Let’s pick(et) our battles wisely

VROOMFONDEL: We demand that machine not be allowed to think about this problem!

DEEP THOUGHT: If I might make an observation…

MAJIKTHISE: We’ll go on strike!

VROOMFONDEL: That’s right. You’ll have a national philosophers’ strike on your hands.

DEEP THOUGHT: Who will that inconvenience?

MAJIKTHISE: Never you mind who it’ll inconvenience you box of black legging binary bits! It’ll hurt, buster! It’ll hurt!

     From Fit The Fourth of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams.  Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, March 29 1978.

I suspect that this is going to be a contentious post.

Having spent my time on the picket lines over the last eight (non-)working days…

…and last year,

… I am acutely aware of, and deeply sympathetic to, the issues underpinning the strike. The speeches at yesterday’s closing rally — including that from the ever-impressive Lilian Greenwood, Labour MP for Nottingham South (and someone for whom I will again be voting in a week’s time) — brought home the exceptionally precarious and deeply unfair working conditions that so many university employees endure under zero hours contracts. Even Spiked! magazine — whose coverage of universities usually fixates on hysterical fantasies about the infestation of evil, leftist, free-speech-suppressing, no-platforming Cultural Marxists indoctrinating our children — saw fit to publish a rousing article supporting the strikes.

There has similarly been a series of compelling and affecting pieces over the last few weeks that drive home the damage that the ever-accelerating corporatisation and marketisation of our universities is doing to education. One of the more comprehensive analyses I’ve seen is The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education by Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Thoroughly recommended.

But what have these eight days on strike actually achieved?

Yes, I know that we’ve demonstrated a great deal of solidarity and that the time on the picket lines has been morale-boosting (and at least it wasn’t as sodding cold as last year). But still, pragmatically, what did we achieve?

Here at Nottingham, at least, the response from the “powers that be” has been a deafening silence. (And Nottingham’s hardly alone in this.) For many departments, including my own, it’s been business as usual; the car park has been full, lectures and lab sessions went ahead with nary a disturbance, and coursework was dutifully marked and returned to students. This is not to downplay in any way, I hasten to add, the heartening efforts of my UCU colleagues and our incredibly supportive students, including, in particular, those who occupied UoN’s iconic Trent Building…

And I’ve also got to highlight the incredible energy, charisma, and tenacity of Matt Green, the President of Nottingham’s UCU Committee, who has been as outstanding as ever.

But the upshot of our eight day strike is that …drum roll… the UCU is going to call for yet more strikes in January. The argument is that we’ve got to keep the pressure up. But who, exactly, are we pressuring? Or, as Deep Thought puts it in that salient quote that opens this post, who, exactly, are we inconveniencing? We’ve hardly brought senior university management to their knees, have we?

For those who, like me, were on the picket lines — and, indeed, for those who weren’t — ask yourself this: which of the options below hurts the university more? Which is more likely to cause some sleepless nights for the senior executive?

A. An empty seminar room or lecture theatre,

B. A five- or ten-strong picket line chanting at a university entrance,


C. A low score in the National Student Survey/ low league table ranking/ damaging media coverage for their university?

Not only did we have PVCs and other senior staff crossing picket lines with wild abandon, but quite a few union members — and, indeed, some erstwhile union reps — didn’t strike, let alone picket. University management will be well aware of this lack of engagement with the strike either now or when the figures for non-pay in January are returned. They save on the salary bill and they can rest easy that the impact on students’ progression is minimal, at best, and negligible, at worst.

Because what most matters to universities is their brand. If we want to have greater influence and bargaining power I would argue that we have to be a little more canny in our tactics and exploit exactly the corporatisation and marketisation culture we criticise and that underpins the behaviour of the 21st century university. (I’ve written before about the frustrating tendency of the left to not always be entirely cognisant of the value of “optics” and PR.)

Sceptical? Here are a few examples of brand management that might help to make my case…

Along with a number of APM colleagues, I spent six months chasing up a (very modest) honorarium payment for an invited speaker. Six months. The speaker eventually reached the point where, exasperated, she tweeted about the University’s lack of payment to her tens of thousands of followers (tagging in @UniOfNottingham). Within minutes she had a response from UoN, and within days the money was in her account.

