Guest Post: Ten reasons why USS is a scandal waiting to bite back


Sam Marsh, Sheffield UCU, follows up on his earlier post for HE Marketisation (6 November 2017), giving 10 reasons why USS is a “scandal waiting to bite back”. The University and College Union will announce the results of its national ballot for strike action in response to the threat from universities to end guaranteed pension benefits on 19 January. 


If you’re reading this, you probably know that there’s a lot of fuss over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension fund for academic and related staff at some of the biggest universities in the country. You’ve probably heard that things aren’t as black and white as some would lead you to believe. But what is it that’s getting people upset? Quite simply, the process of determining the health of the fund appears to be rotten. Here are ten reasons why you might consider what’s happening to be close to scandalous.


Reason 1: a huge best-estimate surplus

As part of their 2017 valuation, USS included a `best-estimate’ of the fund’s health. The result was quite startling. On this measure, they hold a huge surplus, significantly over £8bn. That’s more than £20k for every USS member. And this figure is up on 2014, where it has recently been admitted that the scheme held a £3.5bn best-estimate surplus.


Source: USS 2017 Actuarial Valuation, September 2017


Reason 2: we’re probably overpaying for the current benefits

The 2017 valuation also included a best-estimate for how much of our salaries needs putting aside to secure the current benefits. Our current contributions of 18% for employers and 8% for employees turn out to be a significant over-payment, with USS estimating that 22.5% in total would be sufficient.


Source: USS 2017 Actuarial Valuation, September 2017


Reason 3: ‘de-risking’ causes all the problems

Much has been made by USS of the need to de-risk the scheme, with plans to sell off growth assets (equities, property etc) and replace them with low return investments such as government bonds, in order to ‘match liabilities’’ Much less has been made of the fact that this de-risking is responsible for almost all of the deficit, and that canceling it would allow benefits to remain unchanged at the current contribution rate.

Source: Letter to Sir Keith Burnett by Sheffield UCU, 29 November 2017


Reason 4: de-risking is hugely expensive

Using USS’s projections for investment returns, we can compare the asset growth both with and without the de-risking plans. And the results aren’t pretty. The de-risking is expected to cost universities an eye-watering £11bn over the next 20 years. This will come in the form of increased employer contributions, and will almost certainly be found by squeezing the amount being paid towards future pension benefits.

asset growth.jpg

Source: data based on figures from USS’s Actuarial Valuations, available on Sheffield UCU’s USS: 2017 valuation resources page


Reason 5: the de-risking doesn’t reduce risk!

The most shocking thing about the plans to de-risk investments comes from the graphs below, taken from a USS presentation to Imperial College. The graphs show that, 10 years into the future, the de-risking offers almost no protection against adverse events. Here, the figures for the worst 1% of possibilities (next to the ‘99%’ arrow) are extremely similar whether de-risking or not. In other words, the risk has barely been reduced by the costly change to investment plans. Inexplicably, universities had not been shown this information when they were consulted on how much de-risking they thought appropriate.


Source: USS presentation to Imperial, November 2017


Reason 6: USS have been resistant to showing their workings

In September, USS sent its draft valuation to universities, but had no plans to release it publicly. After significant pressure from USS members, including a petition signed by almost 2,000, the draft valuation finally entered the public domain, courtesy of the University of Sheffield. Unfortunately, the document still left plenty of unanswered questions, with the justifications for the assumptions offered way below academic standards.


Source: ‘Academics urge universities’ pension fund to explain shortfall‘, Josephine Cumbo, Financial Times, 19 September 2017


Reason 7: the Pensions Regulator intervened at a crucial point

Just as USS started consulting with universities over the draft valuation, the Pensions Regulator wrote an explosive letter to the USS trustee board questioning their assessment of the robustness of the university sector. This intervention, while not publicly released, was passed to universities as they were forming their responses, and is mentioned explicitly in some of their submissions. It may well have contributed to the calls for increased de-risking that Universities UK (UUK) say characterised the responses.


Source: ‘UK universities retirement fund `weaker’ than claimed, fears watchdog‘, Josephine Cumbo, Financial Times, 11 October 2017


Reason 8: closing the defined benefit scheme could cause spiraling costs

Counter-intuitively, USS is more stable as an ongoing scheme than if its defined benefit section is closed. Presently, USS has more coming in each month than it pays out (positive cash flow), and is forecast to do so far into the future. Closing the scheme will quickly push it into negative cash flow, at which point assets must be cashed in to pay benefits. The result will be increasing pressure to de-risk as the scheme winds down, which will lead to increasing costs. Warnings of taking such an approach have come from Ros Altman (former pensions minister) and Brian Souter (President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland) among others.


Source: Sir Brian Souter, BBC Today Programme, 4 December


Reason 9: UUK tried to spin the effects of their proposal on income

After Universities UK tabled a proposal in November to close the defined benefit section of USS, it was inevitable that people would want to know the effect on their retirement income. After a significant delay, UUK released modelling in December which, they claimed, showed that people would receive 80-90% of what they would under the previous arrangements. Unfortunately, this modelling was a masterpiece in spin, with investment forecasts used which were significantly higher than those in the USS valuation (and which would show a surplus if applied there!) along with a host of other sleights of hand. Un-spinning the proposals shows that 50-75% would have been a more accurate claim.


Source: UUK can’t transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse, Mike Otsuka, 13 December 2017


Reason 10: much better solutions are available

Even accepting some of the dubious calculations and de-risking plans, there are much, much better solutions than that which Universities UK is painting as the only option. Defined benefits could be retained with a small increase in contributions subject to slightly reduced terms. UUK could rethink their requests for heavy de-risking and hence keep the costs down. Thinking longer-term, solutions could be found which look towards collective defined contribution, a way of fairly apportioning all proceeds of a fund’s growth to the members of the scheme. It is worth noting that this final approach seems to have broken a deadlock in the dispute over pensions in Royal Mail, which for a long time appeared to be heading nowhere.


Source: ‘How UUK’s pension proposal could be greatly improved on, at no cost or risk to employers‘, Mike Otsuka, 26 November 2017


So there we have it. Whether or not this valuation ends up widely acknowledged as a scandal, time will tell. But Universities UK have done serious damage to their reputation by attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of their staff. And it’s hard to see how that won’t bite them back.


More resources

The Sheffield UCU 2017 Valuation Resources page:


Willetts the Conqueror: Introduction


Before Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah, there was David Willetts. As the Minister of State for Universities and Science from 2010 until 2014, under the Tory-led ‘coalition’ government, Willetts oversaw the introduction of a market into the English higher education system – often referred to as ‘marketisation’. As a result, he has become a somewhat hated figure for those who have had to suffer the consequences of this ‘experiment’ in HE reform, so much so that Willetts has often been on the receiving end of protests and abuse from those studying and working in the sector.

In his recently published memoir-cum-rationalisation ‘A University Life’ (1), Willetts recounts one of the ‘saddest experiences’ of his time as Minister, when he was trying to deliver a lecture on the benefits of ‘unleashing the forces of consumerism’ at the University of Cambridge, only to be ‘shouted down by angry students chanting that they were not consumers’ (p. 279). This is only one of many anecdotes in the book pointing to the massive (justifiable) resistance and anger that Willetts faced while rolling out his reforms.

To say I had mixed feelings when reviewing this book is somewhat of an understatement. I was studying for my undergraduate degree when the Financial Crisis 2008-9 hit, and when I graduated I spent two years unemployed in London. In order to ride out the storm, I started a Masters degree in 2010, the year that marketisation began. After finishing my Masters I managed to scrape a few hours as an hourly-paid lecturer (while holding various other part-time jobs to make ends meet), and have been on such a contract ever since.

