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Your Classes Are on Zoom and Your Teaching Staff Is Being Cut

Through decades of marketization, universities have replaced permanent teaching staff with temporary and often low-paid hires. Faced with COVID-19, they’re pulling the purse strings even tighter — as students pay high fees for online seminars with a shrinking band of overworked lecturers.

University workers attend a rally outside the Scottish Parliament on March 8, 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

With the global COVID-19 pandemic still far from over, the neoliberal rhetoric of inevitable sacrifices is back — and stronger than ever. It comes hardly as a surprise, then, that the country where the Thatcherite slogan “There is no alternative” was coined seems to be at the forefront of a new round of austerity measures. Nowhere is this more evident than in the university sector.

For decades, academia in England has been a vanguard of the marketization of higher education — with the private sector and its for-profit logics entering campuses earlier here than in most other Western countries (the Scottish case is different in many respects). Changes in this direction started as early as the 1970s, but they became evident only in the following decades through a number of policies well documented by authors such as Stefan Collini, John Holmwood, and Andrew McGettigan: progressive reduction of public funding and growing reliance on the private sector, systemic casualization of the academic workforce, the assumption of the market as the organizing principle of higher education, and the introduction of quantitative and largely arbitrary auditing techniques.

This has also meant a change in the social role played by the university. Students are now conceived of as consumers buying a service, universities as firms competing with one another, and getting an education as the most typically neoliberal investment in human capital.

This process was accelerated after 2010, when students’ fees were almost tripled and the sector’s funding model shifted from block grants to subsidized student loans. These changes have made external and internal competition even stronger, with different universities and even single departments competing to increase their number of students, and therefore their funding. Within departments, the share of permanent positions has decreased, with a growing amount of teaching and research being carried out by temporary, often underpaid staff. Not surprisingly, a system based on academic workers’ exploitation and students’ indebtedness has been marked by a raise in mental health issues among both faculty and students.

Between last November and the beginning of March, staff from more than seventy universities went on strike around issues concerning pensions, pay, gender and race equality, workload, and casualization. The strong turnouts and the generalized support from student unions across the country left some room for optimism — but then the virus struck, campuses were quickly closed, and the negotiations led by the University and College Union (UCU) were suspended. Within a few days, lectures and classes had to be moved online, support hours became Zoom or Skype calls, and administrative tasks started to be performed by individuals self-isolating in their homes. Afterward, with the last, unpredictable academic term coming to an end, a new phase seems to have begun.

Universities such as Sussex, Newcastle, and Bristol have been among the first to announce that, in the light of the ongoing pandemic, they will cut all their staff employed on temporary contracts (fixed-term researchers, temporary lecturers, teaching and research assistants) — a group of workers that accounts for more than half of the academic workforce at the national level. Less radical measures have been undertaken by London’s Imperial College, whose researchers’ March 16 position paper on the contrast of COVID-19 played an important role in pushing the British government to quit its Social Darwinist experiments with herd immunity. Not surprisingly, an academic sector shaped to rely more and more on international students’ fees is panicking in the face of a possible reduction in enrollment and the resulting shortage of funds.  Once put into context, the financial difficulties that are likely to be experienced by several universities around the country as a result of the pandemic begin to appear as a probable pretext for implementing an even harsher neoliberalization of higher education.

The Uberfication of the University

My own institution, the University of Essex, is a case in point in this connection. In 2018, Essex was elected as university of the year by Times Higher Education; the motivation for the award approvingly noted the university’s efforts to tackle workers’ casualization. Indeed, Essex’s branding strategy to attract students relies on a certain allure of radicalism. It was here, among other things, that New Left political theorist Ernesto Laclau formulated his famous account of populism, while our vice-chancellor enjoys promoting the progressive packaging of the products we sell by penning op-eds for the Guardian.

It is truly a pity, then, that Anthony Forster, the same vice-chancellor who likes to speak publicly about our institution’s concern for its precarious staff, informed the Essex community on March 17 of drastic cuts starting next fall, assuming the dismissal of all fixed-term lecturers, graduate teaching and research assistants, and graduate laboratory assistants.

What is particularly striking is the Orwellian language with which those austerity measures have been communicated. Through a letter defining redundancy as something the university administration is “adamant” to avoid — inasmuch, we are told, “we stand or fall together” — hundreds of people currently working for Essex were made redundant. In the meantime, the vice-chancellor, who describes himself as “sorry” to deliver “undoubtedly painful news,” currently enjoys an annual salary of £299,000 — which gets as high as £393,000 once benefits such as private health insurance and pension contributions are taken into account.