Down the road, at Nottingham-Trent University (Guardian University Of The Year 2019), Liz Morrish was subject to disciplinary proceedings when a post hit 10,000 views on Liz’s own blog and trended at the Times Higher website, as described in the article linked in the tweet below.

And Warwick hardly covered itself in glory in this appalling case because they placed their brand management well ahead of students’ safety. That’s how engrained the importance of protecting the university brand can be.

“The top six universities are like the most beautiful cities in the world, reputable even if they have failing ­sewers, arrogant mayors and dodgy no-go areas…A folklore builds up around them, as do money and fans.”

(From Beyond the super-brands, universities are strengthening their positions, Times Higher Education)

So let’s stop trying to repeatedly use the same seventies strategies to attack a 21st century problem. Let’s think a little bit more about what really matters to university managers.

It’s not the students*.

It’s not the staff.

It’s the brand.  


* …although it’s certainly the student numbers.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Metal fan. Father of three. Step-dad to be. Substantially worse half to my fiancée Lori, whose patience with my Spinal Tap obsession goes to far beyond 11...

4 thoughts on “Let’s pick(et) our battles wisely”

  1. I think you are right – the University are much more bothered by negative publicity than by strikes (at least this one). Maybe UCU should consider an alternative league table based on VC salary, gender pay gap, fraction of staff on zero hour (and fixed term) contracts, students with mental health problems, staff on long term sick leave, treatment of victims of harassment, amount of money wasted on non-functional infrastructure, support offered by accommodation office……..

    I think prospective students might be quite interested in such a hall of shame?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Phil! Interesting post thanks, and I have a lot of sympathy for thinking about alternative approaches, that would impact on institutional reputation. There has been reputational impact on some uni’s as a result of the strike (eg Guardian article about Liverpool).

    Also, I’m wondering what can explain your experience on the picket line. I am aware of only one class that went ahead in my department (Sociological Studies) during the strike. Why so different for you? Is this a science thing…and, if so, what explains it? I am certainly aware that almost all scientists I follow on Twitter carried on tweeting as normal throughout the strike, with not acknowledgement of what was going on around them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Warren.

      Great to hear from you again — it’s been quite a while!

      The differences in support for the UCU action in STEM vs Arts & Humanities were the subject of discussion on the picket lines here. Physics & Astronomy was not out of kilter with Chemistry, Maths, Engineering, Pharmacy etc… at Nottingham. I can’t speak for other institutions but I share your overall impression that STEM was much, much less engaged nationally.

      I can think of two reasons…

      1. STEM has not been quite at “the sharp end” in terms of undergraduate applications. STEM continues to enjoy its reputation as leading to a qualification for a well-paid career whereas arts & humanities are very often painted as lesser subjects. I have absolutely no time for this attitude , as you know, but it’s certainly heavily influencing student (and parent) choice.

      This means that there may be a rather higher degree of complacency in STEM departments?

      2. There is much less reliance on PhD researchers — I try to avoid using the term “PhD students” (for reasons outlined here — in STEM departments when it comes to teaching. In Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham, for example, PhD researchers do undergraduate demonstrating and mark undergraduate coursework. But they don’t do lectures, seminars, or tutorials.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry, Warren, meant to add one point re. reputational damage…

        As I argue in that post above, we need to exploit the marketisation/corporatisation culture to our advantage. This means that, perhaps counter-intuitively, national strikes are arguably not the best approach. It’s a question of “divide and conquer” (if you’ll excuse the gung-ho language.) Set universities in opposition to each other. So, for example, target open days — there are lots of Saturday open days across the country — for individual universities. Local UCU should drive the timing of the strikes to cause most impact to a particular university’s brand.

        And when it comes to solidarity from undergrads, a low NSS score matters almost infinitely more than not going to a lecture. If a VC/HoS/HoD/PVC starts to receive e-mails from undergrads stating that they’ve returned a low NSS score because of the treatment of staff, this will make them sit up and take notice. A picket line — especially when it’s in the context of a national strike — has much less influence. In that case, there is safety in numbers.

        We need to subvert the marketisation/league table culture…

        Liked by 1 person

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