I expected to hate the book, for it to be simply an ideological expression of ‘neoliberalism’, an apologetics for the destruction of a world-leading system of public higher education, a justification for the privatisation of yet another institution of the welfare state. It is, in fact, all of these things. However, I found to my surprise that – up to a point – the book was also very readable, with Willetts portraying himself as someone who meant well – the book begins with the statement ‘I love universities’ – and to some extent, meticulously researched.

It is important to give credit where its due, and to note that Willetts genuinely believed and stands by what he did as universities Minister:

‘The system of fees and loans has now been operating for over a decade. It has been a conspicuous success – broadening participation in higher education, bringing more funds to university education, and saving public money. Taking most of higher education out of public spending has led to the removal of direct controls set by Government on student numbers university by university. Sweeping away those absurd controls away is one of the great social reforms of the Coalition Government and it was fitting that we should announce that policy in 2013, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Robbins report.’ (p. 86)

This quote conveys how Willetts sees himself as a great emancipator, comparing himself (by implication) in the book to not just Lord Lionel Robbins, but also to figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, William Gladstone and Margaret Thatcher. What these figures all have in common is a war against various forms of what Willetts calls ‘producer power’: the absolutist medieval state, the Oxbridge ‘duopoly’ and the trade unions (respectively).

Rather than destroying the HE system, Willetts considers that he ‘saved’ it from the cuts. As will be argued in Pt 1 of this Review that will be published in four instalments over the coming fortnight, he wilfully ignores the origins of these cuts in the Tory austerity agenda, the Financial Crisis and a long history of Thatcherite privatisation that Willetts’ marketisation is in fact the completion of. Nevertheless, he is immensely proud that he was ‘able to deliver one of the single biggest cuts in public spending of the Coalition whilst at the same time increasing the total cash going to universities for teaching and access by £1.5 billion’ (p. 67). ‘That’s not bad’, he concludes.

Willetts the conqueror of bad monopolies – as will be argued below, for neoliberals monopoly is ok as long as it results from ‘market-like’ competition – delivered the ‘necessary’ cuts while increasing funding per student. But more importantly, he found a way to abolish the student numbers cap and achieve what no other UK Government had achieved, not even Labour under Tony Blair: mass higher education. Let’s not dwell for too long on the £50,000 debt that students now leave university with or the infamous and ever-rising RAB charge – which measures how close the reforms get to costing the Government as much as the publicly-funded system that preceded it (a point to be covered in Pt. 4 of the Review).

At first glance, the book seems to be irredeemably beset by contradiction. Again, it is full of contradictions, but there is an underlying ideology that gives it a coherence and that reveals the not so innocent neoliberal political project that Willetts conveniently erases from the book. Willetts surprisingly admits that the market in HE has not appeared and cannot, due to the nature of the income-contingent loans system (see HE Marketisation, 29 October 2017). In retrospect, he also concedes that his claim in 2010 that £9000 fees would be ‘exceptional’ was ‘a mistake – a wrong forecast based on a false analysis’ (p. 83). Willetts reveals that it was this claim that led to the widespread belief that the ‘reforms should generate price competition or they would have failed’ (p. 83).

However – and this seems a little far-fetched, as he was the architect of the fees and loans system – Willetts realised that what ‘really mattered’ for students ‘was the repayment formula not the fee level’. It then it became ‘clear’, he writes, that there would not and should not be much price competition’ (p. 83). This was because students, who in most cases would never pay back the full amount and never saw the money itself, did not treat the £9000 fee as a price, and therefore were not prompted to behave like rational, cost-benefit maximising consumers. In one of the many moments of humility running through the book, he reveals that this lack of price competition was a ‘terrible let-down’ for some of his Tory peers (p. 84).

Yet when he writes about ’empowering the student as consumer’, Willetts argues that marketisation ‘harnesses the power of choice and competition’ to drive up quality (the question of consumerism and quality will be addressed in Pt. 2 of the Review). I originally approached the book with a very simple research question: is Willetts an ‘idiot’ (sorry David, I can’t think of a gentler way to put this) who genuinely believes in the power of competition, or is he a cynic that expounds what Philip Mirowski (2) calls neoliberal ‘double truth’ to hide the harsh reality of corporate asset-stripping of previously state-protected public goods? This question followed from my other work on HE and monopoly capitalism theory, which argues competition is only a momentary reorganisation of a wider oligopolistic corporate capitalist system looking for a temporary boost to stagnating profits overall (HE Marketisation, 10 December 2017).

The answer is quite simple: Willetts is in fact a textbook neoliberal. As Will Davies (3) has shown, the key to the shift from liberal to neoliberal economic theory lay in the latter’s acceptance of monopoly as the successful outcome of competition, not as an example of ‘market failure’, as the former believed. The monopolist is the entrepreneur (individual or firm) that has played the game well, the ability to control prices the reward. But monopoly is only ever temporary – it is always possible for another entrepreneur or firm to play the game better and gain temporary advantage – or in some rare cases, rewrite the rules completely (often referred to as ‘disruption’). In an impressive about-face, neoliberalism ‘reconciled itself to monopoly and became its mightiest champion, despite its worldview—in theory—being based on a religious devotion to the genius of economically competitive markets’ (4).

Willetts seems to rehearse this journey from competition to monopoly through the course of the book, in the latter chapters admitting that the reason he ‘was so keen on promoting alternative providers’ was that he hoped ‘at least one big British based global higher education chain would emerge’ (Willetts p. 317). The justification for monopoly is couched in cliche-ridden theories of technological ‘disintermediation’, which propose, as all theories of disruption do, that the ‘creative destruction’ of traditional markets is inevitable and not a matter of politics at all.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the hope that the UK will produce HE oligopolies to rival those in the US is justified within a neo-colonial ‘ambition’ to ‘help to educate the world, drawing on the prestige of our education institutions and exams and the global role of our language’ (Willetts p. 319). All of these issues that centre on the idea of the university as trans-national corporation will be explored in Pt 3 of the Review.

So why read ‘A University Education’, if it is so ideological and self-congralutalory? Because, if read critically, it contains a lot of useful information about the history of universities, HE policy and the politics of knowledge production. It also clears up many of the common misunderstandings about income-contingent loans and the government accounting mechanisms behind them. But most importantly, it is the clearest expression of the principles of HE marketisation published so far, even more so than some of the best critiques (5). That is because it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

If you want to understand marketisation, this book is essential reading – especially for activists and trade unionists who are still dealing with the fallout of what is described. But more importantly, the book marks out the terrain of the battle against marketisation, and hopefully the forthcoming four parts of this critical Review in HE Marketisation will help sketch out a map for the war to come.


(1) Willetts, D. (2017) A University Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(2) Mirowski, P. (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. London: Verso

(3) Davies, W. (2016) The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: Sage

(4) Foster, J. B., McChesney, R. W. and Jonna, R. J. (2011) ‘Monopoly and Competition in Twenty-First Century Capitalism’, Monthly Review 62(11) {Online} Available from: [Last accessed 16 December 2017]

(5) See for example: McGettigan, A. (2013) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press

Governance as trade union strategy: Interview with Bath UCU’s Michael Carley


Building a focus on governance into local trade union strategy is a good way to create leverage for existing campaigns and bring them together under an over-arching narrative of democratisation, according to University of Bath University and College Union (UCU) branch president Michael Carley.

In an exclusive interview with HE Marketisation, Carley described how he has led his branch in fighting a long and highly successful governance campaign at Bath University, which recently resulted in the resignation of vice chancellor (VC) Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell.

Breakwell took early retirement after Bath UCU – working closely together with Unison and the Students’ Union branches at the University, as well as local politicians – revealed that she had not only been a member of the renumeration committee that approved her eye-watering £468,000 a year pay package, but had also tried to stop information about how her pay had been decided coming to light (HE Marketisation, 2 December 2017; 4 October 2017).

