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Artillery Row

A floundering academic culture

UCU’s marking boycott is a lesson in hypocrisy

Queen Mary University’s UCU (University and College Union) branch has announced that there will be a significant delay to the graduation of English and Drama finalists and the progression of younger students into their next academic stage. The UCU’s dispute over pay, pensions and equality has been ongoing since 2014, with the last four years significantly disrupted alongside the pandemic.

An extended wave of industrial action in the East London university’s School of English and Drama (SED) cost undergraduates hundreds of hours of learning throughout 2022 and 2023. Between February and August 2022, seven periods of action totalled 25 days, whilst 2023’s strikes scratched lectures and seminars throughout February and March, a crucial period for essay planning, feedback and dissertation advice. In April and May, optimistic negotiations were underway between the Union and Senior Executive Team, causing further strike dates to be withdrawn with few days’ notice. Jessica Jacobs, James Eastwood and Zara Dinnen, QMUCU’s secretary and co-chairs, agreed to cancel further action on the grounds that the University waive pay deductions for faculty absences.

However, 12 July saw a turnaround from the School’s administration:

We are yet to receive marks for a number of modules and therefore … unable to confirm your progression status. We realise this delay might be frustrating as you are not able to make firm arrangements for your 2023/24 academic year, and we are very sorry for this disruption.

Following the Senior Executive Team’s refusal to negotiate, a third wave of deduction threats was made towards faculty participating in April’s continuing marking boycott. The boycott, undertaken across the country, prevents students from receiving any marks or feedback for their assessments. As UCU stated in May, “[Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s] failure to negotiate threatens to disrupt millions of exam results as well as the graduations of well over half a million students.” Queen Mary’s staff have additionally refused work independently of the Union, with Dinnen suggesting a particular brutality to QMUL’s management in a recent correspondence.

A strike implies enraged crowds, placards and noble causes. Queen Mary’s strikes, however, are a sombre, fatuous affair. Walking into campus this Spring, I was met with empty classrooms and handfuls of students loitering around the purple plastic seating with nowhere to go. The courtyards were equally deserted, eliciting deep pointlessness. I reminisced over COVID days, where at least I wouldn’t have paid a train fare to find my lecturer absent, having forgotten to check my emails and learn that the week’s classes were cancelled.

At the academics’ behest, we adopt pseudo-Marxist rhetoric

A student-aimed Instagram infographic adjacent to QMUCU’s statement of 10 July insists, “Students have more power than [the Senior Executive Team] likes them to know.” In the infographic, students are encouraged to “talk to the press” about management’s punitive threats. This implication of students in the defence of striking staff reinforces a long-held narrative of the “weaponisation” of undergraduates. In her English workshops, UCU branch co-chair Zara Dinnen urged second-years not to engage with “snitch forms”, a system implemented on 31 October 2022 to report absent lecturers.

The “snitch form” is lamented in an open letter template written by UCU, intended to represent the student voice. The letter calls on Chair of Council Lord Clement-Jones to “intervene to stop management turning students against staff”. The student is then told to say: “The onslaught of attempts to make students act against their own best interest has to stop. My teachers are the face of QMUL for me. They are the ones who treat me as a human, who help me develop in my field, who support me in my questions and concerns. Yet all communication coming from QMUL management casts them as villains, and urges me to take sides against them, the people I rely on most.”

Is treating students as “human” such a prominent virtue of SED’s faculty, when students’ unwitting support for the strikes enables drastic interruptions to their education? For one, the delay to graduations impacts the likelihood of successfully applying for postgraduate work. Without a degree certificate, an English student is handicapped in an already unforgiving market. Based on the experiences of older humanities graduates, I wholeheartedly expect to remain in unstable, poorly paid pub work after the completion of my degree. My boyfriend, who graduated from UCL with a first in Ancient History, has been stuck as a kitchen porter and cinema popcorn maker ever since. Unless one remains in the academies, locked in perpetual adolescence, work is sparse. English graduates’ low salaries and employment opportunities are recognised on an institutional basis by the Office for Students. In 2022 it introduced regulations sanctioning universities for students’ inability to enter professional work or masters degrees within 15 months of graduating.

First- and second-year students, should they remain unable to progress, won’t be able to enrol, therefore won’t be able to get their maintenance loans on time. Working-class students, and those without parental safety nets, may find themselves unable to pay rent in September. As record numbers of sixth formers are funnelled into universities rather than lucrative trades or apprenticeships, expectations of financial security and free time are placed on those who lack the reserves to fund the hedonistic and farcically overpriced university lifestyle. Campus life, for Queen Mary students, involves a minimum £1000+ monthly rent and skyrocketing food prices — a cost unaccounted for by even the highest possible maintenance loan of £13k a year.

