At Brighton University and beyond, higher education is in turmoil

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Academic institutions across the UK are in turmoil. Strikes, pickets, marking and assessment boycotts (MABs), and large-scale protests are recurring features on campuses up and down the country. Yet, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) and senior management teams still refuse to negotiate with the University and College Union (UCU).

UCEA states that until the UCU calls off the MAB which is currently underway at 145 universities, no negotiations will take place. However, when you look at what’s going on in higher education, it’s of little surprise workers and students are fighting back – not least at Brighton University.

Don’t blame the UCU – blame university management

This is nothing short of a national scandal. Thousands of students are set to either ‘graduate’ without degree classifications, or be unable to graduate at all. We have already witnessed students at the University of Glasgow ‘graduating’ without knowing their final grade. Students at the University of Cambridge will not graduate until their final exams are marked. This will impact nearly half of final-year undergraduates and 90% of post graduates on taught courses at Cambridge.

At Brighton, the university told the Argus that UCU had “deliberately timed” the MAB to cause “maximum disruption”. However, undergraduate student Alexei Fisk disagrees. They told the Canary:

After years of intermittent strikes without resolution, with rapidly worsening working conditions and a huge real terms pay cut over the past decade, I fully believe the MAB is really the only card the UCU staff had left to play.

However, the truly draconian punitive measures have been put in place by universities in response – to deduct up to 100% of pay from the staff who are boycotting, despite the fact that they have continued to fulfil their teaching and supervisory roles throughout the period – are utterly shocking.

This complete disregard for ethics is an obvious attempt to force staff back to work through starvation and the threat of homelessness. It reveals the callous inhumanity at work in senior management teams within the higher education sector, and should be condemned.

Read on...

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Fisk continued:

The MAB is being sold to students as, essentially, unnecessary troublemaking – and actually, maybe they are partly right. But it is unnecessary because all the UCEA needs to do is get around the table and agree on a fair deal for all staff.

It is not unnecessary for lecturers to demand decent working conditions and a salary that reflects their passion, dedication, and expertise. I stand in full solidarity with our teaching staff, now and always.

Brighton Students Union misses the point completely

On 22 June, Brighton Students Union (BSU) posted a video to their Instagram page in response to the MAB. In it, the union’s president Sufia Begum states that students’ academic progression should not be a “political football”. She also said BSU is distressed to see students bearing the brunt of this standoff between workers and management.

The problem with this statement is that BSU fails to even acknowledge the root cause of this problem. It is management’s refusal to negotiate with staff. We are in a situation where the livelihoods of over a hundred people at Brighton University are under threat. Yet BSU demeans industrial action as simply a way for staff to “voice concerns”. A postgraduate researcher who wishes to remain anonymous told the Canary:

The SU’s response seems to suggest that management and the UCU are both equally making our lives as students difficult by calling for both to ‘prioritise students’ wellbeing’. We as students have been consistently prioritised by our lecturers and supervisors even when they are being overloaded with work by management.

When will the SU realise that the working conditions of our lecturers affect our education? By using this neutral language, the SU is failing to use its power to pressure the university management, the only people responsible for the stress we are going through.

Mismanagement at Brighton University gets you a CBE

Staff and students at Brighton University are still fighting against mass redundancies. Now, on top of the MAB, staff have announced an indefinite strike. This means that the new academic year will not start until – and unless – management call off the mass redundancies.

Brighton University is effectively closed until further notice. So, it came as a complete shock to everyone that our vice chancellor Debra Humphris has been awarded a CBE. This is for services to nursing and education. A lecturer who wishes to remain anonymous told me:

It feels like the vice chancellor is waging war on her staff, with 100% pay deductions in a cost of living crisis, including for those colleagues she is trying to make redundant. So I think there is widespread anger and disbelief at the news of a CBE. There’s a 94% no confidence vote against her after all!

Rewarding Humphris’s services to education seems little more than a joke in bad taste.

During her time at Brighton her ‘achievements’ include:

Diminishing the quality of higher education

The key concern for staff and students alike is that attempts to circumvent the MAB, steamrolling through mass redundancies, and taking punitive measures against staff will only diminish the quality of education that students receive. Leeds University UCU shared on Twitter that they were hearing from multiple faculties that “dissertations/final year projects are being marked by non-experts & not 2nd marked” so that they can be classified by July.

At UWE Bristol (in a since-deleted posting) zero hour contracts at a double pay rate were advertised to mitigate the MAB’s impact. It’s no surprise that managers are trying to undermine the MAB. However, they are doing so at the expense of the marks themselves. If experts are not grading the final projects, students will not get appropriate feedback or recognition of their hard work and knowledge.

This is a profound insult to students. It leaves many of their grades in a position to be contested. This will be a process which is stressful for students, and wasteful to already overstretched university assessment procedures.

At Brighton University, what began as students experiencing minimal impact has resulted in annual progression reviews (APRs) and vivas being cancelled for PhD researchers. There is constantly shifting and unreliable information about when and how assessment will resume.

We were initially told that no APRs will go ahead without two assessors present. However, an email sent out by the doctoral college on 27 June then informed us that APRs can go ahead with only one assessor. This goes to show that, when managers come under pressure, they’re willing to let academic standards slip rather than negotiate with their own employees.

Defending Brighton University

In Brighton UCU’s latest actions, staff, students, and someone dressed as Mickey Mouse have demonstrated at prospective student open days:

A protest with Mickey Mouse at Brighton University

A protest at Brighton University UCU

Prospective applicants and their parents were eager to hear about how the university is treating staff members. The combination of public demonstrations and social media campaigns has kept the pressure up. However, we know that there is still a long way to go. If management thinks that we are going to give up, they are sorely mistaken. Students and staff deserve much more than this current lot.

The future of education at Brighton University is at stake. We owe it not only to ourselves but future students to hold management to account. At the end of the day, we’re fighting for a world where the powerful aren’t allowed to make everyone else pay for their mistakes; where everyone can go to work without fear of managers’ whims tearing the rug from beneath them, and where workers and students have real control over their working and learning conditions.

If you wish to support us at Brighton University, we are currently fundraising for staff who are facing pay cuts, and for campaign materials. If you can afford it, you can donate here.

Kathryn Zackarek is a PhD researcher currently working on the biopolitics of right-wing populism at Brighton University.

Featured image and additional images via Brighton UCU

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