Protection -18 September

[Due to family commitments and the beginning of the school year I haven’t been able to post for a while – so this post has been rattling around my head for a couple of weeks.]

There are various times in the pattern of working life in academia when we are thrown together. Conferences, training sessions, ‘away days’ and even the picket line all push us together in ways that breaks the ordinary pattern and in that mixing together we might either blend or jumble. Mixing also creates friction. Some friction can be productive; it can produce action. In 2018 the energy of the picket line during the USS pensions strike produced a lot of action, not least the creation of alternatives sources of knowledge about the USS pension scheme and it’s sustainability. Some friction wears people down, and that can often be experienced unequally (not least along lines of class, race and seniority).

The recent period in British university life has felt, to me, rather fraught. I acknowledge that this is based on rather limited experience and those with longer careers might see things differently. Nevertheless, I suggest (and of course I am not the first) that there have been a couple of defining moments that have asked searching questions of all of those that work in universities.

The first, perhaps longer-running, moment is the shift towards the university-as-a-business – with a culture of targets (income, student numbers etc), which has led to league tables, such as the Times Higher World University Rankings “Top 100”, becoming the go-to yardstick for many university leaders and arguably contributed to what my colleague Clive Barnett has highlighted as a crisis of legitimation for universities. Targets have been set not only for institutions and departments but also individuals. This has had the effect of colleagues feeling atomised and individualised.

The second, is the rather insidious recent move towards the UK government directing universities to perform border enforcement, for international students and international staff alike. Les Back writes about this through the example of the experiences of one particular international student in his Academic Diary and the distress such suspicion causes for those we ought to be welcoming*.

In both of these moments in British university life, those of us working in universities are pushed towards forms of friction – of competition and suspicion of and with one another and of our students. Both of these moments too also invite a reconsideration of what had perhaps begun to feel for some an old-fashioned or out-moded concept: solidarity.

If the friction of competition and suspicion, of atomisation and mistrust, wears down and isolates us then a perhaps a key emollient is to act in solidarity. Simply put (following Barnett’s reading of Iris Marion Young), I think this means (ethically) to share responsibility – for/to one another, for (in)action and non-domination. Solidarity means thinking about one another and acting together and on behalf of one another. Solidarity is a shared mechanism of protection.

In a session on possible futures for UK Higher Education at the RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff (2018), James Esson made a crucial, simple and powerful point: solidarity means acknowledging the humanity of one another. We get nowhere by denying one another’s humanity. It is distressing that in the everyday banality of ordinary working life, outside of the adrenaline high of the picket and other extraordinary moments, we slip all-too-readily back into habits of individualism and mistrust. As Esson says: we must strive to acknowledge one another’s humanity, I’d like to think we are all capable of this.

* See the Students not Suspects campaign.

Protection – Massive Attack

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