We’re still in the midst of a pandemic. My colleagues and I have been teaching for nearly three terms under these conditions. Most of us have not even met the first year students. No one has had a break since the beginning of March, and while people are grateful just to have a job at all during this time, it has been very exhausting, especially for those with caring responsibilities. The last two terms have been extremely tough for me, because I fell ill during the summer, thankfully not covid, but I continue to have some rather painful health problems. Zooming out to the national level, the government has not supported universities and, in fact, cut funding. As a response, many universities lured students back on campus and into student accommodation, in order to keep themselves afloat. The funding cuts, rather than giving academics respite from wasting time on grant applications, have introduced additional pressures to get money into departments and projects, pushing many colleagues and their international project partners over the edge. On top of all this, my university, alongside quite a few other universities, has announced compulsory redundancies.
Following the announcement, it has been rather disconcerting to watch back and forth between the union, university management and individual commentary. Ostensibly to save money and ‘shape’ the institution for research and teaching ‘excellence’, the cuts don’t add up, especially not in the long term. And it is not just academics who are at risk but also all of the people who have supported students and academics through the pandemic: librarians, security guards, IT staff, people at Leicester Learning Institute who retrained us for online teaching, and who continue to provide vital support.
Yes, we all know about the argument is that unprofitable departments or subject areas need to go, like they have done at many universities already. Arts, humanities and social science subject are the obvious targets, as most recently seen at London South Bank University, and so are library budgets (‘students don’t read any more’) et cetera. This type of reasoning (non-experimental science = dead weight) is brutal and unacceptable, but at least the motives are comparably transparent (though no one talks about excessive salary increases for university managers who then dish out huge consultancy fees for marketing etc). It turns out that, in many mass redundancy cases across the UK, decisions are not made by numbers, but by political motivation. Critical approaches to history, econonomics and environment are seen as a threat, even if this means letting go of high achieving academics, their international reputation and research income. Predictably, it is union leaders that are being targeted.
My own university has become an increasingly popularised example of this institutional hellscape. As already indicated, the University Leicester is not alone in pursuing such tactics, but it has certainly been one of the crassest examples of self-destructive reasoning. Years of spending money on unnecessary building projects are now apparently in the process solved by witch hunts against academics (particularly at the Business School) describing their approach as ‘critical analysis’. Even more worryingly, sham justficiations such as ‘decolonising the university’ by getting rid of ‘white’ subjects have been put forward, without any of the people involved having any investment in, and understanding of, such work. Ironically, many compulsory redundancy cases are made against REF stars and staff that are popular with students. The last time such measures were taken, the university sank both in research and teaching ratings. Obviously, this time, things are surely going to work out well.
One problem that academics are facing when arguing against the current measures is the difficulty to use reasoning against the twisted mind acrobatics of management. Yes, the bullshit justifications and re-branding campaigns can be pointed out on social media, in letters and in newspapers – after all, exposure is still a valid tactic that also provides therapeutic relief. At the same time, if deliberate misuse of reason is the goal, is this maybe not also a tactic to use ourselves?
So far, academics have been very good at giving in to the pressure of justifying their place withing the institution: not only have they dutifully obtained funding, but also turned themselves into a constant advertising channel for student recruitment – the twin band aids of the neoliberal university. It has become our job to plug financial holes at any cost, even if this means abandoning research or teaching. People are effectively advanced through the system by the amount of money they feed back into it – in many places you cannot be promoted without an active grant, a substantial cohort of PhD students, and a six figure minimum research income, even in the humanities.
However, as the current slashing of jobs and departments has vividly reinforced, it does not seem to matter whether you are an internationally famous professor and ‘REF star’ or not – you still just as easily end up as collateral. There is not point of exhausting yourself in trying to keep your department alive, or to justify your presence. The best you can do is to try and focus on what you actually want to do, even though that is difficult to achieve in the current environment. Perhaps even to explicitly go the opposite way and save vital energy for yourself and your colleagues by not applying for unnecessary funding, not publishing in REF-friendly venues, and pushing an agenda of critical and ethical (!) humanities research. This is especially important in a period of insane funding pressures where senior academics have been giving out grants to the same people all over.
What should really be done, rather than a teaching or admin boycott, is a research boykott. We don’t just need to get away from the expectation that we are there to plug impossibly large financial holes. We also need to get away from pressuring each other into performing this role, into ‘doing our bit’ to save the institution. This is not a new demand, but one that bears repeating. We can neither save the institution, nor our departments, nor ourselves this way. I know there is research that actually needs funding, and I don’t want to criticise anyone going for that. But, having worked as a grant reviewer, it is incredible to see the amount of nonsense that colleagues are forced to throw together just to save their jobs at their institutions. And then we all have to review these applications and waste more time and energy, and get more depressed over the state of the system, and eventually get fired even if we hit all the targets. How much more can we fuck ourselves up serving a system that rewards… nothing really? Is this how we want future generations of academics to work?