On Monday (24th May), the University of Liverpool was brought to a standstill by academic staff opposing proposed job cuts. The dispute has unified academic departments in a way never seen before, and shaken the ground beneath the feet of senior management.
Despite the enormous scale of the trailblazing national strikes in 2018, the University of Liverpool Faculty of Health and Life Sciences (FHLS) always proved to be “a tough nut to crack”, as one member of the University and Colleges Union once told me. Historically, the UCU drew most of its membership from humanities staff, who previously might have looked on their science and engineering counterparts with unease. No surprises – the cutthroat free-for-all in the higher education sector, cultivated from the top down, has pitted workers against one another and forced them to compete for vital funding. Recently, though, even those ‘always in-demand’ roles have come under threat. Project SHAPE, the restructuring initiative and grandiose brainchild of Executive Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Kenny, nominally aims to “deliver world-class, research-connected teaching”. In reality, it is a thinly veiled plan to axe 47 jobs. Curiously, the University can find the money for an elaborate new research centre! Due to the efforts of HLS47 the job cuts are now down to 32, but this is not good enough!
Let’s be clear: if world-class, research-connected teaching was the priority, then there would be no Project SHAPE. Students at Liverpool previously benefited from the tutelage of industry leaders expert in fields such as cancer and oncology, pharmacology, etc., and yet these same people are out of a job. The basis of these cuts is on what can only be described as arbitrary data. Take the ‘Impact score’, for example. This is more or less the number of times someone’s research is cited by others, which seems inoffensive, except for the fact that everyone from the late Stephen Hawking to Anthony Hollander, the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, fails to meet the threshold set by the University! All would be handed their notices. Janet Beer, Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and former President of the body governing 140 of the country’s higher education institutions, Universities UK, would also get the sack. Yes, this profit-driven ‘rank-and-yank’ system is so absurd, in fact, that it was dropped by Amazon.
All that is solid melts into air
The race to the bottom didn’t start here. No, the University of Liverpool has something else in common with Amazon – it gorges on a diet of precarious and casualised labour that would make the Victorian workhouse proprietor blush. Thirty-seven percent of staff at the University of Liverpool are employed on fixed-term contracts. Just a few months ago, a harrowing testimony of a heavily pregnant woman was released, accounting how, in complete disregard of the circumstances, the University was prepared to let her contract expire. All of this has set the stage for the current dispute, and brought members of staff from every department together with a shared grievance. Where the University cynically wrote off previous strikes as bleeding heart theatrics, and no doubt took comfort behind that invisible cordon surrounding the Life Sciences and Biosciences buildings, they can no longer do so with a straight face. Membership of the University of Liverpool UCU branch has surged in the last year, thanks in part to the FHLS staff.
This sea change was reflected in the ballot: on a 59.8% turnout – comfortably exceeding the minimum set by the Tories’ Draconian anti-trade union laws – 83.7% voted for strike action, and 90.3% for action short of a strike (ASOS), also known as work to rule. The strikes are now in their third week, and show no sign of slowing down.
For the most part, rallies have been well-attended, drawing support from the local Labour Party and trade union branches as well as students. The ability of the University of Liverpool UCU to deal such a blow around the time of final exams has shaken the ground beneath the feet of senior management. Gavin Brown, the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education and snarling attack dog, has wasted no time in propagandising against the union. “We fully understand how unsettling the news of strike action is for students”, one recent email of his read – a cruel joke considering the University’s willingness to let go staff in the current job market.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire
The pandemic has concentrated already-existing antagonisms, which have precipitated since the beginning in the form of industrial action and rent strikes. And the University of Liverpool dispute is merely a snapshot of the wider predicament facing the higher education system. On 4th May, the UCU announced sanctions against the University of Leicester, placing it on an academic grey list in response to the ‘reviewing’ of 145 roles. Despicably, 27% of these redundancies would affect officers of the UCU branch there, a blatant union-busting measure as the University suffers financial difficulties. Reports claim that it is borrowing money just to stay afloat, with General Secretary of the UCU Jo Grady saying “[UCU] will not stand back and allow the University of Leicester to be destroyed by dismal management”. And rightly so, but we must understand that this is the inevitable result of the marketisation and privatisation of education as a whole. After these battles, there is still a war to come.
As the crisis of capitalism deepens, so too will the rot at the foundations of every sector of the economy. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously pointed out that “What the Bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers” – and to be sure, wider layers of workers and students will be swept into the tide of class struggle. A radical socialist leadership of the trade union and student movements is needed, linking together the questions of pay, working conditions, tuition fees and rent, Only then can the final victory be won, moving beyond this historical epoch of “horror without end” with a rationally planned, socialist economy that will protect livelihoods, provide future generations with free education for its own sake, and produce the knowledge and solutions needed to solve the climate crisis and the global pandemic.
Liverpool Marxist Society