As part of the series of UCU Teachout sessions being run during the strike period, Distinguished Professor Bob Jessop delivered a talk, ‘Universities Inc’, to a packed out audience at the Gregson Centre. The talk explored what Prof Jessop termed ‘academic capitalism’ and its relationship to an increased financialisation of the UK Higher Education system, and situated the ongoing pensions dispute in a wider context of structural economic changes taking place within universities.
Prof Jessop considered the core historic functions of the university as an institution, namely the provision of higher education and the carrying out of scientific research, and HE’s shifting in line with the forces of marketisation. Whereas in the post-war era of welfare statism and mass production HE institutions such as Lancaster University were designed to create ‘mental labour’ for an increasingly post-industrial society, Prof Jessop explained how today’s universities are behaving more like financial institutions. Since the 1980s, democratic participation in university governance have been sidelined in favour of professionalised management, he argued, adding that since the early 1990s senior academics were asked to attend business management style sessions. Such professionalisation of university management has, he argued, only worsened over subsequent decades.
Jessop highlighted how the diminution of government grants has lead to an increasing reliance upon endowments, greater numbers of fee paying students, bonds, credit markets, and rents to fund themselves. Indeed, having issued first bond in British HE in 1995, Lancaster University can be seen as having been a pioneer in such financial marketisation.
Drawing attention to the expansion of campuses in recent decades, Jessop highlighted how it is real estate (rather than the intellectual labour of staff) that has proven to be the key asset of the contemporary university, recalling a former Lancaster Vice Chancellor telling him that when talking to other managers he would boast of being ‘a seven crane vice chancellor,’ clearly demonstrating how the building up of physical assets on campuses has become so central to UK HE as a source of economic value and revenue.
The talk showed how in such a marketised environment, one only worsened by the new Higher Education Act and the uncertainties of Brexit, British universities are now fearing credit rating downgrades, and are seeking to drastically reduce their labour costs as a result.
From the talk, a bleak picture of contemporary UK HE emerged. As institutions embrace the process of financialisation precarious staff face further immiseration, with students treated primarily as a revenue stream.
In the subsequent Q&A session, the pensions strike itself was viewed by several contributors as having opened up an opportunity for more critical engagements with the university and the ills it inflicts upon staff and students alike. The question of how to reach the wider public and inform them of the dire situation in HE was also raised, with a contributor criticising a recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme for narrowly focusing on the extravagance of individual Vice Chancellors as opposed to offering the public a more structural critique of the processes of marketisation.
I found Prof Jessop’s talk an illuminating one for highlighting the complex challenges facing those of us within the marketised university, and for all the bleakness of the situation, I found that the subsequent discussion of how to resist these processes filled me with hope that we can build a more democratic and just HE system.
Contributed by Toby Atkinson, PhD candidate (Sociology)