Phil Taylor, Professor of Work and Employment Studies at the University of Strathclyde and a member of the Strathclyde UCU committee writes for Branch Solidarity Network on how we need to resist the imposition of a new managerial norm in the light of Covid-19. Instead, staff and students need to unite to ensure that tech, software and contractual changes aren’t used to cut jobs and undermine teaching as part of our struggle for a ‘new normal’ after coronavirus.
I am no expert in Panopto, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and their intrinsic properties, However, I am deeply suspicious of all the software packages that are now being used to facilitate ‘remote teaching’ because the ownership and control resides with third parties and with the management whose interests are contrary to ours. They may well be courting us at the moment because they need us to meet the immediate demands of students; they may even be indulging in grand thank you gestures such as additional ‘rest days’. But they’re doing this while developing other agendas which are more concerned with students progressing to future years of their programmes and of course about keeping the income from PGTs.
Meanwhile, senior management groups (the university equivalent of Cobras if you like) are engaging in mathematical modelling and projections for what a post Covid-19 HE would look like at their institutional level. Top of the list is of course saving money and that means primarily saving money on labour costs, the largest element of spending. We’ve already seen Sussex and others announce redundancies and Durham float the idea of a huge increase in online teaching, partly in response to the expected collapse in the ‘unregulated’ overseas postgraduate market, especially China and India.
It is within management’s projected conceptions of their ‘new normal’ that we have to consider how they will attempt to reshape HE in terms of labour and labour costs. Within this political-economic context, technologies of various kinds will be employed by senior management in order to pursue their financial imperatives. It is worth remembering that many HEIs also are in hock to money lenders for huge sums following the shiny buildings that have mushroomed around the campuses, towns and cities. These vanity projects have exposed many HEIs and this will be an added driver to their financial parsimony and cuts agendas. We need to be acutely aware of this ‘economic-realpolitik’as the bland ‘we’re all in it together, thank you for all your efforts’ propaganda continues. We will face the harsh realities soon enough.
Here are some of the key things we need to watch out for.
1) A significant amount of online teaching is now being delivered by Zoom to remote students even though, as we discovered recently, that Zoom is compromised.
2) We have to assume that what we upload on Moodle systems are now going to be a big battleground – what us old International Relations folk called a ‘frontier of control’. They will want to use and reuse our uploaded lectures slides, even more so now that we have added voice overs and podcasts. This is an intellectual property battleground over which we must be eternally vigilant. MOOCs are a real problem – potentially not that different to turkeys voting for Christmas. They will want to turn temporary exigencies into permanent fixtures.
3) Universities will claim that our online efforts have been a success and indeed they have been – but only because we are committed to the students. In reality, action short of strike action (ASOS) has de facto has been in abeyance since the lockdown despite the best efforts of some branches. A key argument for me is that these ‘successes’ have only happened because staff had previously established personal, face-to-face relationships with the student. So a few additional remote lectures only ‘work’ because they are based on the solid teaching foundations we had already created with in-person lectures, tutorials and supervisions.
4) We, not managers, most of whom have never taught or if they have it was eons ago, need to be the guardians of pedagogical practice. We will have to struggle to maintain that over and over again as our managements attempt to impose top-down, ‘lean and mean’ consultant-led approaches. Keep an eye out for these vile snakeoil salespeople and beware talk of ‘continuous improvement’, ’creative synergies’ and ‘agile working’ (straight out of the lean handbooks) as they basically mean downsizing and increased exploitation. You might want to use FOI requests or SARs to shine a light on the role of these consultants.
5) Administrative workers at all levels of the institution together with librarians and IT workers are also about to face a massive intensification of work pressures. Academic staff will need to work so closely with them and see them as equals in every sense. They will bear a big brunt of management’s attempt to cut costs. Once again, watch out for the role of organisations like Capita who are mysteriously brought in to advise as IT consultants.
6) In terms of our relationship to students, I hardly need to repeat what we have learned through our recent struggles over pay, equalities and pensions: that our fight is their fight, and vice-versa. Senior mangement’s version of the ‘new normal’ will surely be larger classes, beamed and streamed lectures, and recycling of our old lectures. We say openly to students that the tech is likely to devalue their learning if it accompanied by cuts in staffing and provision. We will need to fight together for ourversion of the ‘new normal’. If students en masse demand lectures and not technologically mediated and facilitated dumbed down bullet points, It can be a big weapon in our collective armoury.
7) When it comes to Panopto and ‘lecture capture’, it’s almost unbelievable that this derives from Bentham’s model for the 19th century surveillance prison. They don’t even understand the irony or perhaps they cynically do. There are live battles over this including at the University of Greenwich where resistance is underway and there is some tremendous work done by legal academics on intellectual property which we need to share collectively.
At the moment – and faced with the huge pressures of life under coronavirus – it’s hard to find the time to be anything other than ‘reactive’. Somehow, we need to create the space for us to develop and organise our version of the ‘new normal’as opposed to the very familiar one that managements are attempting to impose. Their versions generally won’t come in one big bang as it makes it easier it easier for the campus trade unions to campaign against them. Instead, it will be insidious and incremental.
We need to share best practice, particularly in terms of local agreements that protect terms and conditions. Members at all levels of UCU are involved in negotiations on tech, remote working, modes of teaching, and new financial ‘realities’ and it’s vital that we collaborate with each other in these struggles.
One important principle for our union work in this area is that there should be maximum transparency and openness, and no clandestine ‘partnership agreements’. All members need to be informed and involved as much as possible so that they can see that union organisation is our best defence. Our ‘new normal’ means no return to mental ill-health, overwork, casualised contracts and health and safety breaches. We need New Technology Agreements (NTAs) as part of wider collective agreements where tech and software implementation is subject to bargaining locally and nationally. The national union is crucial here in leading and disseminating information both about the issues and our struggles.
We have an opportunity to recast the ‘new normal’ as, at least temporarily, managements need us to get them through really challenging times. In other sectors, the ‘magic money tree’ has been found to exist and we need to insist that higher education is also a social priority, especially should there be a significant rise in unemployment following the pandemic (which of course we need to resist). We need maximum unity between administrators, academics, IT staff, counsellors, cleaners, security staff, librarians, students, their families, and even future students.
One last thought on technology. In my research on call centres over the last 25 years, I have encountered the worst of the deleterious effects of information and communication and have seen horrendous evidence of burnout and stress. Technology is used in universities now as a vicious form of performance management – take a look, for example, at Pure(owned by Elsevier) the ‘objective’ REF tool. We have allowed universities to take our creative labour and actually pay them to have it and then to use it back against us as a disciplinary tool that causes rampant mental ill-health. Our ‘new normal’ would cancel Pure and the like and abolish the REF and all its distortions and venal behaviours.
In winning the ‘new normal’, we will need to compile inventories of tech and the software that our institutions buy, licence and use. We need smart and critical tech people (of which there are many) to collaborate and help us understand their intrinsic properties, how they are being used against us in the name of efficiency and the ‘student experience’. Crucially, we need to learn how we counter them while still helping students to actually learn through high-quality education and not a dumbed-down education that comes at our – and the students’ – expense and at great pedagogical cost.
Ultimately though what will really matter is for the union nationally to debate these issues and to decide on courses of action where we fight for #ournewnormal, not theirs.