University of Liverpool Strike Action

We are now in week 3 of a strike at the University of Liverpool. It is already the longest local strike in our history, and one of the longest in any University’s history.  Last week, we voted to escalate our strike action.

A thousand members of the University and Colleges Union are now striking to defend 32 academic jobs in health, medical and life sciences.  But the stakes are even bigger than those jobs.  The University of Liverpool is currently playing out a scenario that may be all too familiar in the post-pandemic world.  It is the test-bed of what is known to the most dubious employers as ‘rank and yank.’  This is the practice of ranking staff according to performance targets and then sacking the bottom 5% or 10% every year.    Companies that used ‘rank and yank’ until they were publicly exposed include Goldman Sachs and Amazon.

At Liverpool, ‘rank and yank’ has been implemented with a very real bureaucratic violence that Kafka would have been proud of fictionalising.  Our colleagues – many with young families – are being sacked for not earning enough research grant income.  The target for most of those facing the sack is an eye watering £187,000 per year!  And, this is the Kafka bit: they were given those targets after they were told they were being sacked for not failing to reach them.  None of them were ever told by their managers at any point before now that they would be required to reach this performance target.

We are informed by experts on the use of performance measures like this that this is the first time in Europe a University has used research income targets to  disposed of staff en masse.  If the University of Liverpool gets away with it, it may open the floodgates to a new wave of Amazonian employment practices in the public sector.

We need to win.  At the same time, we need to take stock of why this is happening in a University, and why this is happening now.   The advent of £9,000 a year tuition fees in England and Wales, combined with a lifting of the cap on student intake, has created a toxic mix of financial logics and power-drunk managers.  This is not to say that the same thing is not going to be played out in Scotland.  Indeed, the full support we have from UCU Scotland, and some big Scottish branches is on one hand a measure of the solidarity between education workers North and South of the border.  On the other hand it is an indication that the situation in English higher education can’t be allowed to spread to Scotland.

On both sides of the border, however, University senior managers are given free rein to embark on high cost ventures, spending huge sums of public money without having to answer for the consequences.  Many of those ventures are ‘vanity projects’, risky, high stakes schemes that will allow their architects to claim the credentials they need to climb even further up the ladder.

In other Universities we are seeing entire subjects and Departments axed to pay for investment mistakes and property deals gone wrong.  Colleagues at other English universities, including Leicester, Chester, Sheffield and Goldsmiths are facing redundancies because managers took financial risks and expect workers to pay for their financial incompetency.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, an earlier bright idea of one upwardly mobile financial director at the University of Liverpool unravelled.  This was the brilliantly names ‘University of Liverpool in London’, established in a huge palatial building close to the City of London.  The idea was to cream off the ‘surplus’ of overseas students’ funds, all of them paying inflated fees.  What this bright manager didn’t reckon on was that overseas students had moved to London to study at London universities.  If they wanted to study at in Liverpool, they went to Liverpool.  This University ponzi scheme finally collapsed in March 2020 with an empty building and empty course, leaving a total loss that has never been admitted in public. UCU has estimated to be in the region of a cool £30m-£40m.  What happened to that manager?   He was headhunted for a more senior position at an even larger University.

‘Failure breeds success’ was not supposed to be the epithet for the marketization of the University sector. The neoliberal logic of the public sector is distinctly Orwellian.  Remember how the new public management was based on a revolution in efficiency and effectiveness.  Remember the waste created by a bloated public sector that was used to justify the privatisation of all of our public services and amenities?

Now we can see clearly that the opposite is the case: our political and managerial class are more bloated than ever.  In Liverpool, our University Vice Chancellor earns 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee.  The  senior manager who designed the scheme put her Euro 3.2 million home on the market, as she signed off of the redundancies.

The sacking of our colleagues is not a result of financial necessity, or because they are not good at their jobs (they are brilliant at their jobs).  This is just another management show of strength, a muscle flex to shows that staff can be disposed of to support another back-of-the-fag packet vanity project.  The redundancies are being made to build a new research centre that will be the plaything of the same senior manager with the Euro 3.2 million home.

And this is why we are committed to taking the strike as far as we can.  We need to do something to challenge our unaccountable and bloated managements, and their nonsensical vanity projects.  And we must keep challenging and revealing the brutal incompetency of the new managerialism in higher education.



Comments (11)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Are the “UK” government behind this David? I’m unsure who owns the universities but I think they do receive government funding.

