The decision to gamble our lecturers’ pensions on the stock market while offering no assurances in their retirement and imposing an average cut of £10,000 per year is a direct attack on education. This attack appears to be a continuation of the aggressive dismantling of the notion of education as a public good, most significantly intensified by the trebling of student tuition fees in 2010. As a Goldsmiths student society, we have received many testimonies from staff over the past week, outlining how the spread of managerialism throughout our university and the casualisation of labour contracts have led to the transformation of the university education system over the past several decades.
“This is the latest site of an ongoing struggle between two opposing views of the place and status of education and research within a society – and consequently, of what the nature of a university should be.” – Anon, Goldsmiths lecturer
Such commercialisation of the higher education sector corresponds with the work of economic historian Philip Mirowski, who postulates that under neoliberal epistemology, “knowledge” as a cognitive state becomes hopelessly conflated with knowledge as a thing-like commodity. In his essay, Hell is Truth Seen Too Late, Mirowski posits that neoliberalism, through the work of Friedrich Hayek among others is primarily an ‘epistemological precept’. This situates that the market as a superior information processing unit, that garners the impressions, sentiments, and expectations of entire societies, and transforms them into the only type of empirical data that is really required: prices. Such valorisation of the notion of ‘markets’ has placed students under immense pressure through rising levels of debt, as many perceive themselves to be mere bundles of “investments”.
One student at our most recent event, Mental Health & Neoliberalism said: “I’m a BA Anthropology student. Every now and again I stop what I’m doing and I’m overcome by this dread because I’m paying £9,250 per year. I want to do a masters and a PhD, so I’m fucked.”
The proposed shift to University College Union (UCU) members’ pensions, from a ‘defined benefits scheme’ to a ‘defined contributions scheme’, means pension contributions will now be determined by returns on the stock market rather than lecturers receiving a guaranteed amount upon retirement. Calculations show that lecturers stand to lose up to £200,000 over the course of their retirement, despite many having already accrued significant debt to attain the skills they must now offer to the ‘market’ which makes a mockery of their efforts. The UCU is clear that such changes are expected to cut the average pension by a quarter, which resulted in a unanimous decision by Goldsmiths lecturers along with 61 other universities to strike in protest.
“Strikes can only be a partial manifestation of our necessary solidarity: we need to support our colleagues who are being excluded from all forms of financially and legally secure employment from the very beginning of their working lives. The UCU strike must be framed not as ‘privileged’ workers striking for their ‘unfair’ perks but as part of a much bigger struggle to redefine employment conditions and the capital/labour bargain in our deeply troubled country,” – Anon, Goldsmiths lecturer
One lecturer informed us that there is, in fact, a majority of casualised labour contracts at Goldsmiths which increasingly resemble ‘gig economy’ terms of employment, meaning pensions are not everyone’s priority, as most will never actually receive them at all. Instead of viewing lecturers as providing a public service, this changing environment undermines financial security and thus the social fabric of society. Pat Loughrey, the warden of Goldsmiths, has claimed that they cannot afford to leave the pension scheme as it is because Goldsmiths runs at a “break-even point”. However, this fails to consider that while revenue from tuition fees has almost quadrupled, teaching costs have only risen by 75%, while an additional £60 million has been funneled into the reserve fund since 2007.
“There is neither an economic nor an ethical/political justification for cutting pensions – just as there is no such reason for the imposition of excessive tuition fees and student debt. Standing in solidarity with staff who are taking strike action – as a last resort – against the proposed pension reforms, means opposing the ongoing neoliberalisation of education and social life in general.”– Anon, Goldsmiths lecturer
It is widely accepted that institutions run cheaper on public money than through private sector funding. This, coupled with the lack of any increased efficiency through private sector funding in higher education, leads to a disjuncture in the logic of neoliberalism. We must begin to question the true motivations of this logic. Students stand to lose out as their education becomes commodified. Academics stand to lose out as their pensions are slashed, and their working rights are diminished through increasing casualisation. It is only the wardens and the corporate body of Goldsmiths that stands to benefit from these changes. We should begin to question Goldsmiths reputation as a ‘radical’ institution and stand in opposition to a policy which serves to divide and rule.
As proud members of a student society at Goldsmiths, we stand in solidarity with our teaching staff but emphasise that this pernicious turn to precarity and financial insecurity in the university sector, is part of a wider dehumanising neoliberal project, and an attack on knowledge which must be collectively opposed. We reject the market ideology that would suggest all social interactions are a mere financial transaction. Our support goes beyond that of political ideological alignment, to emotional solidarity with our lectures, and therefore the rejection of the proposed changes to their pension scheme.
We’d like to thank all the lecturers who sent contributions for this article.
New School Economics student society | Goldsmiths, University of London
We are Goldsmiths students aiming to build an open and collaborative community of economic thinkers.
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You can also watch the recorded version of NSE’s event on mental health and neoliberalism here