Academic collective action and the future of our movement

Number 9: #USSbriefs9

Andy Balmer


Andy Balmer, University of Manchester

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During the strike, academics independently organized to challenge punitive positions on ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS) taken by some universities involved in the dispute. A website and Twitter account were used to collect and circulate information, enlist others in the action and archive progress. This was successfully used by many UCU branches as part of their efforts to negotiate changes in the universities’ positions. Grass roots collective action has been powerful in the strike so far, especially in bringing together lecturing staff, professional services staff and students, as well as helping fuel a broader movement around the challenges faced by all of us in the intensifying marketisation and casualisation of higher education. We can use this momentum to continue to harness and support efforts to rework university governance in the coming months and years, joining together social media and ‘real life’ in powerful ways. Below, this brief outlines the academic boycott over ASOS and points towards how we can continue our collective endeavours.

1. Action Short of a Strike

In addition to taking strike action (for which staff would lose 14 days pay), UCU instructed members to take ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS) in the form of ‘working to contract’ (WTC). In effect, this meant that staff should no longer undertake a variety of voluntary activities commonly associated with academic and professional services careers. Universities had faced ASOS in previous disputes, generally taking the position that it did not warrant salary deductions.

The difficulty posed by ASOS for universities and staff regards the law on ‘partial performance’ of a contract, and the ambiguities inherent in many university contracts. Legal decisions on ASOS have tended to support employers in disputes, generally finding that duties not specifically mentioned in contracts but commonly undertaken as a part of a role are contractual duties (see, for example, Sim v. Rotherham MBC). This has been the case even when refused activities constitute only a very minor part of an employee’s job, meaning that employers can potentially deduct 100% of pay for any day on which (even small) parts of a job are refused (see, for example, Wiluszynski v London Borough of Tower Hamlets). Although legal, universities have historically taken a cautious approach to ASOS, preferring to err on the side of equanimity than making deductions.

2. Effectiveness of Collective Action

The majority of universities involved in the USS 2018 dispute adopted a measured approach to ASOS. However, around 20 institutions took a more punitive stance, variously threatening to deduct either a percentage of pay (e.g. 25%) for each day of ASOS or a full day’s salary. In effect, they counted ASOS as partial performance of contract, arguing that staff who refused to reschedule missed lectures or cover for absent colleagues (as we had been instructed to do by UCU) were not fulfilling their contractual duties. This also meant that staff could have pay deducted twice for the same missed work.

Staff began to take collective action in the form of boycotting. I set up an academic boycott website to support students and staff to take action by identifying which institutions to target, and providing information on how to target them (e.g. SLT contact details, lists of events to boycott, how to withdraw alumni donations, etc.) which had over 30,000 views in March 2018. This fed into an open letter which academics and professional services staff could sign to indicate their agreement to boycott these institutions (which collected just under 2000 signatures). As the boycott heated up, we encouraged external examiners to resign from their positions. UCU then formally instructed their members to officially resign from these positions, and members of the community created and managed a list of examiner resignations, which (as of 3rd April) has the details of over 700 resignees.

Sheffield University was the first to back-track under pressure from a rapid, locally-organised campaign aimed at their VC. As the academic boycott grew nationally, several other universities followed suit. Within a week or so, the majority of these institutions had changed position under pressure from the social media campaign, the open letter, examiner resignations and from local UCU branches harnessing these and other tools to leverage change in senior leadership views. More obstinate institutions took longer to change tack, including City University, and the University of Surrey, but eventually shifted position. Only a handful now remain on the academic boycott list: Aberdeen, Bradford, Brunel, Leeds, Liverpool and Salford.

3. UUK Network and the ASOS Dispute

Of the remaining institutions on the academic boycott list (those which have refused to change position), all but one are run by key figures in the USS dispute:

There are also strong connections between institutions which took a punitive approach but which back-tracked under pressure, including (amongst others):

  • Prof. Anton Muscatelli is VC of University of Glasgow, Chair of the Russell Group, a Director of USS, and he was formerly Vice-President of UUK and VC of Heriot-Watt.
  • Professor Sally Mapstone is Principal of University of St. Andrews and is one of Dame Janet Beer’s nominated members of the board of UUK.
  • Professor Gaoqing Max Lu is VC of University of Surrey and an elected member of the Board of UUK.
  • Professor Adam Tickell is VC of University of Sussex and was a member of the UUK negotiating team during the ACAS talks in March 2018.

What this shows is that there is a key network of actors tied into the centre of UUK (and closely related organisations) who are at the heart of the more bitter disagreements during the pensions dispute. That VCs at recalcitrant institutions almost all have central roles at UUK and powerful organisations connected to this dispute is evidence of a hard-line group with a shared interest in ‘reforming’ our pensions.

4. Implications

The implications of the ASOS successes are that collective action on social media, when developed alongside action in real life (including the pickets, UCU branch activities, protests, sit ins, etc.) can slow down decision-making, challenge assumptions, collectivise and inspire. We can use this momentum to continue our action on pensions, and to develop a broader agenda for workers within higher education, drawing on the resources of UCU but moving beyond its limitations.

