Some notes on the USS strikes

Since we have come to the end of an unprecedented four weeks of striking across many UK universities, I thought it was worth setting down some thoughts. Although I was nervous about the strikes as they began, I found that the last few weeks have changed completely how I think about my job. The conversations I’ve had on the picket line would suggest that I’m not alone in this. I think most academics are probably not typical strikers or activists – in order to get to our positions we are more likely to have been typical good students, who are used to working within structures which have mostly worked for us. I have also felt grateful and privileged, considering the very difficult employment climate and the many years I spent myself on insecure fixed term contracts, to have a secure, permanent job doing the work I love.

But something is happening to erode that sense of gratefulness. Universities have been taking advantage of the fact that their staff love their jobs and are committed to their work. It’s becoming increasingly clear from conversations on the picket line and on Twitter that academics are beginning to be more aware of this, to connect things together and to talk about it. There have been many conversations about workload. There is also a growing frustration about the fact that due to the limited nature of funding for conference and research travel and books it is increasingly difficult to do the work we are paid to do, unless we pay for it ourselves.

While these strikes are over pensions it is clear that there is wider disquiet over much more than this. It also seems, at least from looking at my own university that humanities academics have been much more visible on the picket lines than those in STEM disciplines. Most of us have already been aware of the unequal distribution of resources among disciplines. Could the greater mobilisation, and anger among humanities staff also be a reflection of this?

My experience on the picket lines has actually been a much more positive experience than any of this might suggest though. I’ve had great conversations with colleagues from other disciplines, and got to know some of my own colleagues in History better too. Being on the picket lines has created a space for the kind of intellectual exchange and solidarity for which there just is not time for in the normal working day. In these conversations, and in the teach outs organised almost daily by different disciplines, glimpses of a different university have started to emerge, driven by curiosity and solidarity rather than the market values of neoliberalism.

As a historian interested in ideas among other things, I also feel I understand a little more about how protest and collective action actually work now. It’s not just the ideas, but the actual doing of it that creates the momentum and the motivations. Having researched the opposition to fascism in 1920s Italy and taught the Italian ‘68 I feel that the last few weeks have given me a better understanding of what it was like to actually ‘do’ activism. Something like this is made up of big moments and small moments, the serious conversations and the less serious ones. It’s also, apparently, about raiding my toddler’s music box for day 13’s carnivalesque noisy protest.

It’s along these lines of doing rather than thinking that might make a good place to end these notes too. Another conversation sparked by the strikes is the need for universities to recognise that we as academics are not just our work just as our students are not consumers: we are people with minds, bodies and families. There are more conversations about mental health, while it’s being highlighted that the importance of defined benefit pensions has a gendered dimension too.

If we are the university, then hopefully we can transform some of these conversations into meaningful change.

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