“We are the Lions, Mr Vice-Chancellor!”

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“We are the Lions, Mr Manager!” is a brilliant play by Townsend Theatre Productions currently touring the UK about the 1976-78 Grunwick Film Processing Factory Strike and its equally brilliant leader Jayaben Desai.

As Linda McDowell and colleagues explain, “after a long day’s work in the cramped and poorly ventilated space where the photographs were collated and packed”, Desai, in response to a “demand to work beyond her core hours with no notice” walked out of the Grunwick factory in protest. By the following Monday morning, “an additional 132 workers failed to show up for work, all of whom were sacked when they demanded union recognition”.

“The Grunwick strike has become a persistent myth in the British labour movement. It is a mythical story of brave, fragile women, recent in-migrants to the UK, exploited and oppressed not only by capitalism but also by patriarchy at home and in the workplace and by the consequences of post-colonialism that saw them expelled from East Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who nevertheless became the active participants in strike action.

“The cause of these women workers – low-paid factory workers, processing the holiday photographs of the more affluent British working class – was taken up by the union movement as a grand struggle about workers’ rights to join a trade union and by the women’s movement as a valiant struggle against patriarchal power. At its height, several thousands of industrial workers – miners, postmen, electricians and other representatives of the then industrial, dominantly male, working class as well as a range of other supporters ranging from women’s groups to left-wing activists – were involved in mass picketing.

“The strikers ultimately lost, but the strike has become constructed as an iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.”

As I watched the Townsend play in Coventry last week, organised by Coventry Trades Union Council with the support of the local trade union and labour movement, I was struck by the similarities to a struggle that is currently being waged in the city between Coventry University and its University and College Union (UCU) branch, over the right of staff in one of the University’s wholly-owned subsidiaries – CU Coventry – to be collectively recognised by the union.

Firstly, a large proportion of the staff in CU Coventry – which offers no-frills “life shaped learning” to students who don’t necessarily want the traditional model of campus-based, full-time education with the £9,000 price tag that goes with it – come from minority ethnic groups and are on precarious contracts.

Secondly, the working conditions more accurately resemble a sweat shop than a college or university, with staff working long hours with a heavy teaching load – what Desai described in her context as ‘forced overtime’ – low pay relative to unionised colleagues in universities and high levels of management bullying and intimidation.

Thirdly, and most importantly, in response to staff in the University’s subsidiaries self-organising with the help of UCU, demanding their legal right to union recognition, the University is trying by any means necessary to prevent these workers from having collective representation.

For the last three years, Coventry University UCU has been fighting for recognition in the University’s subsidiaries where teaching is taking place. Two years ago, the union successfully balloted English pre-sessional teachers in another subsidiary, CU Services, gaining statutory recognition with an impressive 100% yes vote on a 76% turnout.

However, just two weeks later, the University sacked all these English teachers, forcing them to re-apply for their jobs via another subsidiary, this time a student temping agency ‘thefutureworks’. After a painful and highly-public campaign by the UCU – with the University’s employment practices being compared by Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian to that of Sports Direct – these teachers were reinstated on their original contracts and with their recognition agreement in place.

Meanwhile, the local UCU branch has also been for the last two years been working with colleagues in CU Coventry to get union recognition. Earlier this year, the union had the support it needed to go through the statutory route and sat down with management to discuss voluntary recognition, only to find that the University had six months previously registered its own staff consultative forum – intentionally set up to undermine the union’s growing influence in the subsidiary – as a trade union and voluntarily recognised it for the purposes of collective bargaining.

This kind of premeditated union-busting behaviour is literally unprecedented in higher education, and has been seen only rarely in the private sector, for example in the recent case of Boots Pharmacy, which also recognised its own staff association to prevent the Pharmaceutical Defence Association (PDA) going through the statutory route.

Since this development, the UCU has launched a national campaign to shame the University into de-recognising its staff consultative forum – under the hashtag banner #CovUniShame – and to grant its employees their legitimate and legal right to be collectively represented by whatever union they wish.

Again, like Desai and the Grunwick strikers, the brave and determined education workers at CU Coventry have enjoyed fantastic support from local politicians, with local MP Jim Cunningham slamming the University’ behaviour in a public statement and submitting an Early Day Motion in Parliament. The EDM now has over 25 signatures, including Jack Dromey, MP for Erdington in Birmingham, who played such a pivotal role in supporting Desai and the Grunwick strikers

Although the campaign at CU Coventry hasn’t had quite the same level of backing from the trade union movement – it is early days, and there has been massive support from within UCU, from other branches across the UK as well as the national executive – a demonstration on the 16 May (3pm Broadgate) coinciding with a meeting of Coventry University’s Board of Governors, like the mass pickets at Grunwick in June 1977, may present the perfect opportunity.