The failure to turn several of the strongest, most influential members of UUK, however, shows that central actors do not necessarily respond to collective action. Dame Janet Beer at Liverpool was subject to some of the most intense student-organised protest, branch activity and digital action, but she has resolutely chosen not to engage, as have those closest to her. This means that we must also find ways to support and enrich the work of those who represent us in key decision-making bodies, like UCU and in particular on the Joint Negotiating Committee. We must think carefully about how we can turn digital and real world collective action towards these ends as well.

5. Principles for Digital Collective Action

What the ASOS boycott (and other collective actions, such as external examiner resignations) has shown is the power for academic and professional services staff collective action when it ties together digital and physical resistance. It is important that we continue this movement, to ensure a strong approach to the pensions dispute, but also to the broader issues of which this dispute is a part. Whatever the outcome of the vote (on the offer of a panel to review the valuation methods, expected in w/c 2nd April 2018) we must seek to capture, enrich and direct our collective action towards forthcoming challenges.

To ensure that we make the most of digital collective action, here are some general principles to be adopted, adjusted and extended:

  1. Share: the key function of social media is creating networks and sharing information. It is important to use a diverse set of social media tools, including the most popular networks, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. But sharing should also be conducted through blogging, writing for traditional news media, and via email, in order to connect with as broad an audience as possible. There’s a helpful guide here.
  2. Diversify: social media audiences can be diverse but also homogeneous. It is important to identify different groups to engage in campaigns, and use different media forms to target those groups. This also means ensuring that stakeholders who might be overlooked are brought into representations and discussions. For example, in the UCU strike, professional services staff were often overlooked, but many members of the community worked hard to bring their voices into discussions and media representations of the strike.
  3. Strengthen: diversity is important and so too is respect of different opinions. Large groups, such as UCU or university staff more broadly, produce competing and complex articulations of what is happening and what should happen when a dispute is live. This can cause contestation (which is good) and conflict (which can be good and bad). An important part of diversity in any social movement is to try to return as regularly as possible to agreed aims and values, as the basis of discussion and contestation. Using diversity to strengthen work towards these aims is vital, rather than allowing contestation and conflict to be harnessed by those who would seek to dispel collective movements.
  4. Print: although digital networks are powerful, a further consideration is the conversion of social media materials into physical materials for posters, leafleting, letters and so forth. These proved hugely influential on the picket lines during the strike, as members of the community printed information to share with students walking to lectures, with staff on their office doors, and so on. Turning online material into physical media needs care for presentation, detail, scale, and so on.
  5. Collate: digital tools provide a powerful mechanism for collating materials through collective search and data entry work. This was successfully applied in the March 2018 strikes, e.g. in the external examiners resignations list. The Google Docs tools (use a Form to collect the information and a Sheet to collate it) are excellent for this kind of work. Another form of collation is through acquiring signatories to open letters. The Organise platform is great for this kind of work. Through sharing and collating, digital materials can be summarised in formats which are useful in ‘real life’ and which provide evidence of community power to influence decision-makers.
  6. Channel: although digital media are powerful, they are at their most effective when they can be marshalled and directed by targeting specific actors with collated information/open letters, etc. This means channeling the information through existing groups. In this dispute, the UCU local branches provided the most immediate groups, however others also came into play, including for example the Athena Swan network and the National Union of Students. Future action should ensure that social media efforts are channelled, whenever possible and appropriate, into physical relations.
  7. Support: digital collective action can be used to support the work of those in positions of authority within central decision-making bodies. The academic boycott and external examiners resignations lists were used by UCU branches and by UCU central in negotiations over ASOS and the pensions agreement. However, clearer communications from central actors over what they need, in what form, and by when, would help to more effectively channel digital activity to better support their efforts within key decision-making spaces.
  8. Protect: it is becoming increasingly clear that powerful institutions are using technology to monitor and intervene in democratic processes, including social movements. It is important to protect sensitive discussions about collective action using encryption tools, such as the chat tool Keybase.
  9. Play: things that are serious can also have a playful element, and social media platforms thrive on this combination. The USS dispute has shown once again that collective action can be playful, a practice with a long history in social movements. Twitter exemplified this in the creation of parody VC accounts, but there was plenty of playfulness on picket lines too, including the Dinosaur of Solidarity. Playfulness on social media allows creative work to have a key role in the dissemination of information, in the engagement of a diverse community of actors, and in inspiring members of the movement to take collective and individual actions. It can also be a powerful force puncturing the bubble of media spin, challenging assumptions and illusions, and in sending up farcical dimensions of very real and very serious socio-political issues.
  10. Archive: most disputes are part of long-term issues, and so it is important not only to collate materials for specific issues, but to archive those materials for future use. This can safely be done in protected cloud storage or by asking archivists and digitisation groups to help you. Here’s some advice on archiving. And here’s a great tool for creating a digital archive: OMEKA.

This paper represents the views of the author only. The author believes all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs9; the author will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



Andy Balmer

Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Manchester