By requesting information through the 2000 Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and putting motions through the University’s Court – the statutory body representing the interests of the University’s internal and external constituencies – trade unions have been able to uncover shortcomings in governance.

Reflecting on the strategy behind the campaign at the University of Bath and what could be applied to similar campaigns at other HE institutions, Carley said activists and trade unionists should “look for contradictions” in governance and for when institutions were “not following their own rules.”

“Just pretend that governance really works and see how far you get,” Carley recommended. “And when you do you’ll run up against a brick wall in various places and then you see how it doesn’t function. If you make progress that’s great, but if you get blocked you can still use that as propaganda.”

Role of trade unions

The governance campaign at Bath University began with a Bath UCU ‘High Earners‘ report in June 2012, Carley noted.

In the report, Bath UCU pointed to the fact that Breakwell – who was appointed vice chancellor in 2001 – had received an “extra two pounds for every pound” staff had gained over the years in pay rises.

At the time of the report, Breakwell was ranked only 15th in the VC pay league table of UK higher education, compared to the number one position she held just before announcing her retirement.

The report also pointed to a lack of transparency at the level of governance.

In 2011, Bath UCU had sent a letter to chair of the University’s renumeration committee – which sets senior management pay – asking for the minutes of meetings for this committee, and for there to be ordinary members of staff on the membership of this committee.

The University refused Bath UCU’s request. Four months later, Bath UCU found out that the renumeration committee had approved an aggregate pay rise of 5.76% for senior management, 10 times the rise that the rest of staff had received during the same period.

The problem, for Bath UCU, was that the renumeration committee acted on “delegated authority”, which meant that the full Council did not make the decision about senior pay, but rather handed over full authority to some of its members on a Council subcommittee.

It was this discovery that the renumeration committee was operating with no oversight from the council that led Bath UCU into what Carley described as the “rabbit hole” of governance.

Furthermore, while this subcommittee “reported a decision”, Carley added, it did so “without any real minutes”.

“You have a serious problem with governance when governors – people in charge of running the university who have a legal responsibility for doing what they do – can’t do their job properly because the governing body refuses to provide the information justifying its decisions.”

In the absence of such information, Carley argued that trade unions could play a crucial role in occupying the democratic space vacated by faulty governing bodies.

Reports and pamphlets analysing finances and governance processes are not just useful for raising awareness of potential issues with union members, but also for bringing together the “meat and potatoes” work of a trade union branch within a wider political narrative, Carley added.

“The fact that we were putting a pamphlet together, getting the work done, putting the numbers together,” Carley said, “began laying the groundwork for the governance campaign at Bath.”

Pamphlets and reports can also be supported with innovative promotional campaigns.

For example, Bath UCU created a tear off postcard to promote its ‘High Earners’ report, which could be used to write to the chair of Bath University’s governing council – who was also the chair of the renumeration committee – asking for transparency and the publication of minutes of the committee.

“Because the postcard was printed on yellow paper,” Carley added, “our Unison colleagues in the post room were able to tell us roughly how many were going through, because they just stood out in the internal mail.”

Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 also became an important weapon for Bath UCU in its developing governance campaign, Carley said.

“We started learning how to use FOI Act well,” Carley added. “It’s a useful skill, especially using refusal to give information as well as the information you get. If you chase through an Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the very end you’ll always dig up something.”

The Freedom of Information Act gives the public the right to see all kinds of information held by public authorities – a category that still includes colleges and universities – and activists can use the Act to uncover information not necessarily published as a matter of course.

The Act states that public authorities must maintain a ‘publication scheme’, which lists all the classes of information an authority voluntarily makes public, how this information is made available and details of any charges made to this information.

However, if the information needed is not available via an institution’s publication scheme, the second provision of the Act allows information to be requested in the public interest.

Public authorities are then required to respond within 20 working days, confirming or denying whether the information requested is held, and either providing the information or explaining why it has not been provided, quoting one or more of the exemptions in the Act (e.g. that disclosure would damage commercial interests, or prejudice health and safety).

But even if the information is claimed by an institution to be exempt from the Act, activists and trade unionists can still apply to the Information Commissioner for a review, and in some cases exempt information may have to be disclosed in the public interest.

“It takes a lot of time, you need patience,” Carley warned.

“Universities try to play silly games when they send stuff back, they might for example answer precisely the question you asked very pedantically, but they know damned well what you are asking for,” he added. “So the way you phrase your questions and the way you break your requests down into very tight categories is really important. And you just keep digging away at it.”

“For example, I was informed that council was seeing misled about the implementation of the living wage, and they were being told that it couldn’t be done because it would be breaking out of the national framework agreement – which was just not true.”

“I asked as a member of the governing body for the evidence that was presented and was told that I wasn’t going to get that information, so I went to the information commissioner and then I ended up going right up to the tribunal.”

“When you appeal to the information commissioner they make a decision, but when you appeal that decision you are taking the information commissioner to court. At this point you get this bundle of evidence sent to you in the post, with all the internal documents that were used to justify why the University would not release the information.”

Joint union work

Carley also pointed to the importance of working with other recognised unions, such as Unison and Unite, and also the local Students’ Union (SU).

“We’ve always had good relations with the other unions here,” Carley noted. “There have never been any conflicts of interest with the other unions because we represent different staff groups.”

“We always try to meet together with the other unions before going in to a joint negotiating committee (JNC) meeting with management. If we present a united line, even if we are not all getting exactly what we want, we will all be a lot better off than if we let management split us off.”

“Management generally try to ignore us, but by working together with the other unions we have lines of communication that get us pretty much everywhere, so we try to put out joint statements that can go out to all staff groups where possible.”

When the governance campaign started to take off at Bath University and reach the national public sphere, Bath SU also began to get involved.

“Up until recently the SU at Bath was fairly neutral – Bath has never been a very political campus,” Carley noted. “However, in the last month or so they have been consulting the membership on governance issues.”

“The SU takes its mandate very seriously, so when we had the no confidence vote at the University’s Senate [the supreme academic authority responsible for regulating and directing the academic work of the University], we had four student representatives there and they said “we’ve been mandated, we’ve consulted, and we vote no confidence in the VC”.”

Before this, Bath UCU had been building links with students ever since the introduction of £9000 tuition fees in 2010. Carley said that it was at this point that students began to “align themselves consciously” with staff, as there was a shared and growing resentment towards and political consciousness about the marketisation of higher education.

However, many SUs remain a-political and in some cases even reactionary.

As Rachel Brooks, Kate Byford and Katherine Sela have argued – based on a UK-wide survey of students’ union officers and two focus groups at each of ten case-study higher education institutions – the role of SUs has changed significantly over the last few decades.

Within the context of marketisation in particular, SUs have moved from an adversarial relationship with senior management to a “co-operative” one, while at the same time taking on a “representative” rather than “activist” function for student members.

“The evidence provides some support for the arguments made by scholars that the student voice has become increasingly ‘domesticated’,” Brooks and colleagues concluded. “By focusing on representation, students’ union officers inevitably foreground issues that affect the day-to-day lives of students rather than broader political or social concerns that may be more aligned with an ‘activist’ agenda.”

“Moreover, the increasing convergence between the values and priorities of students’ unions and senior management (as a result of similar pressures coming to bear on both parties),” they added, “suggests that fewer spaces are now available within higher education institutions from which to offer a radical challenge to either local or national policy.”

In such situations where SUs are unsympathetic, Carley recommended that UCU branches could “build relationships with campaigning student groups”, which can then push forward solidarity agendas through formal student representative structures.

However, SUs and UCU branches must remain politically independent. “We don’t want to be interfering in the operations of students’ unions,” Carley stressed.

Bath goes public 

The governance campaign at Bath began to escalate significantly as local politicians became involved.

