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Why I will vote Yes to suspend industrial action

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After intensive strike action, Universities UK have now come forward with a proposal to staff in universities on the Universities Superannuation Scheme which the union has put to members to be voted on.

There has been intense argument on social media about which way to vote. It is clearly very important that all UCU members vote in order to come to a sound democratic decision on whether the offer about pensions is good enough, and we can suspend (not end) strike action and go back to teaching as normal, or should we reject the offer and continue to strike.

I have been on holiday and will have to come back onto email in order to vote. I have done my best to look at material about the offer while also taking time off with my young daughter. I am going to vote in favour of accepting the offer.

The offer is a substantial move from the employers' original position, which was that they would not negotiate - they have gone with the union to ACAS to do so, and that they were determined to move from a defined benefits scheme because of a massive deficit in the pension budget. They have now agreed to a joint board chosen equally by the employers and the union which will re-valuate the deficit, and they have recognised that the vast majority of those of us who have invested in the pension fund want a secure defined benefits scheme rather than what one speaker at a rally described as the 'chocolate teapot' of a pension which they tried to make us accept.

Why would we not accept this offer? So far as I can see, people against it have no trust in UUK and expect them to renege on their offer. There has been a lot of detailed unpicking of the wording of the offer, suggesting it is full of little loopholes.

I do not trust UUK either, but I trust the process. I trust that ACAS and the union, who have brought us this far, will watch over my interests. Sally Hunt raised her serious concerns about the pension proposals from very early on and the union worked extremely hard to get us to come out on strike at all. I believe they have a good understanding of what is going on.

People also complain that the proposal should not have been put to members, as it is merely a suggested process not a complete cave-in by the employers. I say: Let's be magnanimous. We, the employers and the British media (see articles not only in The Guardian and Times Higher Education Supplement, but even in the Financial Times) know that the employers were caught with their pants down. They were stupid to assume they could put such a poor valuation assessment of our pension fund in front of university staff, who include Emeritus Professors of Economics, Business Studies, Pension experts, Statisticians and many others who took their chocolate teapot apart in blogposts and explained exactly where the beans had come from. Let's allow them to pull their pants back up in private in the joint re-valuation committee.

We had to be allowed to vote on this proposal now, because if we left the vote any longer, we would not have time to vote before having to take strike action during assessment. We must have a democratic mandate if we are to do that.

Those who say Reject the offer, argue that we should not lose momentum. They believe the employers only want to get us through the crucial exam period and then will renege on their words.

I believe that the process will not allow them to do this, and that they are under scrutiny not just from our union and ACAS, also from interested media and therefore the public (including supportive students and their families). Exams are like spring. They come round every year (eventually). We are suspending our action, not ending it. If as the months go forward, UUK do renege on their recognition of the kind of pension we want to invest in, we will be able to strike during exam period next year.

We would be able to do that with continued popular support. I believe that if we drag the strike on this year in the face of an offer from the employers, we will lose the vital support we have had from students and their families, the media and many key politicians. (Perhaps that is what the employers hope will happen.)

But yes - we need to keep up pressure.

We need to do this by moving on from the battle over pensions. Perhaps it is not won yet. However, we need to leave picked personnel to take care of that for us (like union officers and our chosen members of the committee to re-consider the valuation of the pension fund, and lawyers who could oversee the process for us).

We should move on to other aspects of the neoliberalisation of universities. This is where the real deal is. Issues over our pensions arose because of the general trend of universities towards marketisation. There are several other fronts where we need to focus attention in order to win the war.

  1. We at the Open University are dealing with a vote of No Confidence, not just in our Vice Chancellor in person but in the whole Executive who have sought to introduce neoliberal principles to the detriment of our social justice mission. I regard this as a test case in education values: should education be market-driven, or driven by humanism.
  2. Coventry University have had an organisation imposed on them which means they can't stand collectively with the rest of us in the University and Colleges Union. We must defend our collective bargaining position.
  3. Casualisation blights our teaching and research provision.
  4. Our workloads have gone through the roof. Tiredness and stress are leading to health issues which affect most academics - while universities trumpet their support for student mental health initiatives.

I want to shift my efforts now to raising awareness of those problems, with my voice and my political will. (After I have had what's left of my holiday! wide eyes So far I've only had to sort out one poor student in difficulties so it's been a good break smile Oh, and I recruited another student for the Open University in Scotland who was unable to access traditional university and thrilled when she realised that she could study with us - for free, and without having to do a lot of GCSEs first. You owe me one @OUScotland.)

From a short walk in Roslin Glen.

Misty trees on a hillside Green bluebell leaves under the trees

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 8 Apr 2018, 12:10)
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Black cat and pink blanket

The neo-liberal approach

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 19 Mar 2018, 10:11

Ironically, the strike action I'm taking against neo-liberal management of education impacts on a module I teach that critiques the neo-liberal approach to education (EE814: Addressing inequality and difference in educational practice.)

A concept which we encourage students to define and use on this module is 'discourse'. I find this helpful in understanding how management can continue to blithely pursue patently absurd neo-liberal policies in spite of the cries of anguish from those of us who have to try to deliver learning across instead of along these lines.

