I initially wrote this in the middle of ten more days of industrial action over pensions, pay and terms of work in the English university sector, those following ten days last month and three days at the end of last year, and plenty more in previous years. Then I thought it’d better wait till people weren’t actually on the picket lines (though there are still some places where, for different reasons, they are.) But there have never before been such serious strikes in UK higher education. It’s been quite a long time since I got to deliver one of my own modules without losing classes. Obviously my pay and savings have taken a dent, and I’m one of the fortunate ones in still being basically OK. But it has got us nothing; not only have there been no concessions but the employers’ bodies have simply refused to negotiate, as if a 17% gender pay gap wasn’t just a basic ethical concern as well as a financial problem. What response we have seen is moves to run around the unions by promising to address the problems by new schemes and initiatives in which the unions are not consulted. Of course, where a union is recognised that’s illegal, but P & O Ferries have just shown us how the accounting maths works out on that score.
All the same, just because the university managements probably can ignore the unions doesn’t straight away explain why they want to – why staff goodwill is worth so little, why staff welfare is of so little concern and why this much disruption is worth just weathering out. In my previous posts on these issues I accordingly set out some plausible reasons why at least some of the problems we’re fighting about, specifically pay rises and causalisation, are actually hard for the employers to address, and how their resolution would tend to result in fewer jobs in the sector overall. The short version of those reasons would be because university income in the UK is actually zero-sum, so if you reallocate any of it there have to be losses somewhere else. Nonetheless, the Universities and Colleges Union is not wrong that many universities are stacking away considerable profit and surpluses at the moment, even if they ignore that some others are running in persistent deficit and may soon go to the wall. So one might argue that at least some employers could reallocate the sums needed out of their own bank accounts. But it seems that they won’t, despite the best we can do by way of argument.
Now, emotionally I will happily accept the idea that the whole sector’s management just don’t care, and that their only strategies are to pretend to act via working groups and consultations while actually progressively removing any mechanisms of contact or feedback between them and the people to whom they give orders so as to make not caring easier. It certainly feels like that from here! But you might hope that there was at least some reason why everyone above a certain level of authority is willing to look that way to the public and their staff, despite what it means for the effective functioning of their institutions. In this post, therefore, I want to do two things: firstly I want to acknowledge and include some points my original thinking missed, which I found during the work on my posts on the disputes and which help explain a few more things. Then secondly I want to explain why I think we’re losing and what would have to happen to change that.
Points I missed
In the first place comes a change of direction that I partly managed to make in the original posts, because my starting hypothesis didn’t seem to be justified by the figures. It still doesn’t; to my surprise, it doesn’t seem as if the global pandemic has actually made terribly much difference to international student recruitment in the UK. The detail of the ebb and flow from place to place differs quite widely, and there was definitely a thin patch in early 2020 with lots of people understandably deferring their places, but between online teaching and then eased restrictions it seems that a lot of that revenue has been rescued. That meant that there was a period of panic and the great digital pivot and so on, and everywhere reset their budgets on the basis of panic. Then the disaster didn’t come and the part of the university sector that wasn’t already in trouble has found that it can more or less carry on like this now, for a while at least. And, for reasons we’ll come to under the final heading, ‘for a while at least’ is all anyone is thinking about right now. So the revenue crisis is now not so imminent as to make change necessary, but still remains potential enough to make change look very dangerous. It’s not the biggest brake on change – as I say, I’ll come to that – but it’s probably a significant one and I had it facing the wrong way round in the metaphorical circuitry of my analysis.
