Successive waves of strikes on behalf of students and academics demonstrate that higher education in the United Kingdom is at breaking point. The inordinate cost of attending university, coupled with the structural dynamics that leave teaching staff exploited, precarious, and burnt out, combine to produce a system that is fundamentally unsustainable. It’s time for those in charge to go back to the drawing board to consider how universities can help solve economic, social, and environmental challenges, rather than add to them.
UK higher education is in crisis. Since 2018, the University and College Union (UCU), the main trade union representing academics, has been engaged in an industrial dispute over pensions, pay, workloads, gender equality, and casualisation. Unresponsive senior managers are facing an exodus of workers, with the union reporting almost two thirds of university staff as saying they are likely to leave the sector. In February 2022, vice-chancellors gutted academics’ pensions, with cuts averaging over 33 per cent. It is no surprise that growing numbers no longer see the profession as compatible with sustainable career progression, healthy working conditions, and good workplace wellbeing.
This systemic exploitation of workers is symptomatic of the intense commodification of education in the UK (and beyond). This pernicious process threatens the capacity of universities and their staff to nurture the critical thinking required to generate appropriate and rapid responses to the planetary emergency. While universities were historically the birthplaces of ground-shaking movements for social justice, today their continued subsumption into the machinery of neoliberal capitalism seriously undermines this potential.
The transformation sets a dangerous precedent. British universities are becoming less a space to discover and develop alternative ideas and more places producing knowledge that supports rather than challenges the status quo. But the commodification of education was not inevitable: it was a political choice.
As of May 2022, the current academic year has seen three rounds of strikes across many UK universities. These actions represent a significant loss of income for striking staff and have resulted in growing tensions with non-striking colleagues. As their demands are ignored, staff members involved in industrial action are being forced to consider increasingly disruptive tactics. Many branches have already voted to implement marking and assessment boycotts, which could result in students not progressing or graduating. Meanwhile, a flood of resignations from external examiner roles is raising pressure on senior management in a show of intervarsity solidarity. When not on strike, academics simply working to the terms of their employment contracts and no more has illustrated the extent to which universities have for too long relied on a “goodwill” exchange of uncompensated labour.
The exploitation of university workers is consistent with some of the most extractive neoliberal business models. In England, the average salary of a university vice-chancellor is disproportionately large at 296,000 pounds [348,000 euros], while unrealistic workloads mean that some casualised lecturers in the same institutions are paid below the minimum wage. Two thirds of these top jobs are filled by men and, at the current rate of change, it will take another two decades to achieve gender equality. Many female academics believe that even their unions are not doing enough to resolve this long-standing injustice. These structural inequalities only exacerbate the issues of pay, workload and precarity for Black and minority ethnic academics, for whom the chances of securing senior positions are significantly lower than for their white colleagues.
This pervasive austerity is not about saving money; rather, it is rooted in a neoliberal politics that puts economic productivity above all else. Restructuring the UK’s university sector in recent years has allowed it to generate an immense 46.8 billion pounds [55 billion euros] in reserves. Yet chronically overworked and underpaid staff are increasingly disillusioned with conditions that undermine their ability to educate students in meaningful ways. This conveyor-belt approach to higher education is not conducive to forging the deeply innovative and reflexive work needed across all disciplines to respond to the imminent and long-term threats posed by the planetary emergency.