Councillor Joe Rayment –  Labour Party Deputy Group Leader for the Bath and North East Somerset (BNES) region – was a strong and consistently critical voice throughout the governance campaign at Bath University.

Cllr Rayment had worked at the University, was active in the Unison branch there and was also a UCU member, Carley pointed out. He had been pursuing the governance issue while at the University, and once elected to the BNES Council, continued to push the issue through local government channels.

When Bath UCU discovered that the University was paying £20,000 a year towards the upkeep of Prof Glynnis’ flat in Landsdown Cresent in the city of Bath, Cllr Rayment put in an FOI.

“It was a stroke of luck,” Carley commented. “Basically someone discovered that Bath University had paid employees at Landsdown Cresent, which was odd because there was no campus there, and then when Cllr Rayment put in an FOI all the stuff about the housekeeper etc came out.”

While living at the Landsdown Cresent property rent-free, Breakwell not only claimed £8,738 for a housekeeping and laundry service, but also claimed back £2 for a pack of biscuits.

“We knew about the house, but we did not know it was costing £20k a year in biscuits and gas,” he added. “That’s what took it up to another level.”

Significantly, this was also when the local Bath Chronicle newspaper began to take up the story and run with it. As a result of its coverage of the issue, the Chronicle was the only local paper nominated for national scoop of the year at the 2017 British Journalism awards.

Commenting on the nomination, Bath Chronicle reporter Sam Petherick said he was “over the moon” that a judging panel of more than 50 experienced journalists saw his story “as one of the biggest scoops of the year”.

“It has been an enormously rewarding story to work on over the past 12 months,” he added. “I’d like to say a huge thanks to my outstanding contacts who have provided countless quotes, Freedom of Information responses, tip-offs and encouragement.”

Bath Chronicle editor Gavin Thompson added: “This nomination for the Chronicle reiterates the important work done in local newsrooms on holding those in positions of power to account.”

Enter Adonis

The next thing that happened was the “notorious” meeting of the Bath University Court in February this year, Carley said.

In August, Dame Glynis Breakwell was accused of a ‘cover-up’ after a motion arguing for increased transparency on the university board’s renumeration committee was voted down by a margin of 33-30 (HE Marketisation, 4 October 2017).

Following the meeting, in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), Cllr Rayment had blown the whistle on what he described as “questionable” events that took place at the board meeting.

“Among those 33 voting against were: the vice chancellor, at least five others whose pay is set by the remuneration committee, and two other members of the remuneration committee,” Cllr Rayment revealed.

Reflecting on what happened, Carley noted that although the Court – the stakeholders’ body consisting of people from the institutions that accredit Bath University’s degrees, the emeritus professors, staff and student representatives – has “no real power”, one of its functions is to receive the University’s accounts.

A member of the Court had submitted a motion to “receive the accounts with concern”, Carley reported, because of the lack of transparency and the lack of justification with regards to how the VC’s pay for the year had been decided.

“You could see them visibly panic,” Carley remembered. “The meeting was appallingly chaired, it was dreadful.”

“Although the motion was defeated, we twigged afterwards that there were a whole bunch of people there who were either on the renumeration committee or were paid by it,” he added.

“By any other standing orders at the university they would have been expected to leave the room. Not just for the vote but leave the room while it was being discussed. They certainly would have had to declare an interest.”

At this point Lord Andrew Adonis intervened after noticing Bath University’s vice chancellor was the highest paid in the English higher education sector.

Despite describing himself as a “moving force” behind increase in fees to £3,000 when he was an adviser to Tony Blair in 2003, Lord Adonis has recently been on the warpath against the leaders of higher education institutions for “forming a cartel” and charging as much as the Government would allow.

Alongside Cllr Rayment’s letter, Adonis also complained to Hefce regarding what had happened at the meeting, calling for an investigation into allegations that the university overrode internal objections to Breakwell’s pay level.

“If the VC’s pay had been held down even by 1 or 2% over the last few years, none of this would have happened,” Carley commented. “A tiny bit of restraint would have been all it needed. But as it was, Adonis went for it.”

“A number of people were already feeding Adonis information,” Carley added. “When he found out what happened at the meeting, he thought “I’ll have them” and he shopped them to Hefce.”

“I think there are very worrying things that he is pushing for with universities, for example wanting to make post-92 universities into polytechnics again,” Carley warned. “But he’s absolutely right about this.”

Hefce published its report on 20 November. The report concluded: “While the remuneration committee meets the basic requirements of Hefce and the guidance issued by the Committee of University Chairs, the university has a significant distance to travel to open the [renumeration] committee’s work to legitimate scrutiny through enhancing its use of various measures of transparency.”

Crucially, the report pointed out that the University had been in breach of its own statutes – which provide the constitutional framework allowing universities to govern their own affairs independently – for 50 years.

“They probably thought it would never matter,” Carley reflected. “That is why it is worth treating the governance structures as if they really work.”

“I always liked the Charter 77 thing in Czechoslovakia,” he said, referring to a petition drawn up by a Czechoslovakian writers and intellectuals in 1989 demanding that the country’s Communist government recognise basic human rights.

“Formally you have all these rights and are covered by this governance structure, so why not just pretend that they really work and see how far you get?”

“Hefce actually noted this in their conclusions,” he added. “They noted that people had in good faith made representations for years through the proper channels and had been ignored.”


The University of Bath is now undertaking an “effectiveness review of governance”, Carley revealed, something the University had already committed to but was now being expanded in light of the Hefce report.

“They have to do it every few years,” he said. “The last one found that governance was ‘unsatisfactory’, so the University is now going to hire someone to do an independent assessment.”

As part of this independent review, Bath University announced that the academic senate would be involved, and could make recommendations to the University’s council.

However, Bath UCU intends to run its own “commission” in parallel to this management initiative, Carley revealed.

“We intend to hold hearings, take evidence and seek submissions and basically produce a detailed proposal for a set of governance structures,” Carley said. “That’s in the medium term.”

Realistically this process wouldn’t start that until the new year, Carley added. In the mean time Bath UCU are still conducting their own investigation into what actually happened with governance – particularly now that Breakwell is set to receive full pay until the start of March 2019 and a car loan write-off worth £31,000 as part of her retirmenet package (HE Marketisation, 2 December 2017).

“I think they still believe that they have some authority and they still believe that by going through a mechanical process they can go on doing what they are doing,” Carley commented. “What they do not understand is they have completely lost their authority – moral and formal authority. People are just not going to do what they are told.”

Editorial: The myth of the market

A perfect storm has been making its way through higher education (HE) in recent months. Excessive vice chancellor pay, an industrial dispute over the Universities Superannuation pension scheme (USS), an £800 million loss on the sale of the student loan book, questions about student value for money, and students having to go to food banks to be able to survive while at university.

But is this a moral panic? Yes, of course. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a genuine problem. The Tories rushed the 2017 Higher Education and Research Bill through Parliament – the crowning jewel of seven years of market reform – just before a snap election that turned out to be a spectacular fail.

Now the Tories are weak and are facing opposition on a variety of issues, not just from within Parliament (especially from a Corbyn-led Labour Party on the up and up) but also from the media – on both sides of the political spectrum.

The central problem that all of these painfully public crises point to is the failure of ‘marketisation’, which began in earnest seven years ago when David Cameron’s Coalition came into power: massive cuts to public funding of universities, the introduction of student fees and loans, and the entry of for-profit ‘alternative providers’.

Has any of this actually improved higher education? No. Students are now leaving university with £50,000 of debt (HE Marketisation, 27 October 2017) and the prospect of employment on a zero-hours contract or no contract at all in the ‘gig economy’.

Universities are still greedy for more income, leveraging decades – sometimes centuries – of history and reputation for risky bank loans in order to fund speculative fixed asset investments.