'Discourse' (drawing on Michel Foucault's work) is the idea that society is set up in certain ways (along lines of power), so only some thinking has legitimate expression. We have to speak up within discourse, but at the same time we are always creating it so it does shift. A dramatic example of shift in discourse is #MeToo and #TimesUp. Women have been protesting the way in which men treat us for centuries - famously in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - first published in 1792. We have frequently and infamously been ignored in spite of widespread anger and scorn, vociferously expressed by Second Wave feminist activists highlighting unreasonable excuses blaming women for our own harassment. It's not until a final shift of power in 'discourse' that these protests can get heard and taken seriously. (The earlier work against abusive power in 'discourse' is of course fundamental in building up to that shift.) 

As academics, we devoutly hope that our protest against the pensions proposals put to us can prove such a shift against the neo-liberal approach to education (marketisation). 

Screenshot of letter to The Times from VC of Cambridge University

Screenshot of letter

We all hope that this shift can take place before the final neo-liberal absurdity of the current Minister for Higher Education's proposal to rank degrees according to how much graduates from them earn. (This is all the more stupid because there is an inbuilt ranking measure in degrees already. How many students graduate from the degree with a good pass mark indicates how much they have learnt and therefore how good a degree it is. Res ipsa loquitur, as Captain Jack Sparrow puts it. NB, Minister - socio-economic deprivation should be considered as a factor in this measure.) 

Article by Guardian writer Suzanne Moore. 

Screenshot of article by Suzanne Moore 'Only the truly ignorant would rank universities according to graduate earnings' 

On EE814, we draw on the writing of Michael Apple (2006a, 2006b - this one is very short, 1990) and a key article by Olssen and Peters (2007) which looks at neo-liberalism in Higher Education. (My DD102 and DD103 students will be interested to hear that Olssen and Peters use the thinking of Hayek and Stiglitz, among others, in their article - two economics thinkers we explore on those modules as well.) 

Basically, the neo-liberal approach to education treats education like a marketplace. It argues that the customer is always right and that we should tailor our education provision to demand. If the students want modules on postfeminist needlework, then we should supply those. (Warning - that last link goes to a highly satirical site with material some may find offensive.) Academic teaching staff have been vociferous in condemning the considerable recent emphasis put on student satisfaction surveys. These are likely to reward charismatic individuals rather than rigorous teaching design making students work hard to achieve more highly. I have heard of staff chastised for poor results in a student satisfaction survey, while the same student cohort were walking away with many more First degree grades than their peers on comparable courses. 

Secondly, the neo-liberal approach to education assumes that students come to learn in order to move straight into gainful employment. Gainful to the economy that is, not gainful in the sense of being satisfying to them in any spiritual way or contributing to society in other ways than economic. Hence, the assumption by the Minister for Higher Education that measuring degrees by eventual income is a good way to go. I get routinely asked what employability skills students gain on EE814. As this is a postgraduate education module, many of my students are already employed as teachers - the idea that they might want to improve their teaching skills while in post doesn't seem to enter into the neo-liberal equation. (Some of us refuse to answer stupid questions like these about our courses, except by sending back long and dull diatribes about neo-liberalism.) 

Thirdly, the neo-liberal management of education seems to need a lot of form-filling and oversight. In all areas of public sector work (police, schools education, NHS) we hear about spending time accounting for the time we would rather be spending doing our work. There is a complete lack of trust of workers in delivering on basic tasks. Nor is there any interest in supporting us as workers. This vast array of performance indicators is not designed to identify training needs or help build our skillbase. Nor have I ever heard of an academic staff member identified as not delivering appropriately and sacked because of performance indicators. Promotions, too, happen in a structure that appears to be outwith these mundane performance measurements. It's not very clear what use they are being put to. 

One aspect of marketisation of Higher Education seems to be the trend for expensive and beautiful new buildings. Some are saying that the reason Universities UK want the pension scheme set up on different grounds, is that the way it's currently set up is regarded as a liability by banks who would lend them more money if the pension scheme could be accounted for in a different way. (It seems that bankers have a pretty weird 'discourse' going on too.) But why do universities want all these new buildings? many not suitable for teaching or research purposes? Is it just because buildings as 'stock' add to monetary value and this is seen as the best, most business-like way to manage our colleges and universities? 

Although many of Cardiff University's new buildings are for research purposes, they are promoted here in business terms. They include an Innovation Centre: "Providing companies with the resources and support to encourage growth with confidence." Any educational aspect of this project is lost in the account of it. 

Architects' drawing of several new buildings

I could go on, but I will just reproduce this page (p.327) from Olssen and Peters which seems particularly pertinent, and let you read the rest of their article yourselves. 

Screenshot of p.327 of Olssen and Peters article

References

Apple, M. (1990) Ideology and Curriculum, Hove, Psychology Press

Apple, M.W. (2006a) Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality, New York, Routledge.

Apple, M. (2006b) ‘Understanding and Interpreting Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism in Education’, Pedagogies: an International Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 21–5.

Mark Olssen & Michael A. Peters (2007) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism, Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500108718

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 19 Mar 2018, 22:45)
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