“We’re all middle class now” proclaimed John Prescott in 1997 to the agreement of a great many. Of course, this statement glossed over issues such as homelessness, low pay in an age before the minimum wage, and the shattered communities unable to rebuild after Thatcher’s savage deindustrialisation. But this statement captures the feeling of the time – it was “the end of history”, as Francis Fukuyama claimed. There was no need for socialism. Marxist thought was irrelevant. Capitalism had won.
Not even 20 years have passed and this statement, like so many other bullish claims of victory for the capitalist system, has been proven to be an utter falsehood. Not just because of declining living standards for those at the very bottom, but for those across the board. Professions that once over would be considered the epitome of “middle class” have been driven down to the point where they are amongst some of the most radical workers – teachers, for a start, are a great example. Barristers went on strike earlier this year to protest cuts to legal aid. Only days ago, junior doctors voted overwhelmingly to go on strike to protest Jeremy Hunt’s dangerous new contracts. University staff are not exempt from this either, and their conditions are amongst some of the worst and most perplexing.
But at the same time as all this, there was a Guardian headline only a week ago proclaiming “University vice-chancellors’ earnings ‘out of control’”. In the article, it is detailed that over 7,500 staff at universities earn over £100,000, with several vice-chancellors earning over £600,000! On top of this, some of the highest paid – Neil Gorman of Nottingham Trent, for example – earned £623,000 as well as a £250,000 bonus! The general secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, is quoted as saying “We have said for many years that the salaries and benefits of vice-chancellors are completely out of control”.
And while all this goes on, the situation for the wider faculty at many universities couldn’t be any more different. Ms Hunt goes on to note “the reality for many staff in the sector is job insecurity”. In a different article, the Guardian quotes an experienced lecturer as saying that many staff – like herself – who have over a decade of experience are forced to work on hourly contracts meaning there is no security in employment or indeed in wider life. Who would have thought a situation would emerge where a lecturer could not afford to get the tube to work at the end of a month, never mind successfully apply for a mortgage? This has seen militant campaigns emerge at universities such as SOAS, as well as the wider FACE (Fighting Against Casualisation in Education) campaign. On top of this, numerous Universities – notably Durham, Newcastle, and Southampton, who are all in the Russell Group – do not pay all of their staff a living wage. How can this be the case when fees are at an eye-watering £9000 year for most students? When pay for the bosses is at such a high rate? When “we’re all middle class now”?
The simple fact is that the scenario described above is merely a microcosm of the realities of a capitalist world; that meaning, when the books need to be balanced, the very last to take a financial hit will be the boss, and the first will be the frontline worker. This will be true for a steel worker in Teeside and an employee at Teeside University. While Prescott and Fukuyama have been shown to lack any foresight, Marx’s scientific hypothesis in 1848 that “The lower strata of the middle class… sink gradually into the proletariat” has stood the test of time. Universities should be run by the staff who teach daily and the students who attend their classes. The only way to ensure this, as well as a fair society for all where all staff at a university have fair hours; where all staff at a university receive a fair wage; and where all students at a university can enjoy an education free of crippling debt, is through fighting for socialism.
by Dave Hopkins, Leeds Marxists