    1. David Whyte says:

      Good question, Tom. On average in UK (ie including Scotland) , government subsidies for research and teaching total roughly 25%; student fees are roughly 50% of university income. The rest is made up of endownments, external research, tie-ups with private companies, intellectual property revenue and, increacingly important, student accomodation revenue. It is really important too to recognise that the student loan book is privatised and that the costs to taxpayers over the long term will be hugely expensive. So, students will pay back those loans but in the meantime we all pay financial corporations huge amounts of interest to service the student loans that pay those fees in the first instance. So, in short, this is a privatised system that relies almost exclusively on tax payers. Like so many other public services and amenities, what looks like a ‘privatised’ system is really just a transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to private investors.

      In Scotland, because of the absense of fees, it is not true to claim that the system is ‘more’ subsidised. Scottish taxpayers, like in the rest of the UK are paying for financialisation of the student loan book. There is now evidence that this sytem will cost us (UK and Scottish taxpayers) more in the long term than simply funding the Universities a wee bit more and not charging tuition fees. The Scottish government should not weaken on this.

      On the jannys, good joke, but it might come to this. Our colleagues in other unions are grossly under-paid and over worked, including the jannys.

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        Thanks for that David and fair comment on the jannys.

  2. Niemand says:

    Very well said David. Could not agree more with all of it.

    And the the idea that lecturers must be judged primarily on research income is so effing ridiculous in the first place (and the amount of money it actually generates is tiny compared to the millions from undergraduate fees and prospective students could not give a damn about research income).

    If you really want to focus on research then look at the actual research not whether they got a grant to do it! Everyone in HE knows the whole thing is a kind of scam with certain people getting good at applying for grants and then of course orienting their research to things that funders will like. The same goes for a lot of external funding of course which is always Kafkaesque in its absurdity of application.

    Tom, UK universities receive very little money from government (there is some top-up stuff) – this is what the whole full tuition fees thing was about: it replaced government funding, that was reduced with the part fees of the Blair era and then totally after the Coalition introduced full fees (and loans). It is different in Scotland as ‘home’ students have free tuition, though they still love English students as they do pay fees and they get more money per head from them than from the Scottish government for Scottish (and EU students). The UK government is responsible for creating this whole fiasco in the first place in England but not for the specifics of what unis are doing regarding redundancies – they have no input into that and don’t own the universities (in fact I do’t think they have ever actually owned universities (just fund them, up to a point).

    1. Niemand says:

      Sorry should have said English universities at the start of para 3, not UK – the difference in Scotland is crucial.

    2. Tom Ultuous says:

      Thanks Niemand.

      Not relative to the article but I felt most of my time at university was wasted. I’d go to a lecture, the lecturer would copy his notes onto the blackboard, I’d copy them down, I’d go home and check the notes were already covered in one of the course books I’d purchased, I’d then tear the notes up. Maybe 5 or 6 hours a day were wasted in travelling and going through the aforementioned rigmarole. The only time I felt I actually learned anything from the staff was in tutorials or labs but the lectures themselves seemed to be a charade that allowed the lecturers to justify their employment. It was all science subjects so maybe it’s different for other subjects. Had the courses been covered in open university style I would probably have learned twice as much or at least had more time to enjoy myself. Would it not make more sense to do all university level teaching that way? Wouldn’t students then maybe be taught by the best teachers in whatever field they’re studying?

      1. Niemand says:

        I cannot comment on the sciences as not my area but in arts and humanities it is very much about discussion, opinion, research skills, critical analysis etc. This happens best in class, in person and with a lecturer who can present material, including basic historical stuff, mostly readily available yes, but lacking in decent context / perspective (and quite probably accuracy / veracity), and then help foster discussion. I have always felt it is in these sessions that the magic can happen and make the whole experience what is should be – a shifting of consciousness and understanding and a spark to autonomous learning. This is not likely to happen without those in-the-moment discussions with an expert as a backdrop and facilitator.

        The other factor is simply high level specialist facilities that only a university can (in theory) provide.

        1. Tom Ultuoous says:

          Had the science lecturers given the janny a fiver to write their notes up on the board nobody would’ve noticed any difference.

        2. Tom Ultuous says:

          Had the science lecturers given the janny a fiver to write their notes up on the board nobody would’ve noticed any difference.

    3. David Whyte says:

      Absolutely right, Neimand.

  3. Justin Kenrick says:

    ‘Failure breeds success’

    Success is to show you can get away with failure big time, and so are promoted to a higher level in a system that is utterly failing.

    Boris Johnson epitomises this.

    He embodies a system that requires liars and failures to lead it, because no one half sane or half humane would be able to lead us where they are taking us, unless they were already avoiding looking their kids in the eye.

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