I want to begin by paying grateful tribute to the young people who are now leading the Cambridge branch of the UCU and who have put in enormous amounts of energy, labour and time into organising industrial action on this campus. What is striking — and relevant to what I am about to say — is that some of them were, not all that long ago, student activists leading the resistance here to the attack that began on universities and students, yes, students in particular, in 2010 with the disgraceful tripling of tuition fees that has sought to turn students into consumers rather than young scholars. The powers that be, including sections of the media, UUK and of course our own university administration like to play on what they think is a sharp divide between the ‘student experience’ and the ‘irresponsible’ and ‘selfish’ actions of lecturers. Both Cambridge University Students Union and the National Union of Students have both been stellar in refusing that nonsensical and cynical ploy, and I thank them too on behalf of all striking staff for their solidarity. This is our university and our shared education and together we will defend it from the relentless assaults it is undergoing at the hands of the Tories and the votaries of privatising everything except corporate losses.
Yesterday I received a letter from a university where I act as an external examiner asking me sweetly if I was taking part in the action and if so, whether I could inform them so that they, unlike me, could make arrangements ‘to prioritise The Student Experience’. The Student Experience. That’s the one where you pay a lot and go into a lifetime of debt so that you can have more shiny buildings on campus, more highly paid administrators that you will never meet, and pay high rents in return for more a la carte dining options — and maybe some stress relief spa days just before exams. Of course you’ll still get a high quality education with utterly devoted teachers but funnily enough this same high quality education with utterly devoted teachers was available for free, paid for by general taxation, less than 20 years ago.
So let’s talk about those teachers who are so selfishly striking now without a care for their students and the student experience. (Actually I confess: I don’t care about the ‘Student Experience’). I — and all my fellow academics here today — do, however, care deeply about our students and their education, and beyond that, their lives and experiences as human beings in a deeply and increasingly exploitative social and political order. We did not become academics because we wanted money — you’d have to be absolutely delusional to think that. We did, in fact, most of us, become academics because we are besotted with ideas and knowledge, committed to exploring those ideas with others and sharing that knowledge with anyone who seeks it. Given that knowledge is necessarily a shared endeavour which benefits society as a whole, we don’t think it should be privatised, marketized or paid for by individuals.
Now this pensions dispute is exactly about this. At the heart of it, apart from the absolute contempt in which the powers-that-be clearly hold those who actually provide the teaching and support that ought to be the core of the so-called ‘student experience’, is the marketization of higher education. It is also about privatising the university and the HE sector more generally, a further major step in the withdrawal from treating higher education as a public good and a publicly provided resource. The shameful — absolutely shameful, disgraceful, contemptible and cynical — role that Oxford, Cambridge and their constituent colleges have played in secretly seeking to abdicate their collective responsibilities to the Higher Education sector as a whole by attempting to pull out of a collective scheme to ensure that its academic and academic-related staff can have a reasonably secure and dignified old age — is absolutely, be in no doubt about this, about privatising these institutions in the long run. And as always, marketization and privatisation will mean three things: more exploited workers, including more precariously employed and casualized labour, i.e. more hourly paid teachers who don’t make enough to earn a living; fleeced consumers paying over the odds for something that shouldn’t be a commodity anyway; and, of course, highly remunerated administrators earning, as most administrators do, high six figure salaries, increasingly edging towards the million mark. So whatever it is, this pensions matter isn’t about a bunch of greedy academics who want to live it up in their seventies and eighties; it’s about the stealth privatisation of higher education. And that is never good news for anyone except that minority of lynchpins — like those highly paid managers over there in Old Schools — who will profit by it quite directly — as will, of course, the corporations which are increasingly seeking to set the agenda as to what is or is not researched and taught, what is or is not deemed knowledge — all determined by the sacred profit margin.
So as we stand here today united as teaching staff, non-teaching staff and students let us renew a pledge we have committed ourselves to before: to keeping and keep on remaking the university as a site for critical thinking and action; to making education and knowledge a free resource to which all are entitled to have access, and to ensuring life, livelihood and dignity throughout their lives for every person in this society and not just the rich and the entitled. Solidarity