Point the finger

So who is to blame? The vice chancellors? Not really (bear with me). Jo Johnson, current Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation? Not entirely. David Willetts, the brains behind marketisation? To some extent. Andrew Adonis, trenchant critic of VC pay levels but at the same time partly responsible for introducing £3000 student fees under New Labour? Partly.

But marketisation really began much earlier. Not surprisingly, it was a project initiated under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Anecdotally, the idea for income-contingent loans – the current model in which students only pay their loans back once they hit an income threshold after graduation – was first floated by Sir Keith Joseph in 1985. It was rejected by Parliament at the time.

This is an important point, because privatisation and marketisation – key philosophies of the neoliberal Conservativism that Thatcher helped create – have never been popular. Rather than try to push such extreme policies through Parliament, the Tories have historically always preferred what Andrew McGettigan calls “creeping reform”.

Marketisation in HE began not with Keith Joseph’s income-contingent loan suggestion, but with the reforms to university governance first outlined in the Jarratt Report. Jarratt proposed that universities should be governed not by academic senates but by private sector-like boards – made up of ‘lay members’ that are actually mostly business leaders – and led by vice chancellors as chief executive officers (CEOs).

These reforms were applied to so-called ‘modern’ universities – newly privatised polytechnics – as part of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. From this point on, vice chancellors started behaving like their private sector peers (with many coming from the private sector) and post-92 universities – which were now “higher education corporations” – began emulating profit-maximising businesses (despite still having charity status).

In other words, Thatcher introduced the norms of ‘monopoly capitalism’ – top-down management, dysfunctional governance and growth through expansion and/or efficiency – into the higher education sector (HE Marketisation, 4 October 2017).

At the same time, Thatcher drastically cut public funding for higher education while steadily expanding the student population. In a classic example of Tory neoliberalism, the ‘objective’ conditions for marketisation were created, which could be completed at a later stage.

In 2010, market reform was accelerated under a Tory majority Coalition government. Public funding for universities was almost entirely cut, fees were increased to £9000, income contingent loans were introduced, and legislation was tweaked to make it easier for for-profit colleges and universities to enter the sector.

What changed? Apart from the Tories returning to government, the Financial Crisis gave the Tories an opportunity to engage in counter-factual history. The ‘austerity’ narrative created enough confusion for them to finally push through marketisation of public services, arguing that the ‘bloated state’ under New Labour had overspent in the good times and now the public had to suffer the consequences in the bad times.

Forget the bank bail out and the fact that the crisis was caused not just by greedy and irresponsible investment bankers, but neoliberal Tory deregulation in the first place…


Cultural lag

But why has it taken seven years for opposition to appear? Not just in HE, but in society more generally? Simply put, it takes a while for it all to sink in and perhaps controversially, for effects to be directly felt by the middle class.

The working class – immediately demonised as benefit scroungers and chavs – bore the brunt of the cuts, as did those with physical and mental health problems. Migrants were also picked on by the newly enfranchised nationalist factions of establishment parties.

The so-called ‘precariat’ – which is really just the ‘reserve army of labour’ – also felt the effects straight away, and were among the first groups to begin fighting back.

Many ‘millennials’ – particularly those who went who had gone to university before or during the Crisis – decided to carry on with their education, doing Masters and PhDs, to ride out the storm.

But the storm didn’t pass, and this highly-educated, rightly indignant population was faced with a limited range of career options, including service sector jobs and unpaid internships in the creative industries.

Some remained in the academy seeking refuge, accepting zero-hours contracts in the hope that one day their contribution – including hours of unpaid intellectual labour in the form of teaching preparation and research – would be recognised by their employers and they would receive something resembling tenure (which had also been abolished in the 1980s by Thatcher).

Some ended up in the ‘gig economy’, causing trouble there. A massive growth in self-employment has hidden the impact of the Financial Crisis on employment, enabling the Tories to claim that unemployment in the UK is at its lowest for 42 number of years.

However, the ethical bad taste that companies like Uber and Deliveroo leave in the mouths of consumers shows a growing awareness that such companies are exploiting the ‘in-work poverty’ that thousands face within austerity Britain, as people attempt to supplement their real-terms diminishing income.

The reality of a stagnating economy under neoliberalism is finally beginning to bite the middle-income population – particularly public service workers – as wages refuse to rise with inflation.

The Tories are mystified as to why this is happening. It’s ‘stagflation’ all over again. Of course, activists and trade unionists know very well what is causing this: the devastation of collective bargaining as result of 30 years of outsourcing (both in the public sector and in the global division of labour) and aggressive union-busting practices.

Today’s students – a generation that has reached adulthood within austerity Britain – are also beginning to see that they are being conned. For large segments of students from working and lower-middle class backgrounds, their £50,000 debt will not get them any closer to being able to afford to get ‘on the property ladder’: the Thatcherite meritocratic dream.

A serious debate is emerging around the ‘value for money’ of £9,250 a year degrees. The government has launched an inquiry into the current system of student finance.

But a Tory government, which still believes in the neoliberal myth of marketisation, cannot come to the only conclusion that makes any sense: that education is nothing like a consumer product in the first place.


What is to be done?

The focus on VC pay is important, because it raises the issues outlined above. But activists and trade unionists need to keep the focus on governance.

Governance – lack of transparency in not just renumeration committees, but also at board and council level – is the underlying problem behind VC pay, and also the terrain on which to fight to solve the problem (see my first Editorial: HE Marketisation 7 October 2017).

At a practical level, governance problems come from homogeneity in the make up of such bodies.

VCs as CEOs appoint lay members that already agree with the university-as-business model of HE, and in many cases are driving the reckless growth plans that we are seeing everywhere in the sector (see for example, Coventry University UCU’s pamphlet, ‘Growth is ok…but what about quality?‘).

Boards are also over-represented – as is the upper layer of the corporate world – by middle-aged, white men.

Principles of governance – for example the Higher Education Funding Council of England (Hefce) Memorandum of Assurance and Accountability, the Committee of University Chairs’ Code of Governance or the Nolan Principles – which universities are required to follow, but often don’t, are useful to pointing out the hypocrisy of governance under marketisation (see for example the University of Southampton UCU’s blog).

Is the answer a Co-operative University? Yes and no. On their own in a sea of marketisation – which has ironically made the possibility of a Co-op Uni a reality – such alternatives have little chance of survival (HE Marketisation, 30 November 2017).

Marketisation operates through technocratic interventionism – the Teaching, Research and now Knowledge Excellence Frameworks (TEF, REF and KEF) – creating ‘proxies’ for competition through elaborate ‘light-touch’ regulation (which is actually very heavy handed and statist in character) in the absence of real competition.

Co-operative Universities would be subject to the same (what Justin Cruickshank calls) “neoliberal interventionism” as traditional universities, post-92 universities and for-profit colleges and universities. It is, in a very real sense, a ‘rigged’ market.

Furthermore, while the government tries to invent more and more ingenious ways to create a market utopia, it actually just ends up emulating the real one: universities become huge multinational corporations with existing corporations like Pearson lurking in the shadows in anticipation of the first ‘failing’ universities coming up for sale.

As with VC pay and governance, the rigged market will end with monopoly capitalism: market consolidation and stable prices, neither of which benefit the consumer or any of the ‘stakeholders’ who rely on such corporations for their livelihoods.

I have argued elsewhere for the important – and very exciting – role that activists and trade unions can play in fighting this as yet incomplete and arguably failing project of marketisation.

Trade unions in particular can occupy the democratic-institutional space vacated by increasingly autocratic managers in universities-as-business. They can also rebuild local democracy through broad-based campaigns within local communities that have the potential to transform universities as ‘anchor institutions’ into hubs for the creation of socially-useful knowledge (HE Marketisation, 26 November 2017).

But whatever you do, don’t fall for the myth of the market. It’s all a massive con.

