the future of the pension system for University staff has been the occasion for much solidarity and comradeship – publicly on picket lines, through teach-outs and on social media, and I suspect also more private, care-full channels of support and encouragement. The phrase a ‘teachable moment’ has been heard often enough over the last couple of weeks, although I’m coming to think of all this as a ‘learnable moment – for example, an awful lot of us know a lot more about pension financing and asset pricing and investment and projected life-expectancy, and the mendacity of our employers, than we did a week or so ago. Because that what academics tend to do when they are on strike – they read and research into the things animating their grievances; they think for themselves. Who knew?

All this learning has been facilitated by shared Facebook posts and tweeted links and blogposts, as well as real conversations and events (presumably). And, you know, it’s amazing what you can learn on Google. Part of me is embarrassed to admit to not knowing more about all of this before (but I used to be young and carefree about old age). Then again, the reason it has been so engrossing to learn more about the background to this dispute is precisely because what one is learning is that one’s trust in the good faith of Universities to protect the best interests of their staff that underwrote that ignorance turns out to have been rather ill-placed.

To say the least. My colleague Gail Davies has been tweeting her analysis of the role of the investment consultant Aon Hewitt in shaping the strategy of UUK – ‘The Voice of Universities’ – to redesign University pension system not just in the last year but for some time longer than that. You should have a look at Gail’s thread on all this. And then look at the thread by Felicity Callard that picks up the story, and then Shaun French, and follow where it all leads (it’s not pretty). 

There are all sorts of issues raised by the digging that Gail and Felicity and Shaun and others have been doing. Apart from anything else, the capacity of Twitter to serve as a genuine space of intellectual enlightenment, but also perhaps the limits of that (it can be difficult to keep track of the narrative arc emerging almost in real time as we all discover what a deep hole we have been dug into by our employers). But also some proper ‘theoretical’ ones of very immediate relevance: what Gail and Felicity have found, as a matter of public record, is that UUK and Universities have been complicit in a motivated effort not just to adjust to a ‘shifting landscape’ of pension economics but to help instigate a shift away from collective pooling of risk by Universities to benefit their staff through supporting a pension system to relocate all the risk onto staff by instigating individual savings plans (remember, we now all know that “a DC is not a pension at all“). It turns out the Universities we work for stand as very good examples of the efforts to deliberately enact market practices in new ways that academics themselves have analysed. These and other issues no doubt deserve much more attention – much broader attention is perhaps the better way of putting it – beyond the confines of this particular dispute.

One thing I have learnt, for example, is that reform of the USS pension system actually serves as a live empirical experiment for economists researching the unequal redistributory effects of pension scheme redesign. Financial economists have used the 2011 rule change, when USS closed its final salary scheme to new members, to assess the redistributory effects of rule changes to pensions systems (2011 is also when the national government withdrew from underwriting the USS system, thereby transforming the level of risk to which this system is technically exposed, a central issue in the current dispute). To cut a long story short, they find that this rule change involved a redistribution of wealth from ‘members’ to ‘sponsors’ (that is, from University staff to Universities); and that the costs of this redistribution fall unequally on younger/newer members. Here’s part of the summary of their findings: “The rule change in October 2011 resulted in the transfer of about £32.5 billion of wealth from the members to the sponsor during the 2011-2015 period. This is the equivalent of about £600 million per year, or over 60% of the sponsor’s contribution in 2011 of £938.4 million.” Let that sink in for a moment – and think about it next time you wander past a shiny new building on the campus where you work.

In a rather understated conclusion, the authors helpfully remind us “Since pensions are deferred pay, this represents a substantial pay cut”. And that was back in 2011!

Now, this all comes from a published academic research paper, using robust methods of data analysis (you know, that middle bit of papers that we all mostly skip over, where people show their workings), which addresses a more general issue of scientific significance in its own field, and, oh, remember, would have been through a thorough process of peer-review. You know, the sort of social science knowledge that Universities are rather reluctant to allow entry into their own forms of strategising. I wonder why?

