A few words on the University strike…

It takes a lot to get academics up in arms. It takes even more to bring them into even a semblance of unity – we spend most of our working life arguing with each other, and trying our best to demonstrate that our arguments are different from those of our peers. ‘Originality’ we call it. The result of this is that organising academics is a bit like herding cats.

There are, however, a few things that can bring about both action and some degree of unity. Academic freedom is one – the threat of political interference with our work, as in the brief appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students, and what is likely to lie ahead in that government continuing plan to corral the universities into obedience. Another is our pensions – the reason for the current strike.

Why do we care about our pensions so much? There are a couple of connected reasons for that – as far as I can see, and of course I only really speak for myself. For one thing, we really don’t want to be spending our working lives designing a career based upon how we can generate the highest income. It would be pointless, for most at least, as salaries across academia except at the highest levels and in some very specific fields, do not really vary that much. More importantly, because of the nature of our work, we want to choose our careers based on the people we can work with, the courses we are expected to teach, the calibre of the students, and so forth. These are academic considerations, not financial ones, and there is not necessarily a correlation between them. The most interesting jobs may well not be the best paid – and in academia, the work being interesting is the most important point.

The second reason is that in academia we are actually not that well paid – when our abilities, qualifications and potential are considered. Most of us could – and some of us used to – earn much more outside academia. In my case, I earned more in real terms as a 26 year old accountant than I do as a 53 year old academic. I am far from alone. And it is not just in a few fields like law and business studies that academics could earn more outside the Ivory Towers. Scientists are in demand in industry. Linguists in a wide range of areas. Communications and media scholars in the media itself, in politics and indeed in business. Mathematics is critical to IT. Historians and others in the humanities, as well as scholars of English have huge amounts to offer many businesses. Indeed, scholars who specialise in periods such as 17th century France or 15th century Eastern Europe could have taught the Internet giants a lot about the nature of the current ‘fake news’ phenomenon. What’s more, we’re all now expected to produce ‘impact’ (an effect on the outside world) and ‘engagement’ (involvement with the outside world): it’s very hard to get promoted or a new job without it. The idea that academics are a bunch of badly-dressed eggheads who don’t understand the real world at all is very, very far from the truth.

What we actually do is *choose* to work in academia, though the rewards are lower than what we could earn elsewhere? Why? Partly for the intellectual challenge and the academic freedom. Partly because at its best it is an immensely satisfying job. Partly, though, because the package of rewards we get – including a decent salary and a decent, reliable pension – matches the commitment that we put in. Few of us can generate enough income outside our academic work to provide a supplementary pension – and few inherited enough wealth to make that irrelevant. All careers have some kind of a bargain involved – that has been the academic one, and it has worked.

That’s one of the critical points here: our universities have worked very well. We have far more world class universities than other nations of a comparable size. If there are attacks on the ‘value for money’ offered to students that is primarily a reflection of the ridiculous and artificial fee rate chosen by our recent governments’ twisting of the financing of higher education than of the way our courses are taught. You can argue how it should be done – funding it centrally from government, making universities generate their own income or look for rich donors or generous alumni – but what should be clear is that the current fee level is artificial, so any ‘value for money’ calculations based upon it are equally artificial. Moreover, none of those made publicly take the other values of the universities into account. Their role in society. The use of research. In the days of ‘fake news’, the need for institutions with the skills and resources to examine what is actually happening is particularly important.  We need the universities more in the current climate than we have ever done.

That makes the current pension plan even more pernicious. To make it clear, the plan for universities’ pensions is to make a monumental shift – effectively from ‘defined benefits’ (where retirees know what they will receive) to ‘defined contributions’ (where what you receive depends on the stock market) – that will in all probability make most academics far worse off in retirement. This monumental decision is being made at a time of massive uncertainty, on the basis of very contentious calculations using a huge number of assumptions, the centrepiece of which is a snapshot of the market value of the scheme’s assets, again at a time of massive uncertainty. I would not call myself an expert, but I have a degree in mathematics from Cambridge and I used to be a Chartered Accountant – and as an auditor I specialised in financial services, including pension schemes. What I do know is that making such decisions in such circumstances is what Sir Humphrey would have called ‘bold’. To do so to the massive detriment of the academics and support staff in the scheme is truly awful (for a good analysis of the problems with the analysis, see here), and smacks of taking advantage of the situation by the Vice Chancellors and others who are behind this move.

