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Education is a fight, not a privilege

Laura McDonald writes that universities should not just be finishing schools for the wealthy or disciplinary institutions churning out docile workers.

February 22, 2018
6 min read

Rebel Architects Faction in Cambridge stage an action, highlighting the university’s £9.57 billion assets.

I am a junior academic employed on an hourly-paid contract at King’s College London. Over the next 4 weeks I will be going on strike. I want to say something here about why we need to win this strike, why we can win, and why joining our picket lines is the most educational thing a student can do on a Monday morning.

Why we need to win

Our immediate grievance is the attempt by Universities UK – in cahoots, unsurprisingly, with a bevy of vice-chancellors each ‘earning’ several hundred grand a year – to destroy our pensions. But this is merely the latest in a long stream of demeaning assaults on working and learning conditions in universities. I’ll mention just a few: the imposition of a fee regime destructive of the very notion of education as a public good; the outsourcing of cleaning and catering staff to hyper-exploitative private contractors; the enlisting of teachers as spies and border guards through the PREVENT ‘anti-extremism’ agenda; cuts to student maintenance grants and mental health services while the price of accommodation soars. We – students and staff together – need to build the collective power to say no, things cannot go on like this. We need to refuse to press the destruct button on our own futures.

Why we can win

There is something interesting about my generation of university teachers: we were the generation that made the 2010 student movement. We, in turn, were made by those political experiences. We were, if you like, educated by them. In the eight years since £9,000 a year tuition fees were voted into law while riot police rained batons onto the heads of freezing crowds in Parliament Square, the string of demeaning assaults on working and learning conditions I mentioned before has not simply been accepted without murmur. University managers have had to contend with successive waves of occupations and protests, cleaners going on strike, and students refusing to pay their rent. In 2013, management’s go-to response of calling in the riot squad to quash dissent was effectively challenged by Cops Off Campus protests thousands strong. In subsequent years, cleaners’ campaigns have claimed victories at SOAS and LSE and rent strikers at UCL have won millions in compensation. Still, victories have been piecemeal to say the least. One of the main reasons for this is that academics as a group have not stepped up to the plate. Over the past eight years, the University and College Union (the lecturers’ union) has called just a few symbolic days of action with predictably demoralising results. Management knows that it can weather the inconvenience of a few days of half-hearted picket lines. The prospect of facing down a month of strikes – and the organising power which makes that possible – is quite a different story. 

What we have now is a young generation of academics who are angry and who know how to go about organising politically. This is a kind of knowledge you can’t acquire from books alone. These teachers do not fit the caricature of the comfortable academic, aloof and complacent in his (yes, usually his) ivory tower. By making our labour so precarious and badly paid, the ivory towers have arguably sacrificed our allegiance. Similarly, the sense I get from my own endlessly inspiring students is that the fee regime has not been nearly so successful at creating compliant consumer subjectivities as the barons of marketisation had hoped. On the contrary, I see my students painting banners with slogans like ‘FREE EDUCATION NOW’, ‘TEACHERS’ WORKING CONDITIONS ARE STUDENTS’ LEARNING CONDITIONS’, and ‘NO SCAB SEMINARS’. Students have even occupied the offices of Universities UK in support of the strike. The fact that we fought against the fees that our students are now having to pay creates an opportunity for real solidarity between teachers and students – the kind of solidarity we needed but didn’t find in 2010, and that we need if we are to win now.

Why real education is the opposite of business as usual

In principle, going on strike just means withdrawing our labour. The fact that this disrupts the smooth running of the university shows just how much that smooth running usually depends on our work. But in reality, making a strike successful takes a huge amount of work because a strike is a project of collective political education. At my university, for instance, we are organizing a packed schedule of talks, workshops, and discussions to take place on the picket lines – from talks about Thomas Hobbes and the securitization of citizenship to discussions of the post-work city, the role of anger in politics, and what democracy looks like. Our aim is to create vibrant picket lines that people take notice of and want to join. This will bring students and staff together to challenge the divide-and-conquer strategy of Universities UK. It also provides an opportunity to share our vision of an education free and accessible to all. Resistance is not just about bringing universities to a standstill, tearing down neoliberal institutions. It’s about the kind of education we build in their place.

When we took to the streets for that vision back in 2010 we used to chant: ‘Education is a right, is a right, is a right. Education is a right, not a privilege’. We believed (and many of us still do) that universities should not just be finishing schools for the wealthy or disciplinary institutions churning out docile workers. They should be places where received ideologies can be subjected to real critical scrutiny. In this sense, at least, education must always involve an element of disruption – disrupting our received picture of how the world works. This is not the kind of thing that can be served up as a pre-packaged ‘learning outcome’ and handed to us on a plate.

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