What is happening at Essex is a telling example of wider dynamics. Faced with tough financial prospects, university managers throughout the country are considering the move toward a radically changed business model in which permanent staff are asked, for the same pay, to perform the same amount of work that was previously provided by both permanent and precarious employees. In order to make this look even remotely plausible, a number of draconian measures are being announced: reduced choice among different courses, dramatically increased recourse to online teaching, and a contraction in teaching support hours. The students, of course, are expected to bite the bullet and continue paying the same extremely high fees for a bunch of Zoom seminars held by constantly overworked lecturers. This implies a further boost of an on-demand model of higher education — what Gary Hall has called the “Uberfication of the university” — in which you order a course on English literature as if it were a (crazily expensive) pizza.

Zombie Ideology

Such a shift toward academic austerity, as bad as it may be, is inevitable for British universities to survive — or so the official story goes. It is important to recall at this point what austerity is and what its relationship with universities in England is. As an economic doctrine claiming that cutting public expenditure is the best way to make the economy recover from a crisis, austerity lacks even minimal empirical support and has destroyed entire countries in the aftermath of the 2007 global financial crisis (just think of Greece), while significantly slowing down the recovery of many others. Moreover, when applied to higher education, austerity is well known for failing on its own (purported) grounds: the UK government’s 2010 decision to move from block grants to student loans has actually caused the Treasury to amass a far higher debt (in the order of tens of billions) than it would have under the previous regime.

As McGettigan has shown at length, this could be presented as a cut in public deficit only through “a complex bit of accounting chicanery” — a bureaucratic sleight of hand that a few months ago the Office for National Statistics decided to no longer support. Quite clearly, therefore, the followers of austerity are not focused on the priorities they say to promote. Rather, they are interested in certain groups of people (the average taxpayer, the students) paying the price of measures benefiting somebody else (the bailout of banks after the last global financial meltdown, the increasing opening of higher education to private providers and private interests in the case of academia).

Austerity’s status as a largely discarded doctrine, then, doesn’t prevent it from producing very real effects: as John Quiggin aptly puts, it is a zombie idea: one that is both dead and still very much capable of harm. Austerity kills — and it does so in a very material sense: it pushes individuals into a spiral of debt and guilt (you are indebted because you are guilty of not being a good enough bearer of human capital; you are guilty because you are accumulating more and more debts) that affects their psychological as well as their physical health. These factors are likely going to be worsened during a pandemic: loss of income translates into the need to move into cheaper, more crowded housing; deep uncertainty about one’s future can result in mental health issues that render life under lockdown even more complicated; foreigners who lose their job with short notice are pushed to make potentially unsafe travels back to their home countries.

This is the kind of future several British universities now want to condemn a huge portion of their workers to. PhD candidates working as teaching, research, or laboratory assistants to make ends meet are the most vulnerable in this connection, as they get the worst from both the student and the employee perspective: they have to pay tuition fees while also being subjected to low-paid, casual, and time-consuming jobs.

As the true “serfs of academe,” our only option is to break austerity’s spell — that wildly unrealistic capitalist realism pretending there are no alternatives. The unfolding of the events at Essex confirms this claim: a few hours after the publication of several petitions in defense of PhD workers and all other casualized academics, the university’s PR machine started to crumble — the vice-chancellor trying to affirm at the same time that graduate teaching positions haven’t been canceled yet and that the prospective budget figures that a week ago made that cancellation unavoidable haven’t changed.

As in all the good neoliberal plots, an attempt at replacing social justice with charity has been made: at a moment of considerable economic hardship for many people and of significant uncertainty for almost all the rest, Essex has come out with the idea to ask common people to chip in to its budget in order to save its own PhD community. Its vice-chancellor has even pledged to cut his salary by 20 percent — a decision that becomes completely unimpressive once you realize that such a reduction would still leave him well above his 2015 remuneration, and that university staff have seen the value of their pay decline by 20 percent since 2009.

Austerity, just like a virus, spreads quickly — the recent history of the Eurozone being a constant reminder. Across the country, our universities are run by incredibly high-paid managers who, at the moment of need, are able only to get rid of their precarious and underpaid colleagues, undermining the quality and the sustainability of British higher education institutions in the long run.

We should instead forcefully pressure the government to rescue academia, and to put in place strong redistributive measures among different classes of employees and among richer and poorer universities. This also means renegotiating universities’ loans and safeguarding students’ right to get a proper education. As time goes by, the need for a public bailout of the majority of our universities becomes more and more evident — but it has to be clear that the state intervention we are calling for doesn’t include extra profits for private developers or top managers. These dark times provide us with an opportunity to shift the priorities of academia — as casualized workers, we cannot afford to lose it.