Why the USSstrike is about Much More than Pay

The forth day of the strike demonstrates how UCU and UUK diverge on institutional basis.

The 27th of February, 2018 has been the fourth day of the “biggest strike in the history of English higher education”. I am still tired and preoccupied with all of this. Following commentary notwithstanding, there seems to have been good progress made in talks yesterday; even though rudimentary.

Before that, Leicester’s Vice-Chancellor, Paul Boyle, and after being asked about the now discredited valuations behind UUK’s main argument, has reacted as if ‘nothing changed’ — as if the Minister for Education didn’t contradict his position by calling for renewed negotiations without preconditions; as if the Financial Times hasn’t questioned and then discredited the valuations he was referring to; as if 19 other Vice-Chancellors have not come out in support. To me, that was the more worrying of his displays of dis-attachment. It demonstrated the gulf between UUK’s understandings of the situation and that of UCU — how this difference is based on rival philosophies of truth and power, or differently on an institutional basis.

When UCU members quoted numbers to him or asked questions about the validity of the assumptions, they were clearly appealing to scientific truth as the tribunal of this dispute, implying by their challenges that those with the true calculation are, clearly, right about the pension deficit. They are, of course, correct that the statistical methodology, the economic assumptions, and the accounting calculations have all been questioned, to put it mildly, and that decisions should be reevaluated — from the standpoint of a discussion about truth, Boyle’s position of ‘nothing changed’ is indeed completely untenable. Everything has changed with the interventions made by experts, managers, and staff.

Nonetheless, it seems that for Boyle truth, power, and managerial behaviour map differently. This could not have become clearer than when he retorted to a question about one of the assumptions with a statement along the lines of “I am not sure I understood the point being made”. His reluctance to engage in detail illustrates how — and regardless of the content of arguments made by UCU members — numbers and their truth are outside of what constitutes, for him, relevancy to the question of the decisions he supports. He, genuinely, didn’t understand how a dispute over calculations could change a decision.

Boyle proceeded as if what matters for the validity of management decisions is not truth but power — he said so himself, appealing to the Pensions Regulator who issued the concern over the deficit and to an ‘independent’ external consultancy as the provider of valuations. Apparently, Boyle takes UUK’s valuations to be valid (and thus sees no reason to change his decisions) because he appeals to the sanction of institutional power, that of corporate governance.

The first is the institutional power of public administration or statutory law. The second — specifically, this notion of relying on a ‘third-party’ to provide knowledge — satisfies how liberal democracies currently understand objective impartiality in contractual accountability terms, thus aligning with the institutional power of contract law. Arguably, when we remember that the context is neoliberal governmentally, it is not surprising that he remains content as these two are very bright stars in corporate cosmology.

In this regard, Boyle is right, nothing indeed changed. Nothing has changed because what UUK’s seem to respect is this logic: management decisions are viable as long as they are sanctioned by higher ranks of institutional power. From the pure perspective of Human Resources Management, which is what Boyle seems to be concerned with, he is still indeed doing “what, [he] hopes is right for this institution”, as he said. Namely, he is guarding corporate governance as the only relevancy in relation to employment decisions.

The problem, which is quite documented, sadly, is that we’re not in Kansas anymore. UCU and UUK, while fighting over higher education, are clearly no longer talking about or valuing the same institutions.

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