Today marks the first day of yet another period of strike action our branch is taking. Today is also Valentine’s Day and of course we chose the theme for this day to match this day of love. We are far from the only ones to have jumped on this bandwagon. In today’s strike blog, I will reflect on this analogy and draw attention to a day of action happening in HE in my home country.
When we mention Valentine’s Day, images of bringing your significant other gifts and treating them to a special day comes to mind. Whether in pop culture, the media, advertising, and beyond, the focus is on that expression of love. However, to the close observer there is something distinctly noticeable about how one is supposed to express love on this very auspicious day. You probably know where I am going with this! If you say most, if not all, of the ways we are encouraged to spend love on this day involve spending money, you are a winner!
This link between spending, often considerable, amounts of money and Valentines Day is not an accident as a stroll through history shows. The imagery used is a call back to the minor god Cupid/Eros from Roman/Greek mythology well know for shooting arrows and making hapless humans fall head over heels. The name for the day itself derives from a Christian martyr Saint Valentine who according to some sources was executed for the crime of marrying Christian soldiers. As with many cultural customs, there are many other origin stories and variations over time and across the world. In later times, this day became one where couples would send each other a handwritten card and a small gift to express their love. In the 19th century, handicraft gave way to commercially printed cards and the well-known brand Cadbury started creating a heart-shaped box of chocolates specially for Valentine’s Day.
This abridged history shows Valentine’s Day morphing from a day about fighting for love, to expressing your love in a personal way, to doing so en-masse in a heavily marketized way. Those cards, chocolates, and trinkets we use to express our love are often produced in the very worst circumstances in global value chains. Production in low wage, less strictly regulated countries, displacement of farming benefitting the local population for higher yield cacao crop, and other practices all so we can express our love on Valentine’s Day. While we could simply say ‘I love you’ to our significant other, spend some time and effort making them something unique and special, and being present for them, we are made to feel we need to go all out and the amount of money we spend equates to how much we love them.
There are strong parallels between this trend in how we celebrate Valentine’s Day and the current state of UK higher education. We are told students want more than just to be educated by dedicated, knowledgeable academics, supported by competent librarians, student services administrators, and other staff, and do so in comfortable, well-equipped lecture halls, seminar rooms, libraries, etc. Students who we should now primarily treat as customers wielding market power through where they choose to spend their tuition fees, so we are told, want a ‘student experience’. To guarantee this student experience, ever greater amounts of the university’s funds are invested not in what makes for a good education but in all kinds of bells and whistles, like fancy sports facilities, shiny buildings, and other things that are meant to make students feel satisfied. Moreover, to let students know about this amazing student experience, significant amounts need to be spent on marketing and advertising.
While many of these extras benefit the primary aim of educating students, their main aim and consequence is to make the student feel like they are getting ‘value for money’. In fact, as some of the bells and whistles are comparatively more cost-effective at the latter as compared to improving the actual education students enjoy, ever greater sums are diverted to such expenditures. Moreover, and unlike investment in knowledge and skills academics, librarians, and other staff can make given the opportunity, such bells and whistles are easily copied by competing universities exactly because they require little more than throwing a lot of money at it. So, these investments in bells and whistles at best maintain competitive parity.
As the number of prospective students, and thus the value of their tuition fees, kept increasing due to widening participation and ever stronger interest from international students in a UK education, universities were able to match the investments in bells and whistles with greater receipts from tuition fees. Unfortunately, investments in the academics and other staff to deliver the product these students bought has certainly not kept pace. As happened to Valentine’s Day, HE has become commoditized. To maintain the illusion that the ‘student experience’ is a premium product despite fierce competition in the sector, ever more bells and whistles need to be tacked onto this product to make it ‘stand out in the market’ and convey ‘value for money’.
The real costs of maintaining this illusion are borne not by those at the helm of the universities justifying ever greater pay packets as universities balloon in size with record student numbers and annual budgets including all those bells and whistles, but by academics, librarians, student services administrators, and other staff. Staff numbers have not kept pace with the growth of the HE sector. The proportion of university budgets devoted to them have even declined. Staff are asked to make space for additional students in their increasingly overflowing lecture halls, seminar rooms, and other venues, to mark more essays and exams, to provide services to ever more students within the same amount of time. Where the limits of what additional work can be squeezed out of these academic and staff are reached, universities solve the issue by drawing in an ever greater casualized workforce to do the same work, or even a standardized, lower quality version, at a bargain.
The costs of our marketized HE system are borne most of all by the shoulders of our casualized colleagues. They are employed at the very worst of terms, if at all, since they are in many cases technically not even an employee of the university. Amongst other difficulties, that means they do not even get to be in the USS and thus make a contribution towards their pension nor are they allowed to join UCU strike action and fight for better terms and conditions.
To turn the tide, and for the many other reasons why we are on strike today and for a further nine, we are calling on the management of our university to show us some love. They claim they love HE, but if they continue to give their staff the cold shoulder, more hearts will break.
Across the North Sea, our colleagues at Dutch Universities are also taking action today, with the tagline ‘The University won’t love you back’. This follows a long campaign against casualization spear-headed by the 0.7 organization in which they have repeatedly asked universities to put their money where their mouth is and offer better terms and conditions. They are fighting for staff employed on one short term contract after the other only to be discarded the moment they would legally be entitled to a permanent one. Those contracts are usually 0.7 FTE since the amount of work ones needs to complete as part of such a contract is already a full-time workload. As in the UK, those on short term, casualized contracts are no stranger a lack of recognition for their unpaid research, inequality of opportunity, pay gaps, unsafe work environments, and more. Send them some solidarity @0pointseven!
Volunteers wanted for the strike blog!
Do you have any reflections on the theme of one of the strike days? Had amazing conversations at the picket line or enjoyed a teach out, and want to tell all about it? Want to share something about how you think the university can become a better place for staff and students?
If so, please send us your suggestion or draft contribution at firstname.lastname@example.org or talk to Gertjan Lucas (bottom left on the below picture), Equality Officer, at the Jubilee Campus picket on Derby Road.