Protest at BCU over restructure plans

Yesterday lunchtime the Birmingham City University University and College Union (UCU) branch protested plans by Birmingham City University (BCU) to force academic staff in its Education Development Service (EDS) to apply for lower paid non-academic jobs.

“Over 50 demonstrated noisily outside the vice chancellor’s office,” reported Nita Sanghera, UCU national executive officer, “before marching around the campus to give the message that staff are united and will resit any attack on UCU members.”

EDS staff provide courses for BCU teaching staff to develop and reflect on their teaching practice – including the increasingly compulsory HE teaching qualification, the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning (PGcert).

BCU UCU told HE Marketisation that the EDS was facing a “restructure and a 34% budget cut”, with “no guarantee there will be no redundancies” for over 20 members of staff concerned and senior lecturers in the Service facing a pay cut of £3000-£5000 per year.

“This restructure has serious consequences for the lives and livelihoods of our members,” commented BCU UCU chair Kirsten Forkert. “New staff who are at the beginning of their academic careers are questioning their futures at BCU because research will no longer be part of their workloads. This is how we lose good people.”

It was ironic, BCU UCU added, that the planned restructure came at a time when the University was trying to get a Gold rating on the next Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Not only is the PgCert now a requirement for many HE academic posts, it is also the main way to become a member of the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the “national body which champions teaching excellence”.

In response to the last TEF exercise, the HEA said it “continued to propose teaching qualifications and continuing professional development (CPD) as measures of teaching excellence”. More importantly, the HEA encourages teacher trainers in HE to undertake research, and recognises that such research by teacher trainers provides the foundation for teaching qualifications and CPD.

“It’s very disturbing that in the future we will be taught these qualifications by staff who will no longer enjoy academic freedom or have the time and resources to carry out research,” Forkert argued.

“We don’t want HE teacher training which is about a stripped down, “compliance culture” model of pedagogy taught by low-paid staff with no proper resources,” she added. “It’s not in the best interests of staff or students.”

BCU UCU is calling on BCU senior management to “save quality teaching provision in the EDS, and reconsider plans for teacher education on the cheap”. Messages of solidarity and support can be sent to:

No confidence at Bath University

“They’ve lost all authority, they command no confidence”, was the message from hundreds of students and staff demonstrating outside a University of Bath Council meeting last Thursday, according to University of Bath University and College Union (UCU) branch president Michael Carley.

The demonstration had been organised by Bath Students Against Fees and Cuts before Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell – who has been at the centre of a scandal concerning her bloated pay and benefits package, as well as failure of governance at Bath University (HE Marketisation, 18 November 2017) – announced she would retire next year.

Demonstrators gathered to protest Breakwell’s generous retirement package, which proposes that she continues on full pay until the start of March 2019, and that a car loan made to her by the University worth £31,000 would also be written off.

One placard read “Buy your own bloody biscuits”, following news that the £20,000-worth of expenses Breakwell had claimed for her university-owned house in Bath included £2 for biscuits. Biscuits were also thrown at windows during the Council meeting, Carley reported.

“The demonstration yesterday was unbelievable,” he added. “They brought in private security and security from the University of West England. They were defending themselves from their own staff and students.”

Retirement or sabbatical?

Professor Breakwell will receive more than £230,000 for six months’ academic research while she takes a sabbatical, according to the Bath Chronicle.

“A university spokesman said the long-serving leader will receive full pay between 31 August 2018 when she stands down and 28 February 2019 after a semester’s sabbatical”, the paper reported.

“I think the university don’t want to embarrassment of some kind of unfair dismissal,” Carley commented. “I think they are trying to dodge anything that might be called a severance payment, as there’s now Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) guidance on severance payments, and they are trying to get round that.”

“But I think what they’ve done now is even worse,” he added. “They’ve exposed the sabbatical, it’s a joke. There are people now asking who approved this sabbatical, where the research proposal is and what the outcome is going to be.”

HE Marketisation asked whether Professor Breakwell will be required to produce a ‘REFable’ output out of the sabbatical. Carley responded: “I have no idea, but we are going to ask and keep asking.”

“You can’t go on sabbatical when you are retiring, you just can’t,” argued Carley. “The point of a sabbatical is you go somewhere, come back and contribute something to the research strategy of the university.”

Dodgy governance

Last month the Bath Chronicle also revealed that Dame Breakwell had been given an interest-free loan of more than £31,000 to spend on a car.

According to Carley, the loan was an “efficient” way for the University to provide Breakwell with a car – to which she was contractually entitled. However, as part of Breakwell’s retirement package, it was revealed that not only will the loan will be written off, but that this was the arrangement from the beginning.

“That’s the problem – this is not a loan, a loan is something you have to pay back,” Carley pointed out. “Some of us are on cycle schemes that come out of our wages every month, and if we leave we have to pay off the balance.”

The way that the University’s Council – the University’s governing body responsible for its finances and investments, as well as for the protection of the University’s reputation – made this decision was also problematic, argued Carley.

“It was agreed by email two days before a scheduled full meeting of the Council,” he revealed. “Everyone was emailed and told 75% of members had to agree to the proposed retirement package, and had until 15:45 that day to respond.”

“It’s dodgy governance again,” he added, “so a complaint has already gone back to Hefce about it”.

Hefce has just released a damning report on governance at Bath University, after Lord Andrew Adonis had raised concerns following the release of details of how Breakwell’s renumeration had been decided.

Co-operative university one step closer

On 9 November, the Co-operative College hosted a conference on ‘Making the Co-operative University’, “with the intention of exploring its role in supporting and co-ordinating a federated model of co-operative higher education”, according to Joss Winn, a key player in co-op HE and a founding member of the Lincoln Social Science Centre (SSC) co-operative.

Following the conference and an “historic” decision to pursue the creation of a co-operative university (HE Marketisation, 16 October 2017), Winn said the Co-operative College intended to meet with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) “to understand the current regulatory landscape” following the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, and to see what concrete steps must be taken to make this plan a reality.

The Higher Education and Research Act makes it easier for “alternative providers” – i.e. for-profit universities and colleges – to enter the still largely publicly-subsidised higher education sector.

While potentially extremely destructive, the reforms in principle also allow for the creation of co-operatively owned and governed alternative providers, as long as such institutions meet the radically de-regulated criteria for access to the student loan system – a source of funding crucial for the survival of such an offering.

“If the key requirements of demonstrably good governance, a good quality education, and a sustainable financial model remain the basic threshold for gaining degree awarding powers (DAPs),” Winn said, “then there is no reason why [a co-operative university], operating on 180 year-old, values-based principles of social organisation, couldn’t meet those requirements in ways that challenge the existing system.”

However, others were not so enthusiastic. “I found a day that should have been inspiring somewhat odd,” wrote Richard Hall, also a member of the SSC and long-time collaborator with Winn. “It had a revivalist feeling, yet a revival of co-operativism situated inside a pragmatically-accepted view of the market and profit.”

“I found myself questioning why we are building an alternative model of the higher education institution, rooted in an outdated model of educational practice and governed in a way that perpetuates that outdated model,” he added. “I found myself questioning whether this was a real alternative.”

“The reality that the new Office for Students can only drive a market agenda, rooted in strengthening the forces of production of knowledge, rather than democratising the relations of production of knowledge, acts as a brake on the alternative positions that any co-operative university can develop.”

A socially-useful university?

Flyer for Lucas Plan 40th Anniversary Conference

Universities could be transformed into “laboratories” for “human-centred” production and become ‘anchor institutions’ for a “different kind of economy”, Hilary Wainwright suggested at a Coventry Trades Union Council (CTUC) meeting on 16 November.

Speaking on the topic of ‘Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and the Future of Work’, Wainwright pointed out that while universities were often the “new drivers” of local economies, the rapid expansion of universities within Tory-led market reform did not so much create a “knowledge economy” but a “property economy driven by finance”.

