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A tale of profs and proles

This article is over 20 years, 4 months old
Kevin Ovenden sees deeper processes at work behind the recent lecturers' strike
Issue 1891

‘WE WERE behaving like a proper trade union.’ Such comments came from university lecturers’ picket lines across Britain and Northern Ireland last week. The pickets behaved exactly as any other group of trade unionists on strike-making up ditties about overpaid bosses, persuading people not to cross their picket lines, and generally hitting ‘production’ in the workplace. But, of course, these are academics-tutors, researchers, course coordinators, thinkers.

They are people who a generation ago were regarded as a solid component of the middle class, and most saw themselves as such. Tabloid cartoonists may still depict them as ‘profs’ wearing mortarboard hats and black gowns. But the lecturers’ bitter pay battle is not some middle class revolt.

It has exposed a deep transformation in society through which people in traditional middle class occupations have been pushed into the ranks of the working class. The lecturers’ strike is at odds with the Blairite vision of Britain, in which the working class, and with it collective struggle, is meant to be disappearing as we all supposedly care more about our role as consumers and individuals. That vision also influences some who oppose New Labour and neo-liberalism-TUC leaders, and sections of the left and the anti-capitalist movement.

You have to go back to someone we often are told is an obscure, outdated 19th century thinker to make sense of what is going on. With capitalism in its infancy, Karl Marx predicted in The Communist Manifesto in 1848 that as it grew it would increasingly divide the world into two ‘great hostile classes’-the capitalist class (bourgeoisie) and the working class ‘proletariat’.

The layers in between-small traders, self employed specialists, peasant farmers-were in Marx’s day more numerous than the capitalists and the workers combined. But, he predicted, capitalist growth would pull the ‘lower strata’ of the middle class into the world of wage labour-into the working class. As industrial capitalism stormed into the 20th century this is exactly what happened.

Family-run farms and workshops were gobbled up by capitalist giants, and their owners driven into the working class. But as capitalism grew again after the Second World War something else happened. The modern economy required a huge expansion of sectors that did not directly produce a profit, but which were needed to administer an increasingly complex system or produce a skilled and relatively healthy workforce. In Britain the Robbins report in the 1960s called for a rapid expansion of higher education.

There was much scoffing in university sociology departments at the time at Marx’s predictions of the ‘protelarianisation’ of the middle class. It seemed that at least some of the children of traditional working class families were being elevated into a new educated middle class.

Most of the new jobs-clerical workers in the civil service, for example-were routinised white collar work. But some, such as lecturing, had the status of a middle class profession and allowed a degree of control over work unheard of in manual jobs. Those once privileged occupations have been dramatically hit in the latest phase of capitalism of the last two decades.

They are no longer highly paid. University lecturers’ pay has fallen 40 percent behind the average for non-manual occupations over the last 20 years. The media last week picked up on the story of a biology lecturer who has become a gas fitter because the pay is better.

Speaking to striking lecturers reveals a more fundamental shift. They, like every other group of workers, describe the pressure of long hours, stress at work and diktats from management. Research by their union, the AUT, shows lecturers work 55 hours a week on average during term time.

The number of students per lecturer has doubled over the last 20 years. And the holidays are no longer the envied long months away in the sun. Lecturers and university staff work through most of the period when students are not there-on average 51 hours a week.

The proportion of working hours spent on administration and bureaucracy rose from 10 percent in the early 1980s to about 30 percent in 1996. It is likely to have risen further since then. Universities and courses are increasingly run like businesses. There are 139 university vice-chancellors (bosses) on over £100,000 a year out of 164 in total.

Around them are a new breed of managers and heads of department with close business and commercial links. Meanwhile the vast majority of lecturers are subject to factory-style monitoring of their teaching and even their ‘intellectual output’.

Under the ‘Research Assessment Exercise’ the number of academic papers they write, the conferences they attend and so on are all given a figure, put into a formula and turned into a score. It is modelled on the fake scientific management techniques developed by Frederick Taylor, who invented time and motion studies to pump more out of factory workers at the beginning of the last century.

Universities are already using such results to determine pay. And, as elsewhere, lecturers no longer have job security. Half of all university lecturers are on fixed term contracts. For researchers that rises to 90 percent. That is why the kind of complaints, jokes and examples of management idiocy that striking lecturers came out with last week can be heard in canteens and staff rooms across industry.

It’s still the case that in many lecture halls the old-fashioned notion of the disappearing working class is treated as gospel. It was Marx again who noted that it often takes time for people’s ideas to catch up with the reality of their lives, but that ultimately ‘social being determines social consciousness’.

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