I’ve been very heartened by my involvement in the University and College Union (UCU) dispute over the last few weeks. From talking to colleagues on the picket line, it’s obvious they’re tired with having to resist attacks on pay and conditions, including savage cuts to pensions. This has been going on for several years. I’ve only had a job in academia for three months, so I’m a newbie. I’m on one of the short-term contracts that are also part of the reason for the dispute, so my academic career could be over before it begins! But I’ve already got a strong sense of how important the UCU fight is, not just for staff and students, but for society.
This was really brought home to me last Wednesday, when I went to Sheffield to support a joint day of action by staff and students. Some of the speeches were great – and I don’t often say that! There were some powerful, eloquent expressions of why higher education is so important, with such potential to help build a better world, a particularly evocative sentiment at the moment.
The students had also organised a “teach out” and I did a session called “The Housing Emergency and Other Pandemics”. It was no surprise to hear how concerned students are about that subject. They’re an unwilling part of the property industrial complex, with the so-called “operational real estate” sector of student housing now valued at £50 billion. I told them it wasn’t always thus. I was a student at Sheffield Poly 1987 – 1990. My rent, for an admittedly grimy shared house, was £20 a week – and we could claim Housing Benefit. During that time, I also applied for a council flat in the city and got an offer. I received a full grant and left college £400 in debt. All unthinkable now, but not so long ago that it’s impossible to imagine.
Students have become a corporate cash-cow, academics part of the gig economy. Meanwhile, Vice Chancellors ride the gravy train and collude with a philistine government to cut things like the University of Sheffield’s Archeology Department. They’re trying to crush the union and eliminate opposition to their diabolical plans.
Sadly, higher education has absorbed the neoliberal ethos of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. The marketisation of learning was inevitable from the moment a Labour government – “a Labour government” – introduced student fees. But although it’s hard to be optimistic about much at the moment, I left the day of action more hopeful than I’d arrived. One consequence of our dangerous times is that young people are staring into an economic and environmental abyss. They’re almost at the point of not having much more to lose and this is bound to radicalise them. With the appalling failures of the Labour Party, they may have to look elsewhere for political expression, but the logic of history says they will. People of my generation need to get out of the way if we can’t lend a hand.
The UCU dispute, which is set to continue later this month, is important in its own right, but it also raises fundamental issues about the kind of future we want
UCU and students picket the University of Sheffield’s Department of Urban Studies, Planning and Geography, Wednesday 2nd March.