Strike Action! Unmasking the University Leisure Class

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As we have noted here before, the barbarian temperament in management culture represents a major impediment to a critical free-thinking and compassionate teaching and learning environment in Higher Education (HE). Challenging this temperament is happening thanks to the current University and Colleges Union strike over pensions and the wider commodification of teaching, researching and learning. There is hope in this current struggle that we can expose the deceptions of a degraded management culture who dictate a university experience wedded to the imperatives of commerce, metrification and ranking. As this post indicates, these imperatives are the hallmarks of barbarian rule with its intensified levels of corruption and deception in the university sector.

For Thorstein Veblen – the sociologist who most clearly grasps the barbarian temperament – barbarians are not ‘dumb’ or ‘less civilized’. Vice Chancellors (VCs) are a potent contemporary example of the barbarian temperament and constitute a “leisure class” – a wasteful and unproductive kernel of barbarian rule residing in the increasingly globally mobile corporate university board room. To use Veblen’s language such “primitive communities” are barbarian to the extent that they are “sticklers for form, precedent, gradations of rank, ritual, ceremonial vestments and learned paraphernalia generally”. While academics are tutored and enticed into these primitive ways (care of the ‘career’, ‘impact’ and ‘influence’), VC’s have attempted to rule through a dispossessing politics that is impressed upon students and staff alike.

For Veblen, the leisure class displays its power through waste and excess to distinguish itself and its power base from those it dispossesses. In the university sector this translates into VCs and their minions utilising public funds to promote their supposed indispensability. Reflecting the entrepreneurial spirit of ‘go-getting’ competitiveness the university leisure class has awarded itself a freedom to roam in first class air travel and fine dining and top-class hotels and in VCs setting the terms of their own salaries (averaging at £246,000 with 60 VC’s paid over £300,000 annually). The excess of this leisure class is demonstrated in VCs maintaining lavish expense accounts alongside ‘perks’ such as second homes and chauffeured transport. This excess amounts to about £8 million in expenses (2015-2017) ….that’s just the figure we can see. This waste provides us with evidence of the barbarian in full flow and, in what Veblen described as their “predatory nature”, with the hiking of tuition fees and other ‘value-added’ incentives imposed on students. The deliberate unburdening by management of pension commitments to university staff embodies this barbarian temperament and a continuation of their war via profit-maximisation directed against workers and students.

Such practices prey on students and academics through what Veblen called the “quantity production of consumers” and in both groups being placed increasingly “under the surveillance …. of publicity engineers”. Sought-after superior ranking in institutional reputation and perception tables are the norms of leisure class rule. We think of ‘the barbaric’ in terms of henchmen, fear mongering clergy and violent feudal lords and their bowed serf subjects. Veblen reminds us that this has its contemporary translation in taken-for-granted practices in the university: these being “salesmanship”, the entrepreneurial combative spirit and the “competitive system”. The result? A fantasy university depicting impact-conscious, bright-sided ambassadorial students and lecturers. The flip side of this is increased economic precarity and anxiety for the academic and student body.

This strike exposes these issues and if we lose the public university will continue to be asset stripped with increased tuition fees and the normalization of debt, more cuts in real term staff pay and the further deterioration of teaching and learning. As we struggle, we hope to see the barbarian mask slip further – rather like the scandal over MPs expenses. A great success of the strike has been to work with our students who are themselves seeing through the leisure class inspired ‘student experience’ deflections and siding with lecturers in this dispute. Through this action we are beginning to become conscious of a new kind of university: one that orientates us away from the fevered imaginations and narco-economics that bloat the current leisure class and reduces learning to salesmanship. Student campaigns to boycott the National Student Survey (and its monetarist imperative to hike charges in return for ‘greater satisfaction’) is one strand in this new consciousness. So is a willingness to occupy the VC’s private spaces in protest at marketisation.

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Students occupy VC Janet Beer’s private meeting rooms at the University of Liverpool 27 February 2018.

There is more vice than chancellorship in today’s universities. Although writing in the 1920s, Veblen would not be surprised at contemporary dispossession and asset stripping in the HE sector. But the biggest asset being stripped – as Veblen saw it – was a form of learning as “idle curiosity”. Being dispossessed of this was the greatest danger posed by what he saw as creeping “salesmanship” whose barbaric tendencies aim to “to deceive, circumvent, ensnare and capture”. Unfortunately, salesmanship has penetrated the wider academic culture as a kind of common-sense that will not be easy to budge. We must continue to work with students in our imaginings of a more inquisitive, de-financialized and empathetic teaching and learning experience. With the strike action we have begun to expose the primitive practices of the university leisure class and, on this basis, there are reasons to hope for a more compassionate and just university.


Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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