The Crisis of Legitimation in Higher Education

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 the UK, the consequences of the topsy-turvy distribution of personal relations of trust and suspicion in cultures of higher education management (see also my previous comments on the systematic distrust towards academic professionalism embedded in the TEF) have been fully realised in the current dispute about the future of the pension system in pre-1992 Universities. And whatever the outcome of the dispute, it seems to me that there at least two certainties upon which one can count about what life is going to be like in the future for people working in this part of the UK higher education sector.

1). Large numbers of academic and non-academic staff working in British Universities now know that senior management have, to varying degrees and with some notable and honourable exceptions, been actively seeking to systematically diminish the pay and conditions of those working in the sector – we know this because we have all been reading about this for at least a couple of weeks now, a bit late perhaps but better late than never (you can read the position of your own institution here, and more generally follow up on this issue by following the commentary by Michael Otsuka). If the UUK position on the future of the USS pension system prevails, then there will be an awful lot of University staff who will find themselves significantly less materially well off and secure in the future. I’m not aware of any plan by any University to think about compensating their staff for the financial losses which will follow from proposed changes to the USS system. Basically, we’re all expected to do the same amount of work (that is, “more and more” of it all) for less money. This is worth saying out loud to underscore the brazen quality of the collective position publicly endorsed by Universities which provoked the current strike action by University staff. Even if the UUK position does not prevail, even if in some unlikely outcome the UCU’s position wins the day (I’m not that optimistic), then what now exists is an open awareness across the sector, amongst everyone working in a University (with a few notable exceptions), that the particular institution they work for was more or less happy to try to force through this sort of restructuring as quietly as possible, without admitting it, and by attempting to ‘naturalise‘ the economics of pensions by way of justification when called out. The sheer mendacity of Universities in allowing the dispute over pensions to get to the current point (leaving aside deeper questions about longer term mismanagement of the pensions system) is not something that will just be erased from memories – it’s now a known fact about institutions that are often enough happy to circulate platitudinous congratulations to their staff when League Table results go well or REF outcomes are positive or NSS scores go up, that they were and are keen to steal money from those same staff members in order to sustain what seem like increasingly thoughtless and unsustainable strategies of institutional growth and ‘global’ competitiveness (the visible, measurable success of which we all suspect directly benefits senior management through ill-considered performance related pay schemes).

2). The irreparable damage to morale and trust that follows from the betrayal revealed by the UUK position and the way it has been meekly supported by individual institutions is only further worsened by the ways in which the more routine forms of higher education administration have been almost automatically applied to the micro-management of the current dispute. This extends from explicitly punitive and provocative efforts to bully staff into giving up on strike action through to more ordinary, often rather clumsy, but I have no doubt widespread efforts such as those at my own institution to require individual academics to provide detailed information about the impact of their strike action on teaching (somehow they never ask that question about impacts on research), as well as explicit efforts to force colleagues to make-up classes not held because of strike action (i.e. to provide teaching after the strike for which salary has been withheld because of being on strike). These sorts of heedless attempts to manage the effects of the strike action extend to the making of blanket promises to students, strongly implying to them that any missed classes will indeed be caught-up by striking academics, a promise which amounts to central University managers seeking to leverage the expectations of students in order to expose often relatively junior staff members to further stress, harassment and pressure. In one respect, this is business as usual, in so far as all of these forms of response reflect what is now an almost taken-for-granted model of top-down micro-control in which University management seeks to monopolise the right to speak in the interests of students in order to impose from above changes to teaching practices that are wholly insensitive to either sound pedagogy or well-established good practice at ‘the chalkface’. In short, if one certainty going forward is that senior University managers will not be able to put their own Humptiness back together again, the other seems to be that they will nonetheless continue for a while yet to operate with the same centralised models of internal micro-management as before, thereby only compounding the effects of demotivation, demoralization and lack of trust that follow from 1). above.

The predictable outcome of the current dispute, then, is that University senior managements are likely to be widely held in contempt by significant proportions of the staff working for their own institutions, and with complete justification. Again, with some exceptions of differing degrees (and those exceptions just underscore the degree to which the standard line taken by many Universities is an intentional decision to act in a particular manner), a large number of individual Universities and the umbrella organisation UUK have been revealed to be dishonest, out of touch, ill-informed, and manipulative (did I forget to mention incompetent?); and the embedded systems of institutional micro-management that have been rolled-out over the last decade or so have been revealed to be entirely unsuited to the cultivation and maintenance of a spirit of collegiality upon which any University community crucially depends.

