image: picketers on the picket line at the School of Arts, Birkbeck, 11.3.20
Picket line duty involves standing (usually in the cold) on the threshold of the entrance to our workplace. We create a visible presence to our non-striking colleagues and students, reminding them (embarrassing them) that we have collectively decided to withdraw our labour in the hope that the labour conditions for everyone in our workplace will improve. Hanging about on the doorstep of work inevitably involves some critical reflections on what that workplace is (and how on earth we can effectively withdraw our labour in the context of academia).
I’ve been in my current job ten years now, but still tend to feel out of place. One of the criticisms of our strike action is that we are acting selfishly – that by doing this we don’t care about our workplace. But despite my awkward relationship with work in general, I am on strike because I care about my teaching, research, even admin, deeply. I care about my work so much in fact, it can get me into trouble emotionally and financially.
In my ten years of being an employee at Birkbeck, I have been on many picket lines and each time I get to meet amazing colleagues who become friends. The picket line is a liminal space that, devoid of the usual workload which usually prevents us from hanging out with each other, cracks open some time and space to have a natter and put the world to rights. It’s so impressive what people can do when they don’t have to go to work (e.g. see: https://ussbriefs.com/ and all the teach-outs happening on the thresholds of university entrances all over the country, e.g. https://kpigge2020.wixsite.com/strikes2020bbk/teachouts). For many of us, our research focus faces outwards into the world, using case studies and objects of study from other places, but during strike action our critical faculties do a 180 and lock on to our own places of work. We start investigating, digging, reading, discussing, analysing the systems and structures that surround us.
So, one of the things I’ve been doing on my strike days (as well as picketing, childcare, going to see the exhibition Play Well and getting my hair cut!), is reading Birkbeck’s Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2019 as a way to get to know the inner workings of the college better. To counter this, I’ve also been reading The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber (2016) as a way to think about the neoliberal university and how we could maybe do higher education differently.
Here’s some useful pie charts from Birkbeck’s financial reports outlining the income and expenditure at Birkbeck:
images: analysis of income and expenditure 2018/19 from the Birkbeck’s Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2019 p.21 + 24.
Further detailed critical reading of these figures is needed, but essentially, you can see that most of the money (64%) is form student income and the majority of expenditure is on salaries. According to the Financial Statements, a key concern is the college’s current deficit of £5 million mainly due to reduction in EU students following the uncertainties around Brexit. The dominant narrative in the report is that student income is reducing and staff costs are increasing, giving a rationale for the college to reduce the deficit by: increasing student recruitment, creating ‘additional income streams / income diversification initiatives’ (p.10 + 11) and ‘closely manag[ing] our staff cost base’ (p.11).
image: Diagram presenting the relationship between staff costs and tuition income from the Birkbeck’s Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2019 p.9
The report uses the language of competition, performance, efficiency and effectiveness to frame its strategy, for example:
“Cumulatively the goal is to ensure that we keep true to our unique mission and look and perform at a level in keeping with our reputation for excellence” (p.10)
These words describe how a place sees itself and wants to be seen (marketing speak).
There are increasing concerns over the current non-closure of universities to control the spread of the Coronavirus, implying universities are more concerned with income and reputation than the health and wellbeing of employees and students.
It is no surprise that universities are having to operate as businesses since the withdrawal of state support, but what effect is this having on the students and staff that are engaging with this sector? To what extent does a strategy for sustainable higher education go beneath the surface and re-examine how learning and research is supported?
The college is proposing a ‘significant level of organisational change’ (p.11). Could this be the moment to collectively write an alternative strategic review for Birkbeck based on the seven co-operative principles and the demands of dispute we are currently engaged in? I’m interested in exploring the possibilities of turning Birkbeck into a co-operatively run university. For one of the teach-outs last week, I invited Emeritus Professor at Lincoln University Mike Neary to come and talk to us about his research with Joss Winn into co-operative higher education, his work at the Social Science Centre, the new Co-operative University in Manchester and his new book Student as Producer. Mike’s discussion made me think about how:
A co-operative university involves its members taking democratic control of the governance of the university
A co-operative university run on a stakeholder model would involve students, staff and community partners as constituents who would all have a say on how the university is run
A co-operative university is still a business and would have to consider where the income is from and how to distribute it. This means that the college’s current financial deficit would still be a concern.
image: Framework for Co-operative Higher Education (click to enlarge). Design by Sam Randall, student at University of Lincoln.
Thinking about Birkbeck as a co-operative might involve:
Rethinking the concept of ‘student experience’ from the perspective of students as members of the co-op (and boycotting the NSS and TEF)
Rethinking how research can be supported, in relation to teaching (and boycotting the REF)
Rethinking the premise of real estate expansion from the perspective of community stakeholders as members of the co-op (acknowledging we need physical places to meet, learn and work together)
Rethinking how staff are supported from the perspective of staff as members of the co-op.
Becoming a co-op is not necessarily the answer and I’m not even sure it is possible practically and legally, but as a thought experiment it allows us to think about the different ways universities can be run on a co-operative, democratic member controlled basis. Alongside thinking about the survival and sustainability of our work and study places, we need to be fighting for a change in government that leads to HE returning to being a public good, with state support. The financial statements report points out how Birkbeck continues to offer ‘no barriers, financial, practical or otherwise, to the benefits of university education’ (p.12). But this is proving harder to do, and is taking its toll on the staff and students in what feels like an incompatible neo-liberal workplace.
Right, back to the picket line!