The 2018 University Strike, the Tuc’s Racism at Work Survey and Hegemony in Higher Education

Thursday 8th March, 2018

Stephen Ashe

Brendan McGeever’s rapid response piece in Discover Society contends that the ongoing strike action in defence of our pensions ‘needs to be more attentive to the ways race, borders and nation are reproduced within higher education itself’.

This is urgent. Not only do these issues feature prominently on placards and during rallies, teach-ins and teach-outs around the country, last week University College Union (UCU) held yet another day of action against workplace racism. This year’s theme was ‘Decolonising Education’.

For many years, Black Feminist scholars such as Shirley Tate, Sara Ahmed, Nirmal Puwar and Nicola Rollock (to name just a few) have played a leading role in exposing the institutional nature of whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity and class-privilege in higher education (HE). At the same time, students and staff have been at the forefront of campaigns such as Why is My Curriculum White? and Why isn’t my Professor Black? These campaigns have also highlighted racial disparities in educational attainment despite record numbers of non-white majority students matriculating at the beginning of each academic year. Moreover, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has reminded us of the way in which Britain’s imperial past lives in the present. In fact, it prefigures possibilities. In the context of the broader political crisis that is Brexit (see Virdee and McGeever, 2016), defined in large part by imperial melancholy, The Times reported on the launch of a new project at the University of Oxford with the title, ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’.

The Guardian has also recently reported that

The idea that certain races are inherently more intelligent than others is being trumpeted by a small group of anthropologists, IQ researchers, psychologists and pundits who portray themselves as noble dissidents, standing up for inconvenient facts.

In January, staff and students once again came together to oppose a eugenics conference at University College London (UCL) (for further discussion of the academy’s long-standing involvement with eugenics, see Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, 2014). As Ali Rattansi remind us, eugenics was, from the very outset, a white, patriarchal, heteronormative, ableist, class project. Therefore, it was unsurprising that speakers and attendees at the UCL event included a white supremacist, and of course, Toby Young! This was the man whom our government thought appropriate to appointment to the board of the Office for Students despite his propensity for misogynistic, homophobic and class prejudiced tweets and articles. Fierce criticism resulted in the champion of free schools and ‘progressive eugenics’ stepping down from the board within 24 hours, but only after Theresa May and various Conservative Ministers had defended his appointment.

Now, you may be asking what all of this has got to do with the pension dispute and the Trade Union Congress’ (TUC) 2016/2017 Racism at Work survey? I think the answer is quite a lot!

Our universities and colleges are part of an intricate set of institutions entrusted to implement and consolidate consent for the economic, political and cultural hegemony of the dominant class. At the same time, the HE system has also been assigned, and developed its own, repressive and coercive functions.

The neoliberal ideals and principles underpinning Universities UK’s (UUK) attempt to rip up the terms and conditions of our current pension agreements are the very same as those which lie behind many of the things that have come to characterise University Ltd, namely: individualism; the lack of democracy, transparency and institutional accountability; marketisation, corporatisation, outsourcing, competition and the pursuit of profit; tuition fees and the rising cost of living endured by students; pay inequality and precarious work; and the appropriation of intellectual property, exploitation and free labour (note the way some universities are trying to overcome the disruption caused by the strike by using ‘lecture capture’).

The pursuit of these ideals and principles do not operate in isolation from racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism and class domination. They too are central to the everyday workings of University Ltd. They too are integral features of a broader system of domination and control.

Several hundred UCU members took part in the TUC’s survey. Many of whom will have been freezing next to us on picket lines and at rallies and marches. 252 of our colleagues provided personal statements in response to open-ended questions. All told, UCU members provided over 11,000 words cataloguing not just racism, but also their experiences of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, class discrimination and their intersections.

The TUC survey confirmed many of the findings drawn from UCU’s 2016 report on the ‘experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic staff in further and higher education’. In fact, the survey further evidences the endemic nature of racism as highlighted in the film Witness, which was produced last year by the UCU Black Members’ Standing Committee.

Some of our UCU colleagues situated their accounts of workplace racism in the context of Brexit and Trump’s election. Many argued that Brexit and Trump had let racism off the leash; Workplace racism has been invigorated; We have gone back to the 1950s and 1960s; Racist ideas and practices have been legitimised; The people subscribing to these ideas emboldened; The anti-racist gains of the 1970s and 1980s torn asunder. So much so, it was reported that some of their colleagues and co-workers had openly expressed support or sympathy for racist, Nazi, fascist and right-wing populist ideas. Ideas all too frequently reproduced and compounded by mainstream politicians and the right-wing press.