 

Sweat shop university

At a deeper level, it is the similarities between CU Coventry as an institution and the Grunwick factory that are not only striking, but also disturbing, revealing much about the state of higher education today.

Coventry University has pioneered the use of subsidiary companies to create for-profit higher education within not just a still quasi-public sector – with the taxpayers effectively subsidising the student fees and loans system through the amount written off after 30 years (the so called RAB charge) – but within a single charitable institution.

Alongside CU Coventry, the CU Group, which could be described as a ‘super-subsidiary’, also includes for-profit colleges in Scarborough and London. All these subsidiaries are 100% owned by the University as sole shareholder, and have members of the Coventry University senior management team as directors and board members. All profits of these subsidiary colleges – which have proved to be very lucrative, with CU Coventry registering a post-tax profit of £3.8 million in 2016 – are then ‘gift-aided’ to the University at the end of the financial year.

All of this is perfectly legal, although ethically questionable. UK charity law encourages the creation of for-profit subsidiaries, so that charities can engage in business activities not directly related to its primary purpose, if the profits made as part of these activities are then redirected to this purpose. However, it states clearly on the UK Government website, “trading subsidiaries must be used for non-primary purpose trades involving significant risk” (emphasis added).

In the case of the Coventry University, its for-profit subsidiaries are engaging in the charities primary purpose. Furthermore, these activities – through the union-busting that the University itself argues is necessary for the ‘business model’ of these subsidiaries to be viable – are in a serious way undermining the reputation of the registered, tax-exempt charitable owner.

As the UK Government advice to trustees makes very clear, “trustees of charities with one or more trading subsidiaries need to be aware of their responsibilities”. The primary responsibility of any charity trustee is to “avoid exposing the charity’s assets, beneficiaries or reputation to undue risk”. The Government continues that trustees “need to remember, in all decisions made regarding a trading subsidiary”, that “the interests of the charity are paramount”, and that the interests of a trading subsidiary, its directors, creditors or employees, “must all be secondary to those of the charity”.

“This is because the purpose of using a trading subsidiary is to benefit the charity in some way, for example to protect the charity’s assets from the risks of trading, or to increase the level of financial return to the charity by saving tax. If the charity’s assets are employed or put at risk for the benefit of the subsidiary, or its directors, creditors or employees then that purpose is frustrated. In such cases, the trustees of the charity may be personally liable for any loss of, or decline in value of, the charity’s assets.”

By not just endorsing but actively scheming against union recognition, the trustees of Coventry University have clearly vacated this responsibility. But where does this drive to experiment with subsidiaries come from? What was wrong with just offering quality higher education through the Coventry University charitable vehicle, which, after all, has won numerous awards over the last few years for teaching excellence and student experience?

 

Universities as TNCs

Much has been written on the ‘marketisation’ of higher education since the Tories began their “great university gamble” in 2010. For almost a decade now, they have been aggressively deregulating the English higher education system (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved responsibilities for this sector, and in Scotland in particular, deregulation has not been pursued with anywhere near the same vigour), beginning with drastic cuts to public funding, replacing the university teaching grant with direct funding through the ‘income-contingent’ student fees and loans system, and legislating for the easier entrance of new, for-profit ‘alternative providers’.

Critics often counter the arguments of free market ideologues – like former Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, and chair of the higher education regulatory body, the Office for Students, Michael Barber – for increased competition, which is said with almost religious fervour and faith to “drive up quality”, with a defence of the public university system, which is now viewed with the rosy spectacles of hindsight.

However, to obsess about the dangers of competition and to moan about the power of students to hold their ‘service providers’ to account is not only to leave oneself open to accusations of conservativism and the defence of narrow interests – what Willetts calls “producer power” –  but also to misrecognise both the origins of marketisation and its ultimate direction of travel.

Marketisation really began in the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher. As part of the Higher and Further Education Act 1992, polytechnics – public institutions for higher learning created out of the democratic optimism of the 1960s – were made into universities. While this represented an important move away from the ‘binary divide’ in elite and mass higher education, through ‘incorporation’, the ‘norms’ of corporate capitalism were introduced into the system.

Polytechnics became ‘higher education corporations’ with a ‘chief executive’ officer at the helm, governed by boards dominated by a business consensus of white, male, corporate ‘lay’ elites. The Act also abolished academic tenure – a core pillar of academic freedom – and subordinated academic self-governance to neutered ‘academic boards’ with little say over the direction of travel of these increasingly competition-obsessed institutions.

