Be A Voice: Why are we letting our Universities act like thuggish moguls?

By Campaign Agent Alasdair Fraser

Following weeks of strikes and protest, cracks are beginning to appear in the well-crafted visage of Britain’s academic institutions, exposing their ugly commercialisation.

Currently, the primary battlefield in the war for the soul of British academia is the feud between the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK). The dispute began when the former called time on proposed changes to higher education staff’s occupational pension the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme). The changes would see their pensions, currently in a defined-benefit scheme offering a guaranteed retirement income, converted into a money purchase scheme where returns are subject to the financial performance of pension funds linked to the financial markets. The net effect of these reforms would leave staff £10,000 per annum worse off at retirement, with the brunt of the burden being felt by younger employees that frequently carry larger amounts of debt.  

Whilst Union leadership and employers have been keen to strike a deal, members on the ground have vetoed attempts at compromise. A proposed agreement, which would have seen an increase in contributions and a reduction in retirement income in exchange for a three-year guarantee for the defined-benefits under the USS, was viewed as being insufficient. Strikes continued, and students took up the banner for their besieged colleagues, lecturers, and friends. 

However, beneath the pension dispute, a common occurrence today as employers seek to ditch costly final salary and defined benefit schemes, lays a malignant factor that is hampering higher education across the country – the commercialisation of higher learning. 

For years now 'fat cat' vice-chancellors have run universities like FTSE 100 companies, claiming six-figure salaries and considerable benefits that vastly outstrip the salaries of their colleagues involved in day-to-day teaching. Academic staff are bullied into accepting pension cuts and have their work casualised as fees soar and satisfaction dives. For a time, the student population remained largely complacent, although, this is beginning to change and students are increasingly showing their disaffection with the status quo. 

University office or rugby pitch?

An important question: Aberdeen University senior management cannot seem to tell the difference. Or that’s what it looks like when you review footage of the director in charge of security wading into a group of occupying students as if they were a ruck. Using my alma mater as a case study, the cracks really are beginning to show, even discounting directors assaulting students. 

Just in the last two years, our former student President was lambasted for offering scant resistance to a salary increase for the Vice-Chancellor, already one of the highest paid in Scotland. A popular activist known for agitating the establishment was re-elected as Rector, and the administration did everything in their power to stop her by claiming ‘irregularities’. Whilst the university continues to renege on housing, mental health support and safety, students and staff battle on. However, all of this is outpaced by the contempt the administration have shown for staff in their approach to the recent pensions strike – a well-rehearsed act I frequently saw during my studies as departments were bled dry, whilst senior salaries remained stable and poorly considered international projects went ahead. 

Crucially, Sir Ian Diamond’s obscene salary, Maggie Chapman’s ordeal at the rector elections, and Angus Donaldson, Estates and Facilities director’s disgusting assault on members of the student body are neither isolated events nor are they part of a new trend. Instead, they represent a sickness at the heart of British higher education where the pursuit of money and the maintenance of power are more important than learning, democracy, and equality: the principles accepted almost universally by members of the academic community. 

When I asked Lewis MacLeod, Communities officer at Aberdeen University Students Association (AUSA) on behalf of the Aberdeen Students Support the Strike, what he felt about the situation, he had the following to say: 

"Across the country, students are resisting the tide of marketisation by standing alongside striking staff in the pensions dispute. The strike has emboldened a rebirth of student radicalism, with a wave of occupations springing up from Aberdeen to Sussex - and dozens of places in between. These occupations are a direct and effective challenge the unaccountable and overpaid senior managers in our institutions that push the very marketisation agenda that [has resulted] in pension raids and job cuts, in sky-high  accommodation costs, and [in] grossly underfunded mental health services."

However, it was not just students who are unhappy with senior management’s response to the occupation. Staff from the Social Sciences department showed their dismay at the university’s mistreatment of the occupiers in an open letter signed by thirty colleagues.

Is time up for corporate academia?

Surely, if it has come to students spending nine days in a hallway to show solidarity with their lecturers, it is time for a change. Is it not fair to say that, if it has become standard practice for manipulative directors to lie to, assault, and deprive students of basic comforts for the simple act of protest, we have reached a critical impasse regarding how we operate our highest institutions of learning? Moreover, is it not morally reprehensible that those in charge of our tertiary education earn three times as much as our top politicians and ten times as much as many of our primary and secondary school teachers? Shouldn’t a developed social democracy be able to protect the sanctity of academia? Shouldn’t we be able to pay lecturers and tutors for the work they do and provide them with a fair standard of living in retirement? What sort of example does it set for the next generation of educators and innovators when we bleed academics dry, reducing their departments to husks when we overload their schedules and shred their pensions? I for one will no longer stand by quietly, and neither should you.

Sources and Further Reading:

Image courtesy Lewis MacLeod, Aberdeen Students Support the Strike