But seriously, pensions
Secondly, however, and more revelatory, the thing I have found hardest to understand in these disputes is why the employers won’t take easy wins when they appear. The one of these that was confusing me most was the pensions situation. I don’t want to run through the whole thing in detail here, but you have to understand what the problem initially was to understand what I mean. The problem initially was that, largely because of new rules set up by England’s Pensions Regulator, a valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme in 2017 or 2018, I now forget, came out showing a worrying deficit against future liabilities. It wasn’t losing money or anything: it was just unable right then and there to make all the payments that would be due if every single member university in the country suddenly went bust. Counter-arguments from the Universities and College Union included the one that this was utterly unlikely, but it was the eventuality against which the Pensions Regulator now required the scheme to be secure. There were also questions about whether this deficit would exist were the scheme not also trying to ‘derisk’ by moving its investments progressively into low-yield, but predictable, bonds, rather than the more profitable but less reliable funds that generated most of its current revenue. UCU also had arguments with the methodology used to do the valuation, however, arguments about necessary ‘levels of prudence’, and on that basis the only thing, really, that the first serious round of national strike action in 2019 won was an agreement to wait until USS had done a new valuation to decide on next steps, which everyone was going to agree on first.
Unfortunately, the new valuation occurred during the high point of panic over Covid-19. The figures came out much worse, of course, and the fund went unilaterally into carefully-managed emergency measures, triggered automatically by its charter and raising contributions across the board from both employees and employers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, new proposals rapidly emerged from the employers’ side about how to cut pay-outs and contributions to a level that they and the scheme found sustainable, and it’s these proposals that have now been pushed through in the teeth of our strikes. But the thing is, at the same time not only has every university in the country not simultaneously closed; the fund’s investments have also been doing far, far better than their gloomy maximum-prudence predictions during 2020 forecast. By all the calculations anyone outside can do with the available figures, two years of big investment return have probably actually wiped out the scheme’s deficit. There’s no longer any immediate financial need to make these cuts, and there’s another valuation due in 2023 anyway. So why not, to end these strikes, just give UCU what it wants, revert the cuts, let things simmer down and then start again in 2023? Why not now just let the staff have their hope of a reasonable retirement by changing nothing? In most other respects changing nothing appears to be what the managements want, so it seems like an easy concession to buy space to do whatever other worsenings they have planned. But no.
I couldn’t understand this until, in the course of writing the previous posts and looking for cites on managerialism in the university, I found an excellent blog post from 2019 by Lee Jones of Queen Mary University of London, for which institution I once worked and who have now earned themselves the ignominious honour of being the first university to try to dock pay from staff for not rescheduling classes lost due to strikes, i. e. fining them twice for not doing work once.1 Whether this is legal remains to be seen – the rest of the sector, having threatened it, is now waiting with bated breath to see if QMUL get away with it – but in any case, I digress. Dr Jones ends his post with a call for a full-on end to free-market economics as the only solution, which I can’t see coming, but his analysis of the actual economics of the situation seems to me very sharp indeed, and includes something I didn’t think of, universities’ increasing reliance on borrowing to finance their competition with each other. There, he says this (with all his links gratefully copied):
“The turn to capital markets happened very quickly after 2011. During 2015 alone, universities issued $1.39bn in private bonds, typically at around 3% interest over a long time period: 50 or even 100 years. From 2013–18, university bond issues totalled £4.4bn. Oxford has borrowed £750m over 100 years at 2.5%; Cardiff, £300m at 3.1% over 50 years; Cambridge, £300m at an inflation-linked rate and £300m at 2.35% over 60 years; even Portsmouth has raised £100m through issuing bonds.
“Raising private finance depends on assuring investors that the institution is financially sound and their money will be returned with the stated rate of return. To keep the ratings agencies sweet (yes, Standard and Poor, Moodys, et al. now rate universities, just as they rate governments), universities must show financial probity. That involves two things: first, they must demonstrate that revenue (i.e. students) will continue to flow to the institution, which requires a solid competitive positioning in the market place. Portsmouth’s investment prospectus, for example, makes direct reference to its league table position to reassure bond-purchasers. This reinforces the managerialist turn to gaming the league tables and degrading higher education, as described above. Secondly, universities must show a determination to suppress costs, to show that they can generate the required surplus to repay the bond when it matures. That entails bearing down on staff pay and especially ‘pensions liabilities’, which are always a concern for private investors. The desire to shrink these liabilities was a key factor behind employers’ attempt last year to cut USS pensions a third time [since] 2011, which drove staff out on strike en masse.”