So this is why we are on strike. To protect something hugely valuable. To stop an awful decision with massive ramifications being made at a wholly inappropriate time. In the end, to help the students of the future – because with this change, many good academics will leave, taking their transferrable skills to places where they are more appreciated, whether that be academia abroad (where many of the best would be welcomed) or outside academia entirely. It is for our own future, of course – but it is for more than that. And though we, like all people, are selfish and self-centred a lot of the time, there really is more to this than selfishness. I hope those outside academia can appreciate this. Indeed, I hope the Vice Chancellors appreciate this – and at the very least come back to the negotiating table without preconditions. The nature of the pension scheme has to be on the table – it’s the whole point. If that is not understood, it suggests the Vice Chancellors have very little understanding of the institutions they are supposed to be in charge of.


Free speech, safe spaces and hypocrisy

The unedifying ‘scuffle’ at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s appearance at the University of the West of England has provoked a great deal of reaction – some of it distinctly over-the-top. Precisely what happened, who started the fight and why, remains a little unclear – and is not the topic of this post. It is Theresa May’s reaction, to suggest a new law to protect MPs against intimidation, that is more interesting for those of us who are interested in freedom of speech – not only in its practice but its purpose.

The need for a new law is at best contentious – there is already plenty of law to deal with threats and intimidation, public order law, law to protect against harassment and much more – and it is entirely possible that nothing will materialise from Theresa May’s pronouncement other than a few headlines in the Daily Mail. The reasons behind the desire for the law, however, reveal a lot about Theresa May and those who share her views. Effectively, though she and they would be very unlikely to use the words, they’re looking for a ‘safe space’ for MPs. This, coming from the same people who have been actively campaigning against ‘safe spaces’ in universities for others, has more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it. It is, however, remarkably familiar. Many – perhaps most – of those who claim to be great champions of free speech are often very keen on protecting the free speech of people like them, or of people who share their views, but far less keen on providing the same protection for those they disagree with.

Safe Spaces can be a good thing

What the supporters of a law to protect MPs from intimidation might understand, if they thought a little further, is that safe spaces can be a good thing. If we want a civilised debate, if we want people not to be intimidated into silence, if we want to encourage those whose voices are rarely heard, then a supportive – or at the very least not threatening – environment really helps. Theresa May understands that for MPs – because she understands MPs, and supports them in that role. That much is easy – making the leap to understand that others need that protection and that safety too seems to be much harder.

Safe Spaces can be a bad thing

On the other hand, if the creation of a ‘safe space’ is to stop particular voices being challenged, it is not so clearly a good thing – and that may well be what happens at times. For debate to function, challenging needs to be possible – banning hecklers and protestors is not always a good thing. Drawing a line is not always easy – as the UWE fracas showed. The initial protest, and indeed Jacob Rees-Mogg’s first response to it, seemed relatively civilised and harmless. Protest is a critical part of freedom of speech – the vehemence with which authoritarian regimes deal with it should at least give pause for thought. The idea that Donald Trump might only visit the UK if Theresa May stops protests is not something we should accept, for example.

Safe Spaces for whom?

What should give us even more pause for thought is who we need to provide safe spaces for, and why – and this is where the idea that we should legislate for safe spaces for MPs whilst actively working against safe spaces for others feels particularly wrong. MPs already have plenty of ‘safe spaces’ to air their views. Parliament itself, for one. The studios of all the TV and radio broadcasters. Columns in major newspapers and magazines. Others – particularly vulnerable or marginalised people and groups – have almost no access to these. They have neither freedom of speech in practice nor safe spaces in which to hear others. They don’t have powerful friends and allies to open doors, provide platforms – or bring in legislation.

That is the thing about rights – and human rights in particular. The main need for those rights is for the relatively weak, to protect them from the relatively strong. People with strength and power already have many means to protect themselves – in free speech terms, they have many ways to express themselves and a ready audience to listen. For others none of that is true – and that is what we need to remember.

Free speech is not simple – it is messy and complicated, nuanced and difficult to find our way through. That complication needs to be taken on board – because free speech is also really important. We should be particularly wary of those proclaiming themselves champions of free speech – what they are championing is often at best an oversimplification, and often a complete distortion. In Theresa May’s case, it may be even worse. The kind of law envisaged would not support free speech – it would support the powerful against the weak. It should be thoroughly resisted.