Strike Harder: Two Ways for Lecturers to Win

I’ve been on strike for the last two days, alongside other members of the University and College Union (UCU), in protest against deteriorating work conditions and the marketisation of Higher Education. This is a battle that affects not just staff in universities and colleges but also students and workers – from midwives to engineers – whose jobs requires a degree.

But is a strike the most effective way of making our demands? The strike logic is that stopping production deprives the employer of goods to sell, and damages their profits. However, the social goods produced in universities are not made on a production line and a day of striking is unlikely to affect the eventual products (whether that is research or educated students). The greatest cost to the university management is ’embarrassment’, and sentiment rarely forces concessions. UCU plan to expand the action by ‘working to rule’, refusing to exceed our contractual 37-hour weeks, but even this will have a limited impact on management. The greatest leverage we have is to stop marking exams, but this unfairly hits students; while we can count on their support in many instances, it may be difficult to sustain this solidarity over the long run. But there are two weapons which have so far been overlooked.

1. Research Excellence Framework (REF) Strike

The REF is a piece of government bureaucracy which rates the research output of universities and departments. This system has come under intense criticism for being extremely costly to run, for distorting the research process (it forces academics to concentrate on short, easily publishable pieces at the expense of long-term complex but important problems) and for being woefully inadequate in assessing what counts as ‘good research’. Nevertheless, government research grants (and even people’s jobs) are increasingly tied to REF scores. If academics collectively stopped filling out REF forms then we would be able to strike a blow at this hopeless, target-obsessed bureaucracy and hit management where it hurts: their funding links to government.

2. Peer-review Strike

Academic institutions are currently in the absurd position where they have to pay their staff to do research and then buy that research back off the academic publishing institutions that run almost all of the peer-reviewed journals. This generates huge profits for groups like Elsevier and Springer but huge costs for universities (Manchester University spent £3m on journal subscriptions in 2014). If academics stopped providing their free labour in this peer-review process, and collectively decided to only do peer-reviews for free, open-access journals then we could topple this profit-driven absurdity. Universities would save huge amounts of money which we would demand be reinvested in decent wages and a reversal of casualization, threatening a REF strike if they tried to funnel the savings into even more pay rises for Vice-Chancellors (who’ve already seen pay rise by 6.1% over the last year, compared to 1.1% for the academics and support staff who actually do most of the work).

It’s no longer enough to stand on the picket line. We have to think critically about the most effective ways of creating leverage, paying attention to the financialised, global structures of the institutions we are striking against. Acting collectively, university workers can reverse the slow death of Higher Education – we just need to understand where our power lies.

—Matteo Tiratelli

Photo: Chris Bethell 

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