This week saw another one day strike of university staff across the UK. For those not aware of the context, the dispute is over pay (a 13% decline in real terms salaries since 2009, whilst senior managerial pay has outpaced inflation, and universities ran a collective surplus of over £1 billion last year). The two strikes so far have involved three national unions, representing not only academics, but the whole range of university workers.
I joined colleagues on the picket line at my own institution on Tuesday morning. The last time we struck, the university cancelled classes. This time it didn’t, so many staff, especially academics, were faced with a starker choice about whether they would support the action or not.
It was fascinating hearing what some of those who crossed the picket line had to say when challenged. My favourite responses were these:
1. One professor said he disagreed with strike action because it was ineffective. It would be better, he said, to withhold grades on student assignments. On one level, this is a valid point. The tactic of sporadic one day strikes is especially weak. It easily loses momentum, and gives the employers the chance to offer meaningless talks as a PR exercise (as happened after our first one day strike). However, his argument was somewhat weakened by the fact that he was not in the union, nor in any other way seeking to influence the shape of collective resistance to pay cuts. It seemed to be enough to ‘have an opinion’ which sounded more radical than what the union was doing.
2. Another lecturer actually stated that he ‘fully supported’ the strike, but was going to teach anyway as he was not a member of the union. I put it to him that he could join the union on the picket line, and he would immediately be protected against dismissal for joining the strike, but this did not seem to be what he had in mind.
3. A third lecturer said that he agreed the pay cuts were wrong, but disagreed with striking because of the impact it had on students. He said he belonged to a ‘non-striking’ union, but could not remember the name of it.
I’m aware that others who broke the strike had a whole variety of very different reasons, ranging from fear of management reprisals to a simple hatred of unions. However, the three responses above stood out for me because they all came from people claiming to be sympathetic to the cause of the strike.
The disavowal at work here is stunning in its mundanity, the fact that it went unremarked as it was stated. ‘The union should adopt different tactics – but I will not join the union’; ‘I support the strike – but I am not going to strike myself’; ‘the cause of the strike is just – but I renounce the basic means of resisting injustice’.
There is no reason why academics should be any more logical about these matters than anyone else. But I wonder if the gaping holes in these responses are, at least in part, a result of the shaping of academic subjectivity by the capitalist university. We are engaged in a profession which claims to promote something above instrumentalism – and it is precisely this which is our instrumental role. We have to play the games of preparing students for employment, and raising money for research, but we keep an internal distance from these things. We cynically despise them (and often despise the students who do not measure up to our ideals), whilst committing ourselves to a system which believes in these things on our behalf (cf. the Zizekian analysis of contemporary belief).
However, it is this internal displacement which produces the figure of the contemporary academic. This person is invested in an ethic of scholarship, which actually leaves them without a language or imagination for addressing the material conditions of higher education, beyond that of an ultimately ineffective idealism. The melancholy of the modern scholar over the marketization of education is therefore neither a form of resistance nor mere nostalgia, but a fabricated affect essential to the mediating role we play.
Of course, I generalise hugely, and we can all think of many exceptions. I am not suggesting that our bureaucratised unions or existing left groups offer any panacea. Nevertheless, higher education has been, and will continue to be, marketised and instrumentalised, and the vast majority of academics will (grudgingly, cynically) put up with it. And our ethic of scholarship is of no use. It is the same ethic which is able to abide such logical inconsistencies and lack of solidarity when it comes to strikebreaking.
Perhaps, if we seek an effective resistance, we need to talk less about the mystique and otherness of education and instead acknowledge that it is a political economy. Perhaps the students who occupied part of Liverpool University in support of the strikes this week had the right slogan: ‘University is a Factory’.