That is a piece of the puzzle I did not have and which now fits all too well. Of course, the cutting of pensions is a long-term plan, or at least, has been happening over the long-term, and this helps explain why. Rather than the employers choosing change of plan over stability, what the concession I suggested above would mean in this light is the abandonment of a much longer-running plan to which the pandemic gave unexpected opportunity, under that old and disgraceful banner, used by more than one vice-chancellor in 2020, “never let a crisis go to waste“.2 And so I now hope for rather less success for the university workers in this area than the figures suggest should be possible.
A Private-Sector Problem
But the other reason my hopes have shrunk badly since this round of industrial action began is that there has been almost no action from the government. You might well say that this is an industrial relations problem, not a national problem, and why should the government be expected to act? But my earlier posts made the argument that when the government controls more than half the university sector’s income, between tuition fees and the mysterious QR funding, and imposes upon the sector a massive regulatory burden in order to be allowed to receive it, and then also imposes hard limits on what that income can be, it is actually the government that creates the framework within which these problems cannot be resolved.
Neither is it just that because of this level of state control, university finances are statically constrained. We exist as a sector under an ongoing and semi-permanent threat of defunding. Until just last month, the shape of this Sword of Damocles was the Augar Review, which began in early 2018, reported in the very last days of Teresa May’s premiership in 2019, and has only now received a proper government response. I’ll come to that response in a minute – because I literally only found out about it while writing the post – but since Augar initially recommended cuts to tuition fees, in order to reduce the growing liability on state finance created by their 40%+ non-repayment, it created a panic in the sector which in some places saw people literally being fired that month to save money. Then nothing happened, and a global pandemic set other priorities for all parties, plus which Augar himself no longer thinks cutting fees would be a good idea.3 Still, it was only a few weeks ago that any assurance came to the university sector that they were not, in fact, facing a crippling cut to their majority source of income which might come at any time, when the government announced that the current cap on tuition fees would be frozen for a further two years. And even that, of course, only gives two years’ security, and that in the form of a source of revenue which has been shrinking against inflation ever since 2012 when the current cap was set. Since other revenue in the sector is also very hard to increase, and with the upheaval caused by the pandemic to cope with as well, it is understandable that anyone who sees their principal job in a university as, not even to maximise profit, but just to keep the whole thing financially afloat, has been stockpiling income, trying to cut spending as much as possible and getting ready to borrow huge amounts if necessary.
As it is, from what I can see on the basis of a report on the response to the review – not having had time and probably not having the will to read the actual thing – the response does not remove this problem. Instead, it mainly does two things, one being to make repayment thresholds for the students who have loans lower, so as to decrease that massive non-repayment figure, and the other being to open up lifelong access to loans so as to encourage reskilling and retraining. This is kind of patching one hole while opening up another: it may get more loan money back into the Student Loans Company’s bank accounts, but will be pouring more money out at the same time, and to people who will not have as long to pay it back or salaries as high from which to do so. Those loans will have to be unpleasant to have if they’re to escape becoming a new version of the exact same problem the current ones face. The response also freezes current tuition fees for two years, but makes no promises about them after that. Meanwhile, it demands that universities make their ‘graduate premium’ more public by advertising employment rates for graduates from their courses, another reporting requirement which universities will learn how to game; and it threatens the future defunding of courses which don’t reach a certain, unspecified, level on that score, as well as potentially courses that don’t serve the national interest as much as others. To me this mainly looks like a win for the Further Education sector, and goodness knows it needs one, but this can also fit with my earlier forecast that universities will use their greater size and capacity to start taking over the vocational and FE sector and pushing smaller dedicated providers out of it – expect lots of mergers of local colleges with their local big universities and an end to non-degree-level teaching at them. What this does not do is give universities any basis on which they can securely plan their finances for more than two years ahead. That is made worse because, even this long after Augar actually reported, a great many things in the response seem to be kicked down the road for later consideration or, typically for the Cameron-and-post-Cameronian administration, left as threats that may or may not be carried out, depending on unspecified things. This kind of failure to make policy is exactly why for the last ten years or so no-one in the sector has dared plan anything but capital projects intended to secure more certain revenue.