The TUC survey also further evidences the way in which colonialism, imperialism, slavery and scientific racism continues to shape our colleagues’ everyday working lives. In the context of Brexit and its attendant colonial nostalgia, many of our colleagues continue to encounter the forms of dehumanising racism described by Nirmal Puwar in Space Invaders. In 2018, we are witnessing the way in which these ideas live in the present and continue to depict people racialised as non-white as either being subhuman and/or in hypersexualised ways. Not only this, our colleagues also reported being portrayed as intellectually inferior to white people and being positioned as belonging to places characterised as ‘dirty’, ‘wild’, ‘savage’, ‘uncivilised’ and ‘backwards’.

Across the survey as a whole, the legacy of colonial thinking was arguably most prominent in terms of the racist stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman’. A considerable number of Black women also reported that they had felt pressurised, if not explicitly forced, to conform to white aesthetic norms such as having to ‘straighten’ their hair. A number of Black women (including non-academic colleagues who are members of Unison) also reported that white colleagues deemed it appropriate to touch or ‘tug’ their hair without their consent in order to ‘check’ that their hair was ‘real’. You may remember that this was something which the comedian Russell Howard, a white man, recently thought should be the subject of mockery and derision during his prime-time Sky television show.

Many UCU members also spoke about the impact racism has had on their students. And just today, two men have been arrested for chanting racist abuse outside Rufaro Chisango’s room door at a halls of residence on one of our campuses. UCU colleagues also spoke of the impact various, multiple and intersecting forms of oppression has had not just on their working lives, but on their lives beyond campus. The many and cumulative effects of workplace racism is powerfully captured in this statement by one of the TUC survey participants:

I’ve had three workplaces where I’ve had to bring grievances that were race related (racist in nature)…You can never absolutely prove it…It’s insidious. The ignoring you is as bad as the shouting at you…I ended up on anti-depressants and suicidal. It makes you forget who you are, your strengths, your abilities. I’m a skilled intelligent woman who’s worked for 35 years and I ended up barely able to send an email. It’s like the perpetrators don’t realise. Leaves you powerless. I’m having to leave my job and take a 10k wage reduction for a short-term post instead of my permanent one. It’s either that or my life. My children/family have insisted. They want me alive.

The pervasive nature of mental health problems, especially anxiety, depression, burnout and exhaustion, and the lack of adequately funded mental health services has also been a key point of discussion on our picket lines. For many of our friends and colleagues, the strike has been an opportunity to breathe just a little more easily. For many, the strike is proving to be restorative. Pickets and rallies have become spaces of collective care. Yet for many of our colleagues, particularly early career researchers on fixed-term and graduate teaching assistants on zero-hour contracts, the strike has created yet another layer of anxiety. Many of our colleagues are worrying about how they are going to pay their bills as 14 days of strike action drastically diminishes what is often their only source of income.

The TUC survey also indexes the way in which racism structures the precarious economic circumstances in which many of our UCU colleagues find themselves. Indeed, it archives how the need for secure employment and the need to earn a wage prevents many of our colleagues from making a complaint. What is more, the nature of everyday workplace racism is such that it has denied our colleagues access to training and promotion. In short, racism determines how much our colleagues earn and how much their future pensions will be, if indeed many of our fixed-term and casual hour colleagues will ever see one.

While many of our colleagues do fightback, this often comes at great personal cost. TUC survey participants identified a whole raft of punitive and retaliatory measures taken against them after reporting racism to our employers. This has resulted in many of our colleagues being unwilling to speak out. Moreover, separate research by the TUC has also found that four out of five women do not report sexual harassment to their employer due to fear of reprisal. This is how racism and sexism can be silencing. These are the practices which reproduce structural and institutional oppression in HE. This is how racism and sexism lives and breathes in the offices and corridors of University Ltd.