However, as universities were now central to regional economic regeneration, academic trade unionists had an important part to play in the transformation of the ‘knowledge economy’ – which currently works in the profit-making interests of the few – into a socialised economy that provided for the social needs of the many.

With a left Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn now an immanent possibility, Wainwright urged activists and trade unionists to start moving beyond the purely oppositional space they have had to occupy during thirty years of neoliberalism and start proposing concrete alternatives.

The workers’ control initiatives of the 1970s – such as the ‘Lucas Plan’ – continue to provide inspiration for today’s trade unionists, she argued, and could provide a model for academic trade unionists who are already questioning the unsustainable corporate plans of rapidly expanding higher education institutions.

“University workers have got leverage [though trade unions] to stop this mad drive for profit and make universities into genuine resources for a different kind of economy,” she argued.

Politics of knowledge

Wainwright spoke about the Lucas Aerospace shop steward combine’s ‘Alternative Plan for Socially-Useful Production’. In response to the possibility of mass redundancies – as management looked to shift production overseas – workers proposed 150 “socially-useful” products, including green innovations decades ahead of their time.

Although the Plan was rejected “out of hand” by Lucas Aerospace management, as the published version of the Plan pointed out, its significance lay in the fact that “trade unionists attempted to transcend the narrow economism which has characterised trade union activity in the past and expand out demands to the extent of questioning the products on which we work and the way in which we work upon them.”

For Wainwright, the problem posed by ‘automation’ – which describes the process through which control of decision-making systems become increasingly independent of human intervention – was not just what to do with the time liberated and wealth created through technological advances, but also how far technology is embedded in social use and how much it draws on the intelligence and creativity of those who produce.

“What I learned from the shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace was that technology is not some kind of neutral force that can only go one way and that the question is simply who benefits financially from the results of technological innovation,” she said, “but that actually technology itself is embed with values and choices made at every point.”

“For example, the American Fordist model of production [rationalised in Taylorist management techniques] – the idea that production processes should minimise the involvement of the intelligence of the worker – was designed to eliminate the discretion of the worker in all production jobs and extract the knowledge involved. This knowledge could then be controlled by management, who would instruct the worker to perform according to a brief or framework set by management.”

“Anything codifiable is immediately subject to automation. All you need to do is eliminate the worker, replace them with a robot, and you already have the production framework. Automation just completes the process.”

Wainwright pointed to the work of Mike Cooley – a leading figure in the Lucas Aerospace combine and author of influential book, Architect or Bee? – who proposed an alternative, “human-centred” idea of technology, “which retained the skill and capacity of the craftsperson but used computer-aided design (CAD) and other computer-aided processes to increase productivity in a way that was humanly driven”.

“A lot of thinking about artificial intelligence is based on the idea that knowledge is a set of logical propositions that can be mathematised and turned into computerised language,” Wainwright argued. “Cooley stressed at the combine committees the idea of ‘tacit knowledge’ – which Michael Polanyi defined as “things we know but cannot tell”.

“This idea of tacit knowledge came from observing scientific experiments and recognising that actually science – supposedly the great location of logical thinking – is full of intuition and hunches and collaboration. The idea of tacit knowledge is very much to do with collaboration and working with other people.”

“So once you have this different understanding of knowledge, you actually don’t have to accept the idea of technology as a neutral force”.

For Wainwright, the lesson of the Lucas Plan was that workers – especially skilled workers – have an intimate knowledge of production, and are therefore in a unique position as both producers and users of technology to link production to social need.

“Trade unionists – who are representing the skilled design workers of our industries – have got the power, potentially, to challenge the design choices of new technology and the way this technology is implemented, what the purpose of the introduction of technology is.”

Danger and opportunity

“We now have an amazing opportunity,” Wainwright stressed, “a bit like we did in the 70s with Tony Benn, but even more so with a Corbyn-led Labour Party that has already set out a different strategy for industry and a plan for public ownership.”

Wainwright mentioned John McDonnell’s speech at the September Labour conference fringe event, ‘The World Transformed’, in which he said that Labour had “laid out a framework for public ownership that is necessary for radical transformation” but that it “wanted the people, the working people, who have the knowledge, to develop alternatives”.

However, while this opportunity is exciting, we must also heed the lessons of the 1970s, Wainwright urged, when Labour last had radical left MPs like Tony Benn and Audrey Wise exploring workers’ control and “nationalisation was on the cards”.

“Public ownership – which is now on the cards – isn’t enough, we need to be thinking about the content and structure of industry and the purpose of technology,” Wainwright urged.

“When Tony Benn invited the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards to come to his office – much to the shock and horror of his civil servants, because they were used to meeting trade union officials – he asked them whether they wanted him to nationalise Lucas Aerospace.”

“They said that they didn’t think nationalisation was enough, that Labour needed to have a plan for what they wanted to do with the nationalised industry. So this then set them out on their alternative corporate plan for socially-useful production.”

“What Benn did has an interesting parallel with what Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell could potentially do. What Benn did in the Department of Industry was make it clear to the shop stewards that he would support them if they developed alternatives, so that’s how the Lucas Plan really arose.”

Similar ideas came from elsewhere, Wainwright pointed out, from Chrysler and Triumph in Coventry, for example. The Institute for Workers’ Control – including Audrey Wise, a Coventry MP in the 1970s and author of Women and the Struggle for Workers’ Control – played a key role nurturing and supporting such initiatives.

“[The Institute for Workers Control] brought together many groups of radical workers that were developing alternatives which weren’t just about public ownership but also about the content and purpose and forms of organisation of production, the nature and direction of technology.”

However, “all this was defeated by pressures from the CBI, the city [of London] and Harold Wilson, who sacked Tony Benn”, Wainwright warned. “All these pressures Jeremy Corbyn will also face – but then he will be prime minister and will have a bit more power than Tony Benn had.”

“After all of this had been defeated, we thought – they can’t just get away with it – so we organised what we grandly called a ‘worker’s inquiry’,” Wainwright added.

“We called it State Intervention in Industry, and in Newcastle, Liverpool, North Tyneside and Coventry, the shops stewards worked with the trades councils to find out what had gone wrong in the different companies and what went wrong in their eyes with government.”

“We had planned a kind of grand conclusion in a grand committee room in the Houses of Parliament, in which the trades councils and the shop stewards would hold a tribunal calling ministers to account for what had gone wrong.”

“Then we wrote it up. The shop stewards documented their experiences, what their fears and hopes were and what actually happened. We ended up with conclusions and recommendations for the future, so it’s an important book that’s worth going back to in thinking about what this would mean now.”

REF2021: get ready for more restructuring

“All staff with significant responsibility for research” will be returned to next Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise in 2021, according to the ‘REF 2021: Decisions on staff and outputs‘ document released earlier this week.

In what will no doubt determine the future careers of many academics currently working in higher education, particularly in post-92 universities, “contractual status will identify the majority of academic staff who have a significant responsibility for research”.

The document does, however, recognise “that there are staff who have more significant responsibility for other activities, including knowledge exchange, professional practice, and scholarship”, and in these cases it will be left to “higher education institutions (HEIs), working with their staff and with guidelines, [to] identify who is in scope for submission among staff meeting core eligibility criteria”.

Perhaps not very reassuring for academic staff who have already witnessed the breakneck speed at which many institutions have restructured – University of Manchester, for example – with no consultation with recognised trade unions, in anticipation of market reforms that have not as yet directly impacted on institutions.

‘Category A eligible’ staff are defined as “academic staff with a contract of employment of 0.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) or greater, on the payroll of the submitting institution on the census date, whose primary employment function is to undertake either ‘research only’ or ‘teaching and research’”.

Furthermore, in a clause no doubt designed to stop institutions ‘importing’ star researchers just for the REF, “staff should have a substantive connection with the submitting institution”.