Properly speaking, that all amounts to a real live crisis of legitimation – Universities no longer have the means to secure the identification of those over whom they presume to exert authority.

It should be said that this is far from an unambiguous state of affairs. University management in the UK is already suffering from a very serious PR problem thanks to scandals about vice-chancellor pay and expenses. The cultural politics of that issue are far from obviously aligned with the interests being defended by the UCU in its campaign for secure pensions (remember, the same person who thinks that levels of VC pay is a scandal also thinks that academics’ spend half their time on holiday, which is another way of saying we are underworked and overpaid). This dispute, however enlivening and affirming for all of those involved in it, is taking place in a context in which a decadent and decaying Tory government is intent on forcing through a series of ill-considered structural changes to higher education, including revisions to student fee systems, intrusive regulatory regimes (TEF, again), heightened competition by allowing ‘new entrants’, and further compromising the autonomy and integrity of research at the altar of ‘innovation’ and ‘regional growth’ and ‘impact’ and ‘global challenges’. For an entire culture of higher education senior management and leadership to have been so thoroughly delegitimized in the eyes of those who, remember, do all the teaching and deliver all that research excellence, is in this wider context a far from unambiguous process. There is, after all, nothing about ‘crisis’ situations that tends naturally to encourage progressive outcomes. This is a moment for heightened vigilance not only towards the unfolding of this particular dispute but also of the ways in which this dispute might be spun and appropriated by various interested on-lookers.

The ‘crisis’ that the current dispute over pensions represents is, one might suggest, in no small part an effect of a systematic form of hubris shared across a whole stratum of University managers, a stratum which has for more than two decades happily embraced and promoted the idea that Universities can do everything – deliver social mobility, help drive national economic growth and technological innovation and revive productivity, generate cultural diversity and creativity, anchor local and regional dynamism, and various other functions too. Taking on these undeniably public responsibilities has, however, been associated not only with the adoption of particular models of University financing but also with the consolidation of ill-starred systems of centralised and hierarchical management that are, in practice, at odds with the fundamentally pluralistic qualities of the modern University. There is behind all of these issues a series of questions about the opacity and unaccountability of University governance, beyond and above questions about the management of Universities, that too often remain hidden from view – time for the co-operative University, anyone?



Why We Strike

My colleagues and I all received a sombre message from our Vice-Chancellor yesterday, informing us all that the position of the academic’s union, the UCU, on the future of the nation-wide pension scheme, around which quite drastic industrial action is taking place from today, is actually based on us not really understanding the complexity of pension financing. Because news travels slowly to Devon, of course, our VC seems to assume that no-one down these parts has noticed that a significant number of his VC peers from other Universities (Warwick for example, or Essex, to pick just a couple) around the country have very publicly dissented from the UUK-party line on the un-sustainability of the current system. Perhaps unintentionally – or perhaps it’s just a lack of shame, because there is certainly a patronising tone of tut-tutting about how senior University managers pretend to know better than everyone else about complex finance questions (that’s why they HAVE to be on those remunerations committees, I guess) – the University of Exeter’s line, repeated in this VC message but already circulated to students over the last week, manages to say out loud what is at the heart of the dispute – a fundamental commitment by a powerful fraction of UUK to disinvest in uniformly high quality pay and conditions across the sector: Exeter’s VC claims that the “additional cost” to the University that would be involved in committing to sustain a version of the current pensions system “would inevitably result in a reduction to our resources, and would limit our ability to deliver our key missions around research and education as well as our ability to invest in, and improve, the facilities we provide.” Or, to put it another way, investment in quality provision for all academic staff is no longer considered a worthy cost contributing to delivering the “key missions around research and education” of a University like Exeter, and especially not if it interferes with the scope for somewhat unaccountable senior University management groups to invest in “facilities”, otherwise known as speculative vanity projects. Because everyone knows that the quality of the education provided by a University is a direct function of the shininess of its buildings, not the degree of investment or respect extended to academic staff.