There is something rotten in the university.
We feel it, and we know it from simple statistics. It is the statistics on the gender pay gap. It is the collapse in numbers of mature students in higher education. It is student mental health and suicide rates. It is staff being told year after year that universities cannot afford to increase pay in line with inflation, and cannot afford to give staff any job security, even when there is money for new buildings, management pay rises, and pornstar martinis. It is our female and BAME colleagues and students who feel unsafe, uncomfortable, and unhappy. All of the time.
Those feelings matter.
It is true that the ongoing strike by the University and College Union is not about feelings. It is a dispute over the Universities Superannuation (pension) Scheme which comes from a reasoned criticism of the the assumptions behind pension reform and the governance model of UUK, as Patricia Lucas has pointed out. In response to the language of hurt feelings that many Vice-Chancellors have drawn on to address the strike, Chris Millard has pointed out that hurt feelings, whether workers, students, or employers, are not what is at issue: ‘the point of a strike is not an expression of feeling, it is to disrupt the operations of the employer to force them back to the negotiating table.’
But aren’t feelings also the point?
Changing the material conditions of labour, and addressing foetid emotional cultures are not a zero-sum-game: the habitual exploitation of the current university system trades in emotional currency. This is why the strike does not just hit staff financially. It hits us with feelings of worthlessness, shame, and anger. It leaves me feeling like I don’t want to get out of bed, because what is the point?
The teach-out organised by the UCU at Bristol University on International Women’s Day last week was a reminder that in this economy of feelings, women pay a consistently higher price. Colleagues from around Bristol including Havi Carel, Susan Newman, Rowan Tomlinson, and our own head of department, Josie McLellan talked (among many other issues) about the invisible labour disproportionately performed by women in the university, including expectations from both colleagues and students that they should handle the upset feelings of the people around them. I recognise my own complicity in relying on female and BAME colleagues to protest when our bosses demonstrate another example of jaw-dropping incompetence, insensitivity, or open bias.
I feel bad about this, and also recognise that feeling bad is not enough. Even vice-chancellors feel bad, as far as it is possible to judge from their actions.
And yet we do need to keep thinking about feelings. We need a university that recognizes and rewards emotional work, and recognises systematic inequalities.
So that when vice-chancellors, or senior, male, white, older colleagues complain about being made to feel uncomfortable: forgive the rest of us when we say we don’t care. When the most powerful figures in the university use their own personal discomfort as a shield against addressing structural problems: something is rotten.
So we will contest this narrative of the suffering of the powerful, and I honestly think that the latest signs from the crumbling authority of UUK suggest that we will win the argument on material concessions. Because we are already winning the emotional argument.
Solidarity is a feeling, and we’ve got it.