It would be fair to assume that the managers of University Ltd would respond to this by circulating documents and emails that affirm their commitment to equality and diversity. Some might note that they have rolled out implicit attitude testing and unconscious bias training; thus, implying that the problem is individual, covert and subtle, rather than structural, institutional and explicit (see Ahmed 2012). We could reply to this by suggesting that these initiatives and symbolic gestures serve as a form of reputational management, while also standing in direct contradiction to the fact the government has tried to turn HE into ‘proxy border police’ and counter-extremism surveillance units. The latter is really just concerned with what our Muslim colleagues and students think and do. We might also want to note that universities are also required to implement the government’s ‘English language requirement for public sector workers’. This been brought into law through the 2016 Immigration Act and amidst a broader backlash against multiculturalism. It reveals how the state sees HE as a critical apparatus in the project of nation-making. Each of these things fly in the face of the legal responsibilities imposed on HE by the Public Sector Equality Duty which came into force in May 2012. Alongside precarious working conditions, these are just some of the repressive and coercive functions of the modern HE system.

These functions have also been in force during the UCU strike in defence of our pensions (see here for further information). Some universities have reacted to unprecedented, but perfectly legal, industrial action and growing solidarity between students, non-academic staff and UCU members by threatening to deduct pay from those who either take ‘action short of a strike’ and/ or ‘work-to-contract’. One University has even floated the idea that staff may find themselves liable for the cost of future student compensation claims. Another university has emailed staff giving them less than one day’s notice to provide alternative teaching materials or they will be docked all of their pay. One university has also intimated that strike action will see our colleagues lose various legal, social and cultural entitlements. Not only this, said university has suggested that UCU’s proposals will jeopardise the funding that has been allocated to ‘inclusivity and diversity’. Roughly translated: equality and diversity is only a strategic priority if our institutions feel they can afford it. This university has weaponised ‘inclusivity and diversity’ in the middle of the pension dispute. These are the tactics that are being employed to try and repress our legal right to withdraw our labour. This is why we should stand in solidarity with our colleagues facing such forms of intimidation by boycotting these institutions (for up-to-date information on boycotting, see the @academicboycot1 twitter feed).

Some universities have even tried to divide staff and postgraduate students by offering to pay our postgrads to be attendance monitors in our lecture halls and seminar rooms. These are attempts to reinforce the consent of our students as neoliberal consumers rather than as learners and co-producers of knowledge. Such attempts to divide staff and students while turning to such coercive tactics was to be expected. Gramsci, Stuart Hall and Raewyn Connell have taught us that when hegemony weakens, coercion follows.

We know that the proposed cuts to our pensions are not a financial necessity. It is a political choice in line with neoliberal orthodoxy. Our pension fund is healthy. The personal statements of the UCU members that took part in the TUC survey remind us that it is the very same principles and practices that facilitate the unequal distribution of economic spoils in HE. Vice-Chancellor salaries have soared, exorbitant expenses revealed. Multiple forms of oppression are sown into the very fabric of capitalism and this particular neoliberal state apparatus. They ensure that power and authority in our universities and colleges typically rests in the hands of white, straight men from the middle and upper classes. They play a central role in determining the class position and class experience of our students and colleagues.

However, hegemony is never absolute. The current strike action shows that hegemony is always being renewed, recreated, challenged and defended. Unity within the senior managerial bloc has started to wilt. A considerable number of Vice-Chancellors have called for further negotiations. ACAS has been called in to mediate. Some universities have been forced to withdraw their threat that staff who carryout ‘action short of a strike’ will be punished further. These gains are the result of the pressure we have built by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with students. These wins should give us much heart.

Almost fifty years ago, the Marxist historian Edward Palmer Thompson and his unnamed authors – unnamed due to fear of reprisal - published Warwick University Ltd. Thompson and his colleagues set out the various ways in which our universities were putting profit before people, and managerial control over and above democracy. On the very last page, Thompson and his colleagues posed a series of questions which are as relevant today as they were in 1970.

Thinking about these questions in 2018, it is vital that we continue to build solidarity between students, academics and non-academic staff. Broadening the base of our unity is vital. It is critical that we use the spaces created by the ongoing strike action to build consent for a different kind of university. We must, therefore, consider whether any success in the pension dispute will be limited if we do not address the many harmful ways that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, class domination and their intersections shape everyday working and student life.

My fear is that if we don’t, the management of University Ltd will absorb our protest, re-group and re-establish their hegemony through old and new forms of discipline, precarity and inequality.

This piece is dedicated to Ambalavaner Sivanandan who died on 3 January 2018.

Stephen Ashe leads the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity’s Racism at Work Project at the University of Manchester. His co-authored report based on the 2016/2017 TUC Racism at Work Survey is due to be published in March. Stephen is also co-editor of Researching the Far Right: Theory, Method and Practice (Routledge Fascism and the Far Right Series, 2019). @sd_ashe

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