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Opinion

As university staff strike this week, Wales’ politicians needs to start taking responsibility for Higher Education

30 Nov 2022 9 minute read
UCU picket. Left picture by Peter Byrne. Right picture by UCU Bangor.

Huw Williams

This week university staff across Wales and the rest of the UK will be lining up again on the pickets, striking against work conditions and pension cuts.

Whilst in some respects this is a continuation of a dispute that goes back to at least March 2018, the current action represents a step change in terms of the historic ‘national’ mandate that is the basis for this walk-out, one that yielded emphatic yes votes of between 80-90%.

This follows previous ‘disaggregated’ ballots, where the votes were on an individual institutional basis and where many failed to get the required 50% turn-out, never mind sufficient yes votes.

This reflects in part the desperation of staff in relation to what has been dubbed the ‘four fights’, which incorporates the issues of wage stagnation, precarity, the pay gap and workloads.

Likewise, the second battle against pension cuts has become increasingly infuriating as the USS pension provider has deployed spurious claims in justifying continual increases in the contribution of ordinary staff towards their pension – and which leave younger staff severely short-changed.

In a career that usually requires a minimum of 7 years of study, and often sees staff struggling on short-term contracts for years afterwards, decent working conditions and stable pensions have historically been among the few material rewards, in jobs that seldom offer the remuneration of other such specialised work.

The emphatic vote in favour of action also reflects the increasingly febrile political climate and the crisis in living costs, with a sense that if the UCU does not stand up now, in solidarity with other unions, then the cause would be definitively lost.

Coat-tails

In this regard, the dispute is a distinctly British one, as part of the emergence of mass popular protest driven by unions, at a time of deepening social inequalities and the cost-of-living crisis, the likes of which we have not seen for years, perhaps since the Poll Tax Riots.

And yet we must not forget in Wales that in the intervening years we have had devolution, a matter of some importance in the context of Higher Education, but which we often overlook with regard to these disputes.

Indeed you could be forgiven for thinking that responsibility for our Universities was never devolved, given the level of engagement on the issue here. The majority of political interventions during strikes appear to take the form of messages of solidarity accompanying the strikers’ efforts at engaging Universities UK (under which all the Vice-Chancellors associate) and Westminster politicians.

All this belies the fact that the Welsh Government, and therefore by default Welsh Labour, have, had the power for over 20 years to do things differently, to the benefit of students and staff alike. But what have they chosen?

In effect we have seen them hanging on to the coat-tails of Westminster, with the increasing privatisation of our Universities as budgets have come to rely ever more on (prohibitively expensive) student fees. This ‘marketization’ of higher education (effectively turning them into businesses) has brought with it the inevitable effects that are seen in the case of all public institutions forced to bend to the logic of neoliberalism.

When the University is no longer a public good, rather a service provider with students as consumers, neoliberal practices (that is the behaviours of late capitalism) become the norm: a huge increase in the pay gap between those at the top and the bottom; more workers forced into precarious contracts; increasing workload; pay cuts in real terms.

And although students have now effectively become customers, none of this can create a better product in exchange for the money they’re spending, as the requirement for more money on the part of the University means more students taught by less staff, with money invested in infrastructure such as new buildings, deemed to be most likely to attract students in the competitive market of Higher Education.

Cardiff University. Picture by Stan Zurek. Bangor University. Picture: Denis Egan. Swansea University picture by SwanseaUni. (CC BY-SA 4.0) Aberystwyth University picture by Tanya Dedyukhina (CC BY 3.0).

Uncomfortable

Welsh Labour have allowed this transformation – of a public education institution for the benefit of society being turned into a product (allegedly) designed for the consumption and benefit of the individual – as if it were inevitable.

It has followed the Lib-Tory lead from across the border, whilst in Scotland HE has effectively remained free for Scottish-domiciled students and where public expenditure in the sector is over a billion, compared to just over £200 million in Wales – a huge difference even when taking account of the greater number of Scottish Universities.

More money has historically been invested by the Welsh Government, but that has been used to support Welsh students with paying fees – now at around £350 million with the new funding arrangements.

This money has been provided, regardless of their chosen University, and as has long been argued by those in the sector, this has effectively seen us subsidise non-Welsh Universities whilst diverting investment away from our own institutions – with up to 6 in every 10 students heading over Offa’s Dyke.