And finally, “for staff on ‘research only’ contracts, the eligible pool should only include those who are independent researchers, and not research assistants”.

Activists and trade unionists will need to be vigilant in uncovering the inevitable tweaks and outright revisions to existing employment contracts – in most cases this will be done indirectly, perhaps through revisions to progression frameworks and with a cash bonus to manipulate academics into moving onto new contracts.

Working conditions are learning conditions: report from National Unison Higher Education Seminar 2017

Source: Ioana Cerasella Chis

University employee working conditions have an impact on ‘student experience’ and trade union activists need to make this clear to students, was the concluding message of last week’s annual National Unison Higher Education Seminar 2017, according to Ioana Cerasella Chis, joint chair of University of Birmingham Unison, who reported on the Seminar for HE Marketisation.

In one of the three biggest events organised by Unison on an annual basis, more than 100 activist volunteers, officers and reps from all around the UK traveled to Belfast for a series of workshops focusing on topics such as: pensions; developing and supporting union activists; the business case for equality and diversity; unconscious bias; effective political campaigning; campaigning to achieve living wage accreditation; working with student unions; supporting members with mental health conditions; and redundancies – an organising approach.

The first day of the seminar coincided with a national demonstration in London organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) (HE Marketisation, 15 November 2017). In an important display of solidarity between non-academic staff – a constituency in universities often lost in debates dominated by academics represented by the University and College Union (UCU) – and students, Unison reps took a photo (see above, Ioana far left) to show support for the demonstration and their union’s commitment to free education.

“We need to resist divisions between students and workers, and to develop a consciousness that recognises the commonality between students and workers,” commented Ioana.

“In the end, coursework is unpaid work, and during their courses, students are being trained to be future indebted, ‘flexible’ and precarious workers,” she added. “Student support, good relationships with other unions, solidarity and joint collective action with anyone interested in, and affected by particular policies and working conditions are key to social movements’ success, and trade unionism is included in this.”

The session on student unions focused on two aspects: how to work collaboratively with students’ unions, and how to represent and involve more students’ union workers in Unison branches. “Developing activists in students’ unions, offering resources and support, and liaising with student groups/societies/officers and students who sit on relevant committees represent important steps that allow for new possibilities for collective action and trade union education,” Ioana pointed out.

Unison officials reported that a national Unison survey had been circulated to branches and students’ union members on their conditions of work. “Unsurprisingly, the issues faced by students’ union employees reflect and mirror the problems identified across the wider university workforce,” Ioana said. “However, it is often the case that the terms and conditions of contracts in students’ unions are different from those in universities. It is important to have reps who work in unions themselves, to gain the knowledge, facility time and confidence to organise in their departments.”

Consequences of market reform

“Higher education is changing and is affecting all of us,” Ioana observed. One of the most immediate consequences of market reform has been major restructure and mass redundancy at large universities, for example at the University of Manchester.

In particular, it is the absence of consultation that goes with such restructure that is most pernicious and has a negative impact on staff morale. Universities can be very “creative” in the ways that they invent to “avoid following the procedures of consulting us from the very beginning of the process of considering restructures”, Ioana pointed out.

The redundancies seminar discussed: different types of redundancy and ways to represent and consult with union members effectively; how to offer support and encourage others to take ownership of collectively organising around the issues that affect them; the ways in which even small changes to the conditions of employment can have a significant impact upon a worker’s life, often affecting particular groups disproportionately.

Organising opportunities were also discussed: how to gather information about an area affected by redundancies; the importance of liaising with activists and building relationships with potential members; and the need to celebrate successes by, for instance, adding a permanent ‘what went well?’ item on the agenda of union branch committee meetings.

“Writing blog posts and newspaper articles is another good way to celebrate victories,” Ioana pointed out. “The redundancies seminar was fantastic in its clarity and depth of information delivered in such a short time,” she added.

Marketisation and mental health

Another workshop engaged critically with the recent Department of Work and Pensions report, ‘Thriving at Work: A Review of Mental Health and Employers’ – also called ‘The Stevenson/Farmer Report’.

Speaking at the workshop on mental health, Tracey Ayton Harding, head of Health and Safety at Unison said stress at work is due to ineffective management. “University policies on mental health too often restrict themselves to focusing on stress (and ways to relieve it),” she argued, “thus making disability at workplace invisible”.

Harding described how a Unison working group was currently gathering information with regard to four matters related to mental health:

• pre-existing conditions that people may have regardless of the conditions of work

• mental health conditions made worse by work

• working with people who have mental health concerns

• looking at the mental health of our activists, as they are facing a high workload consisting of difficult conversations and emotional labour

“An interesting and contested point raised at the workshop was on mental health first aid courses offered at a number of higher education institutions,” Ioana reported. “Some in Unison argue that the courses should be welcomed and attended by activists and members, as the sessions are informative and equip the attendees with knowledge and skills to support co-workers and members.”

“However, others say that it is not the responsibility of union reps to provide mental health support and to be seen as specialists in this area (when they clearly are not specialists),” she added. “Rather, reps should have the knowledge necessary to adequately signpost members to adequate support, and resources should be in place in the referred organisations and universities to support these members.”

First aid courses reproduced the idea that an individual – after only two days of training – could ‘intervene’ into someone’s life, to quickly ‘fix’ their mental health, Ioana argued. “It puts the onus on the person who is struggling to ‘react appropriately’ and to ‘get well’ soon,” she added. “Thus, if the first aid measures ‘fail’, the struggling person could be seen as if they are not doing enough to make themselves better – as if it is their fault. This contributes further to the stigma of mental ill-health, as if one morally owes to society to feel better, to be more productive, and to follow instructions.”

Practical lessons

Trade union branches should identify “sources of power” from within and beyond the university that can influence campaigns and shift opinion in a particular direction, Ioana reported, including “politicians, the media, councillors, community groups, student groups, companies, other trade unions, and other significant individuals, platforms and organisations”.

A good example was the campaign for a ‘living wage’. In the UK, out of 165 publicly funded universities, only 40 are Living Wage Accredited Employers. “We are not being paid what we are worth”, argued Denise Ward, chair of Unison’s Higher Education Service Group.

“The living wage is just a small, initial but very important step towards improving pay and living conditions, especially when a staggering number of 5.5 million people in the UK are being paid below the living wage,” Ioana pointed out. “Also, unpaid student work classed as ‘work experience’ is a concern that unions need to address and fight against.”

Naming and shaming, and campaigning at a more coordinated level cross-campuses, were both put forward by reps as effective strategies for Unison living wage campaigns.

“We need to think about how to change and challenge the conditions of work in higher education,” Ioana urged. “We can do this collectively through engagement, campaigning, protesting, and also casework.”

However, case work “need not define the role of our branches”, Ioana pointed out. Reasonable adjustments, lunch breaks, and facility time – the (paid) work-time that union reps get to do union work, especially time-consuming and emotionally draining casework – were all “definitely important aspects of such branch activity”, Ioana added, but had to be “fought for”.

One Unison university branch, for instance, held a ‘reclaim your lunch’ event to bring people in a common space, Ioana reported.

Contributor: Ioana Cerasella Chis

Ioana is a founding member of the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology Research Group and, as part of the committee, has been an active organiser of seminars and symposia. Ioana is also a member of Birmingham Autonomous University Collective with whom she has recently published a book chapter called ‘Six Theses In, Against, and Beyond the University‘ .

Immediately after graduating with an MA in Social and Political Theory at the University of Birmingham, Ioana joined the Professional Services team in the School of Social Policy. Two months after starting her full-time role, she was elected onto the Unison branch committee. Ioana is currently in the process of applying for a PhD in the Political Science and International Studies department. Her Twitter handle is @CerasellaChis