For this reason, while I didn’t then know that it was being said on the basis of this response being about to appear, it was when I saw the above that I knew these strikes weren’t going to get us anywhere. Bim Afolami may be right, and UCU may be right, that the universities do, currently, in most cases, have the spare money to address some of their staff’s grievances and, as I say above, the pensions situation has eased to the point where it needn’t even cost them very much to address. But there is no reassurance that things will stay that way, and while as a result they are still the prisoners of the wavering international student market for any kind of ongoing financial security, they’re not going to start spending out reserves they could well need very badly just a couple of years down the line.
So what needs to happen if this is ever to get better? Well, I think it’s nothing less than a team from Universities UK, a team from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and one from the Universities and Colleges Union sitting down with the three, no less, ministers of government who currently have responsibilities in the sector (the Secretary of State for Education, the Minister for Universities and the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills) for a couple of days and arguing out what it is they collectively think universities should do, for whom. Then, and only then, they should concoct a way to tap the money made by those things that would establish a steady ongoing foundation for them which can continue without need of further interference. Then we might be able to look to a future. We’ve seen that there probably are ways that funding could be arranged, and possibly even with less of a burden on the state than there is now – on which basis at least one former Universities Minister might want to be in the room too, since he already thinks he knows how to do this – so it’s not impossible that this would produce a mutually satisfactory outcome.4 Since UCU tends to get outvoted in such meetings, however, it’s also possible that this would just produce an acceleration of the current direction of travel towards vocational, marketised, industry-facing training and research-only-with-development. But since I dare not hope that that meeting will ever happen, maybe, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, “Unfortunately, the world is just going to drag on and on.”5 Two questions then seem to remain: one is whether we, the actual workers of knowledge, are going to be able to drag it in any particular direction, even back towards the past, or will in the end be dragged by it. And the other, I suppose, is whether it’s worth remaining knowledge workers so as to see.
1. Lee Jones, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education” in Medium, 28th November 2019, online here. I should also mention Luke Martell, “The marketisation of our universities: Economic criteria get precedence over what’s good in human terms”, in British Politics and Policy at LSE, 23 November 2013, online here, as making some of the same points more briefly and presciently six years previously, although not the one I’m running with here.
2. I can’t name the ones I actually heard of saying it, as I suspect that would get me and others into trouble, but Peter D. Burdon, ‘Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste’: The Impact of COVID-19 on Legal Education, SSRN Scholarly Paper, Social Science Research Network ID 3938681 (Rochester NY 2021), online here, is kind of a metastudy. It should be noted that the phrase is seen positively by many ed-tech evangelists, who are presumably not interested in the reasons why the resistance to change which the use of the phrase bespeaks exists: witness Wayne Camara, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: Large-Scale Assessment and the Response to COVID-19” in Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice Vol. 39 (Chichester 2020), pp. 10–18, DOI: 10.1111/emip.12358, and Jeffrey Lancaster, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste” in EduCause Review, January 11 2021, online here.
3. A lot of my details in this paragraph, including that last one, come from Nick Hillman, “In the years of waiting for a full response, it’s become clear the Augar review is a smörgåsbord not a prix fixe. But while policymakers have been deliberating, universities have been delivering” in HEPI, 1 February 2022, online here, though I can’t but think Dr Hillman must have been quite annoyed when the response followed on his heels by only a month. On that response I have mainly relied on James Higgins, “Augar review: government reveals student finance shake up” in University Business, 24th February 2022, online here.
4. See David Willetts, Boosting higher education while cutting public spending, HEPI Report 142 (London 2021), and indeed David Willetts, A university education (Oxford 2017).
5. Gil Scott Heron, “Brother”, on A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (RCA 1970).