Vice-chancellors of traditional, elite universities subsequently started to become envious of the executive power and freedom of their ex-poly colleagues, and began to emulate their peers, replacing academic self-governance with ‘new public management’ and capturing power and monetary reward for themselves.

Combined with savage cuts to higher education funding under Thatcher – while the system continued to expand – university leaders increasingly pushed for marketisation ‘from below’. The 2010 reforms, therefore, were merely the completion and acceleration of tendencies already present (which may partly explain why there was not more resistance from both vice chancellors and academics to market reform).

But the crucial thing to understand is where this is all heading. Willetts and Barber say they want a market in which institutions respond to the needs and demands of students, shedding the clunky baggage of traditional universities to concentrate on a ‘unique selling point’: no frills, elite, cool, luxury, etc. But in fact, as evidenced by Willetts’ memoirs of his time as Minister ‘A University Education’, what they know will really happen is a rapid consolidation of this market in which the big fish swallow up the small, with those that do not play the game falling by the way side in a race for monopolisation.

Coventry University, then, is merely ‘playing the game’, rigged by neoliberal reformers in favour of monopolisation. The subsidiary/group model that Coventry University is using to exploit its staff and outmanoeuvre union recognition is in fact a model straight out of the private sector. It is also a model – an experiment that the University of Central Lancashire tried first, before the reality of reputational damage made them reverse course – which allows subsidiaries in foreign countries to be created, by-passing even the basic UK labour rights that even CU Group must respect.

This is the future of higher education, not just in England, but in the US too. Universities as ‘trans-national corporations’, loyal to no community, happy to outsource labour costs to developing countries, with ‘lecture-capture’ and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) providing the technological infrastructure to scale up the ‘no frills’ CU Coventry model for the creation of super-profit.

 

Why should you care?

If you are an academic, you should care because this could be your future, sooner than you think. No one has counted how many universities use subsidiaries, but from a preliminary search on Google, it looks like most of them. In many cases, these subsidiaries are being used for what they were intended, non-primary trading. It seems that only the most ‘entrepreneurial’ of the post-92 universities have experimented with for-profit teaching subsidiaries. But you can bet, as the history of marketisation above indicates, if there is a surplus to be made, others will follow suit.

If you are a UCU activist – and if you are an academic and not yet a member of UCU, now really is the time to join – you should care because the struggle at Coventry University is a struggle over the future of the union. Aside from the outright attack on UCU and unions in general that the creation of this sham union represents, the use of subsidiaries to by-pass collective bargaining and national framework agreements means, in the long-run, a shrinking core of traditional academic staff and a growing army of de-professionalised, non-unionised, casualised ‘workers’ in the periphery.

If you are a member of a community surrounding a university, you should care because the somewhat uneven economic benefit that these growing universities provide is increasingly being directed away from the community. The gentrification that comes with university expansion in local areas creates not just fashionable shops, cafés and craft beer bars but also unsustainable hikes in rent and house prices for ordinary people and relentless pressure on public services already subject to massive cuts, with universities, students and student-housing landlords not contributing anything to these communities through the tax system.

As we know from 30 years of neoliberalism, multi-national corporations are loyal to no-one, they will move production to wherever is cheapest, with the subsidiary model, in conjunction with technological rationalisation, as argued above, providing the ideal means of shifting universities overseas to where labour rights and land-access are least protected. Tory reformers are incredibly naïve and short-sighted in thinking that if they help create English educational corporations they will stay in the country and contribute to the regeneration of our stagnating post-crisis economy.

But most disturbing is the fact that with the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act – rushed through Parliament just before the snap election the same year – universities can fail, with no guarantee of a government bailout. As Willetts has suggested, rather than direct government support, most likely profit-driven multinational corporations – not necessary educational – would be courted by government to come in and ‘save’ these HEIs. All the public wealth and civic space attached to them would also be handed over, and there would be even less concern for the welfare of local communities.

For post-industrial cities like Coventry, almost anything would be better than a return to the past. As Coventry-based The Specials famously sang: “This town, is coming like a ghost town/All the clubs have been closed down/Bands won’t play no more/Too much fighting on the dance floor”. I remember what this was like, growing up in the city during the 1980s.

But we can prevent this from happening again by drawing a line in the sand. No more union busting, no more marketisation. We need to support our brave and determined colleagues in CU Coventry before it’s too late.

“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr. Manager!”

 

 

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