The lecturers' pay strike is not so much a disruption to teaching as an attempt to organise against the disruption to education created by rampant privatization. By the time the marketization of the higher education sector was underway and its architects snuffed out necessary dialogue about radical changes to the provision of public education, sweeping market solutions had been found and installed. It was government by diktat, an agenda without a mandate.
The cost of education increased noticeably. Students became targeted as consumers rather than learners; money over wonder. Pay inequality within higher education increased too. Of course, the NHS is besieged in the same manner, with companies opening wide every avenue they can to profit from healthcare, diluting the value of universal access which ought to underpin education too. But the search for privatization has turned in to a project of never-ending hunger, with no public good safe from its' murderous maw.
Privatization, cuts, job losses and redundancies have followed the enforcement of market principles in higher education. In Sussex in 2013, students and workers united against 235 job losses that occurred, amidst increasing bonuses for bosses. 'Occupy Sussex' was a cauldron of opposition to the stark and iniquitous new rules of the market. Scandalously VC Michael Farthing was taking home record pay whilst overseeing job cuts and extreme levels of inequality between staff.
It is a grim picture reflected still across brand academia. Members of UCU have seen a real terms cut of 14% since 2009, whilst the culture of bonuses riddles the sector. In the absence of equality or dialogue between the people and unpeople of the new market order, lecturers and students have seen it right to organise solidarity between one another so that they can invite the discussion about a fairer alternative that neoliberals are so keen to keep on the back burner.
Should the divide between the 99% and 1% really be allowed to breed in the social microcosm of a university in a world where universities are supposed to be leaders in engineering solutions to inequality? Research decidedly shows extreme levels of inequality are bad for the whole society, so therefore universities might benefit the whole society by redistributing wealth in the form of closing the pay gap and reversing trends towards a two-tier system, instead of actively presiding over the transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest.
A fundamental and momentous question about public education and its purpose consists in the debate about the future of academia: does it serve the needs of business, or the wider society? Do we even get a say? If there is no space for values which can't be validated by the status quo, is an open, free education under covert attack from an ideological coup?
The conversation between the universities and the unions reflects the disparity of power between the two. Rudderless, unchained, the neoliberal management of universities are confident to reject the full scope of demands for tolerable working conditions from the unions. They have conceded only a rise of 1.1%, which equates to a real terms loss still. It is arrogant and insulting to ask the workers to swallow this as generosity.
Despite attempts to defuse its momentum, the unions' campaign can thrive off the escalation of action, which gives up the rigged terms and conditions of the haggle and finds strength in collective bargaining power, a real counter-weight to bosses attacks on working conditions.
If solidarity did nothing, they wouldn't give it such a bad name. More equal pay, and equality for women, is hardly an unreasonable demand. Strikes show agreement against the wisdom of privatization in numbers that would appear to invite debate on the recent thrust of HE policies. But unions gather facts and evidence, presented in sober and convincing fashion, and are attacked for it.
Some scholars argue that the marketization of education has become an ethical dilemma. Because the logic and imperatives of commercial capitalism suffuse the administration of Universities, it becomes more branded as a result, in an attempt to make it more competitive within a market.
According to these scholars, the consequence is that the provision of degrees are focused on tailoring degrees to the demands of a labour market captive to the corporate will, instead of raising levels of critical thinking. Our ability to engage meaningfully with critical or alternative discourses is reduced. Students, and lecturers too, become subjugated to a machine in which creation of profit over knowledge becomes the foremost purpose of the academy, trapped in the false myopia of consumption. It subverts the true function of education, to spread itself freely, at odds with attempts to corrupt it for the ends of power.
People are striking not to cause disruptions to students, but because they can see no other way of education surviving. The plight of the lecturers serves as an archetype for the general public's struggle against privatization and austerity in all spheres of life and offers another example of the effectiveness of strike action in formulating coherent demands for better working and living conditions.
Their experience also underscores the callousness of the bosses, exposing those ruthless calculations of power that are so unerring during a time when they are essentially performing surgery on education, the NHS and the body politic as a whole. As the general strike of 4 July looms ahead of us, the lecturers' struggle is a stark reminder of why we must unite. When the bosses have sealed the doors and burned the ladders, industrial action is the only recourse.