At the academics’ behest, we adopt the pseudo-Marxist rhetoric of professional managerial “equality” disputes. To refer back to Dinnen’s module “The Long Contemporary”, I noted that UCU proselytising ate increasingly into already-infrequent workshops. As pictured in these slides taken from a Long Contemporary PowerPoint, “educating” students on the urgency of strikes entered the educational experience within the same breaths, and in the same format, as the module’s subject matters of late capitalism and climate change.

In the module, perspectives on the anthropocene, ecological collapse, post-industrial labour and gender relations were communicated as unshakable truths. Such consensuses are in fact newly commonplace. Judging by the rapidity with which they are overwritten, they are at the utmost mercy of trends. Dinnen’s use of the term “non-human animals” in environmental discourses, for instance, (replacing simply “animals”) was unquestioned. To a generation under the spell of TikTok lingo, this was likely received as ethically optimal. Nobody seemed aware of, nor willing to draw attention to, the term’s essential suggestion: that humans and animals are ontologically identical. The focus on interpretation expected of a poststructural-esque, class-conscious course was nonexistent. Instead, rambles about broiler chickens and emotional labour occupied these hours. Criticising selected texts was restricted to basic comprehension skills such as “How does our reading and viewing this week ‘animate’ non-human points of view?” The module was received by a silent throng of defeatniks noting down Dinnen’s every word.

The commercialisation of the English discipline is undertaken from within

The SED’s intellectually hegemonic, frankly irrelevant array of readings betrays its synonymy with strike ideology as a progressivist fixation — it is harder, as such, to imagine this is a genuine crisis of workers’ rights. I am reminded of the 11,000 men arrested in the miners’ strike of 1985, who risked their lives to protect their jobs and families. Not for a moment does this seem worthy by contrast. The declaration that “The university wants [students] to blame us” and “our struggle against the gender and pay gap is your struggle” begins to fall on the deaf ears of London’s true victims of precarity and manipulation. Whilst UCU claim that academics’ “temporary” and “atypical” contracts abuse their so-called dedication to undergraduate teaching, our economic reality is dismissed. We are mere cash cows for our instructors’ research endeavours, which do not benefit us besides providing higher volumes of waffle with which to silence ticking clocks. A fellow student tells me, “With the School refusing to confirm my progression into third year … I now face the prospect of the loss of my job working for QMSU, the loss of my student finance and likely financial hardship due to the fact I already signed the lease of a flat for next year which I must fulfil. The industrial action is punishing the wrong people.” London’s Russell Group universities pay academics an average salary of £54,000 — roughly the amount of debt I’ll be in when I leave.

Despite the undeniable reality of substandard working conditions, and UCU’s attempt to alleviate “levels of stress and ill health”, the pathological shift of responsibility onto students and a megalith of executives evades the intellectual void at the heart of English. Whilst the strikes protest the marketisation of universities, it is hard to forget that the commercialisation and dumbing-down of the discipline is undertaken from within. Lecturers and module convenors themselves are the reason why Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens face content warnings and bans. Mediaeval and Early Modern studies are either replaced by hyper-contemporary modules, or restrictively analysed through the lens of post-80s radical politics. This reveals an active effort to misunderstand the moral and metaphysical characteristics of the societies in which Spenser, Dekker and Chaucer lived. Instead, the modern English degree seeks to train its disciples in corporate managerial culture and current affairs. As several universities plan to cease teaching English altogether, Bentley-Astor’s quip rings true: “the project of mutual enlightenment is a long-faded dream”.

The shallowness of the School’s cosmopolitan tutelage is laughable. As marking and teaching comes to a standstill, SED’s marketing manager continues to promote a range of “enrichment activities”. The ghostly remains of communication manifest in email adverts. Recently these have included “Rehearsing Refusal”, a “workshop for practicing feminist refusal” (sic) “open to female-identifying and non-binary folks”, 50 per cent off membership to events network Dazed Club, and a roller disco. A particularly amusing data harvesting opportunity reads: “Got opinions on our liberation campaigns? Tell us your thoughts and you could win a £20 voucher! Get liberated — tell us what you think!”

The hypocrisy of a floundering academic culture that insists on its own indispensability is enhanced by its simultaneous erosion of intellectual rigour. It is crucial that we understand this as a finishing touch to an ongoing process of decay. I found assurance in this realisation in our final Shakespeare seminar (led by the one professor who hadn’t gone on strike) as I sat next to a girl who couldn’t spell “theatre” in her notebook. The modern university is truly in its final days.

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