Welsh Labour’s insistence on maintaining this line, and the notion that Welsh-domiciled students should not be encouraged to study in Wales, is reflective one might suggest of some deeper-lying, more uncomfortable truths.

At the heart of this attitude is the chip on the shoulder of so many of our politicians, which is dressed up in such platitudes as the importance of ‘broadening horizons’ and being ‘outward looking’, as if, for example, going to study in Bangor or Cardiff would be less enriching for someone brought up in Aberystwyth, than going to studying in Liverpool or Bristol, if you have been brought up in Cardiff.

What this really betrays is the lack of confidence in our own Universities, the belief that Wales isn’t good enough and that our young people must leave to achieve success – a stultifying, deadening attitude that is reproduced in our schools and reflects a complete lack of material and emotional investment in our Higher Education.

Death wish

This is embodied most obviously in the excruciatingly self-harming institution that is the Seren Network. Originally conceived as a way of supporting hopeful Oxbridge applicants (a not irrational notion given the global status of those institutions), it has now morphed into a body that effectively lines up our brightest and best, not for our Universities and their elite departments (of which there are a few, would you believe) – but for the elite British Universities known as the Russell Group, of whom only Cardiff is a member.

Whilst most governments would worry about a ‘brain drain’ our own has positively encouraged it. Couple this tendency with the unaccounted for and ‘disastrous’ disappearance of research and innovation money promised in the Reid review, and you might wonder whether Welsh Government has some sort of death wish for the entire sector.

At the very least we can say with confidence that it appears way down their list of priorities, which is not only a problem for our young people, it is also a huge issue for our social and economic development, because Universities are one of the most powerful drivers for positive change at the disposal of any government in a post-industrial country.

Moreover, in a country where it is acknowledged we need to be able to offer retraining to its adult education, and to open pathways to different careers, a system anchored in the ‘free’ market will inevitably regard lifelong learning as a drag on the dynamics of the wider University.

University students. Picture by the Welsh Government.

Superficial

Despite all this, it feels that in the Welsh University our situation is largely met with disinterest by the political class, with a lack of any sustained political discourse around the sector.

Indeed it can feel at times that responsibility is rather palmed off to the soon-to-be-replaced Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (reminiscent of health, which is put into the hands of democratically unaccountable Health Boards).

It is a regrettable situation for a nation that has previously prided itself on the value it places on education.

One struggles to imagine a political class that could be further removed from the lofty ideals of those who established our Universities. Many of us with Welsh heritage will have had forebearers, trapped in grinding poverty and dangerous work, who put their own hard-earned money into building our Universities, which were built in part with the ‘pennies of the gwerin’.

They contributed to a wider civic mission led by the emerging middle classes of nonconformist 19th century Wales, who sought to establish Universities for the education of the people, the broader benefit of the society, and for the reputation of Wales in the wider world.

Looking at our Higher Education sector today, it is a difficult task to locate our institutions within such a tradition. It is true that a veneer of social concern is administered through what’s known as the Widening Participation agenda, the imperatives of the ‘Civic Mission’, as well as an attenuated grant scheme for those from deprived backgrounds.

However vital and significant for the beneficiaries, these can only ever be superficial methods for mitigating the effects of what is effectively an unjust system skewed towards the better off – and one that has turned the education of society from a public good into an individualist concern.

No doubt improvements can be made to people’s working conditions, pay gaps can be closed, careers made less precarious, but as long as the University in Wales persists as a neoliberal institution supported largely by fees, its culture and the staff and student experience will be one dominated by the prevailing norms and values that have brought us to this juncture.

The Welsh Government could change matters, but the first basic step is that the political class (and those in the sector) recognise where responsibility lies, and begin to imagine the possibilities within our grasp.


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Richard Perkins
Richard Perkins
1 month ago

Thank you for a description and critique of the higher education in Wales and how it is conjoined with the English model almost by by default and with few benefits. Learning how to do things is not incompatible with having your mind opened and the latter should never be neglected in any course or the self understanding of any member of a university. Extending the economic model beyond its sphere of competence and utility betrays the essential nature of universities, turning them into vehicles of size maximising entrepreneurs. A debate in Wales which retrieves the idea of opening minds as… Read more »

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