A public good: the pension dispute and the idea of the University

In a recent piece in The Guardian, Sally Hunt, Director of UCU, ended with a simple but fundamental injunction: we must the case anew for the University as a public good. To an outsider, it may seem odd that she would end a piece about a quite specific issue – the attempted transformation of pensions from a Direct Benefit to Direct Contribution scheme – by making a point about the University as an idea. But it is precisely this sort of connection that so many people are increasingly making and discussing.

I think there are two key reasons for this. The first, straightforwardly, is that many academics have had enough. They are often overworked, increasingly casualised, often feel undervalued, and have increasingly heavy demands put on them. And all of this on the back of student fees that so many of us oppose. And second, because understanding the pension dispute demands much closer and sustained attention to the political economies, governance, and labour practices of Universities. Briefly, there are at least four specific issues that the strikes have focussed in on and magnified, all of which come back to the challenge posed by Sally Hunt:

1: The growing role of private capital in Universities. From companies seeking to turn the pension fund into an arena of speculation and commodification, to Universities acting as urban development agencies speculating on real estate and taking loans from financial institutions to expand (eg see here and here);

2: Student fees. Just as the current pension plans would shift the cost and risk of pensions from institutions to employees, so too has the state shifted the funding of Universities from public subsidy to students (not just fees but interest rates – even Nicky Morgan, who chairs the Treasury select committee, has questioned the 6.1% interest rate on loans). The issues of student fees and pensions are not the same issues, but they are shared struggles. They are both shaped in part by discourses of ‘affordability’ and ‘responsibility, and narrow conceptions of ‘value’. Many of the staff on strike resisted the imposition and increases of student fees, just as they now campaign against the attack on pensions, often with great support from students;

3: Labour practices. While Vice-Chancellors’ pay has rocketed, UCU has shown that 46% of Universities and 60% of colleges use zero hour contracts to deliver teaching, and a staggering 68% of research staff are on fixed-term contracts. While not all of these, of course, are bad or undesirable contracts, the reality for many new staff is that they are forced to compete for ever more difficult to get temporary jobs, meaning they often have to move from place to place, with all the impacts that has on career plans, housing costs, families and relationships, and they may wait well into their 30s and even beyond before they have a permanent position. In other words, the attack on future pay in the proposed pension reform is a mirror to labour precarities and inequities that are intensifying now;

4: Governance. Many of those who govern higher education appear to have bought the ideology of the University as a market actor operating on principles of competition, marketization and speculation. Too often, the financial decisions and plans of Universities and the wider HE sector are opaque to staff. Most of us have no idea what the financial models are at our Universities. The governance of Universities and higher education needs to not only be more transparent, but to better reflect the actual values of the staff who see knowledge and learning as social goods that enrich individuals and the country as a whole.

No surprise, then, that for Sally Hunt the wider issue here is the University as a public good. A public good is a provision given without profit for the welfare of the community. What kind of ‘welfare’ is this? We can think here of the University in rather instrumental terms: creating jobs, educating the next generation of employees, tackling diseases or developing technologies, and so on. But the last point I want to make is about learning itself, which to me goes to the heart of the idea of the University as a public good.

On the first day of my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow in October 1996, I vividly remember standing at the bottom of the hill on University Avenue, and looking up at the imposing Gothic cloisters and tower at the top of the hill. As the first member of my family ever to go to University, I felt both elated and terrified, butterflies fluttering frantically away in my stomach. The 4 years that followed changed my life and left an indelible mark on me. University life was enthralling. All around me were people who cared passionately about ideas, knowledge and learning. Worlds opened up.

I don’t mean to sound nostalgic – there were surely all manner of problems then as they are now with higher education – but the world of Universities has transformed radically since then. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that the University was ‘world class’, or where it ranked in league tables for research or teaching. I was educated in a wonderful Geography department by staff who clearly cared deeply about education, just as we on strike do today. I was fortunate enough to have a maintenance grant, much of which – along with my student loan – ended up being drunk as cheap beer through long debates about football, New Labour, or recent lectures in pubs in the West End. No one, as I recall, every talked about learning or knowledge as financial investments, or even thought about higher education in economic terms at all. When I graduated, I went to a funded PhD and later was lucky enough to get a permanent position in what was then quite a different and less precarious job market.

In making the case for the University as a public good, this sense of the University as the buzz and excitement of knowledge and learning seems to me to be crucial. Other kids growing up in low-income parts of Glasgow or other parts of the country will not get the opportunities I had, and if they do go they will often by met by the language of consumers and world-class Universities, taught increasingly by often over-worked and temporary staff who may feel under-valued, and they will leave with eye-watering debts. They will still experience the spark and thrill of learning, of course, but it feels like the space for that is being evermore denuded and displaced. The case for the University as a public good needs, I think, some of the romance of knowledge and learning, alongside the shifting forms of political economy, labour practices and governance described above. As much as my 17 year-old self stood at the bottom of University Avenue was frozen with fear, I think that’s what he rightly expected of University.



2 thoughts on “A public good: the pension dispute and the idea of the University

  1. Pingback: The Means and Ends of Higher Education | Pop Theory

  2. Pingback: USS Strike: A list of blog posts and resources | Anthony Wilson

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