“Student societies have repeatedly insisted on the hypocrisy of the University branding itself as a place for “world changers”, while it continues to justify these investments on account of their profitability.”
The University of Glasgow campus has been far from calm as of late. A quick glance at the posters plastered onto University buildings, which read “Time’s up on Dirty Money”, “Support the Strike”, or “Why has UofG not Divested Yet?” gives an insight into the current mood. With growing frequency, campaigns and actions are materialising throughout the student and staff body. At the beginning of the academic year, student coalitions formed in protest against the University’s investments in fossil fuel industries, banks, and arms companies, despite its declaration of a climate emergency in May 2019. The Slave Free Campus campaign sprung into being in December, making public that the University shop sells clothing produced in exploitative conditions. Amidst these student-led actions, University staff participated in this year’s second UCU-initiated strike action over casualisation, pensions, equality, and workloads. Although these issues appear to be disconnected, students and staff insist that the actions on campus are closely linked. They are all symptomatic of the increasing marketisation of the University.
Over the past few decades, universities across the UK have undergone extensive structural transformations in an attempt to remodel themselves in line with the free market. Universities must now regard each other as competitors and prioritise economic growth to ensure their
success. Theodore Wilcocks, president of the society Glasgow Refugee and Asylum Seeker Solidarity (GRASS), said that this has created a conflict within higher education. He noted that on the one hand it is expected of an institution as powerful as the University of Glasgow to have a duty of care and a humanitarian responsibility to its staff and students. He said that on the other hand, “the marketisation of the University is driving things away from that because its political ideology now seems to be more concerned with minimising risk and maximising profit, and running things in the style of a corporation.”
Lecturers standing at the UCU picket line stressed that the University’s focus on profit margins comes at the increasing expense of staff and students. Dr Piotr Wegorowski, a lecturer in Applied Linguistics, said that casualisation, increases in class sizes and reduced staff-student ratios are all consequences of the changes brought about by marketisation.
Dr Wegorowski said: “This time last year I was teaching on two fixed term contracts at two different institutions. I was working something like 70 hours a week and that is just not the way it should be and I think that is something we really should resist.”
He emphasised that this is a system-wide issue which is not unique to the University of Glasgow. Dr Hannah Mathers, a lecturer in Geography and Earth Science, commented that “it is hard to see what the University’s agenda is if you as a student are experiencing teaching that is under par because staff are overstretched, or you as a staff are not feeling resourced or feeling supported to do your job properly”. She insisted that “there is a conflict between what the University sees as important going forward and what staff and students would appreciate”.
Student campaigns have brought to attention how the University’s focus on maximising investment return drives its investments in globally harmful industries. At the beginning of the year, Glasgow University Arms Divestment Coalition (GUADC) was formed in response to an article by The Glasgow Guardian, which highlighted that the University invests £3.1m in arms companies and military services providers. Students have also confronted the University regarding its investments of £3m in HSBC and £2m in Barclays, despite both banks fuelling destructive environmental practices through their investments and funding. Student societies have repeatedly insisted on the hypocrisy of the University branding itself as a place for “world changers”, while it continues to justify these investments on account of their profitability.
David Gabra, a second year English Literature and Philosophy student and member of GUADC, said that decision-making processes are sequestered to a small section of the senior management. Gabra argues this is reflective of how the free-market concentrates power among a very small percentage of people.
Gabra said: “In court, there are 25 folks sitting up there, 15 of whom are long-serving business people, serving the business interests of the University. And they don’t reflect the things that we believe in, and they can’t be removed. They can’t be elected. They just sit there and they make these decisions and these decisions are final. We have no say in it.”
Miles Grant, a third year studying Computer Science who is also a member of GUADC, echoed this, adding that: “The University being so hierarchical, the fact that this has even happened to begin with, is because decisions like this have been shafted off to a small group of people, not just for convenience, but because power is supposed to be concentrated in a small place.” He said that when students heard about the University’s investments in destructive industries, they were shocked at the University’s actions. This is also reflected in the 1700+ signatures which the GUADC petition has already collected.
The Slave Free Campus campaign shed light on the fact that while the University fails to offer adequate employment and pay to its staff, it continues to make unnecessary and unethical profits. Euan Healey, a second year History and Politics student and spokesperson for Slave Free Campus, said: “If the aim of the University is academia, then selling stuff in the University shop is an excessive bit and so there is no reason to do it unethically. If you are going to do that as an extra function to the University, at least do it in a way which doesn’t throw a bad light on everything else that the University does.”
The resistance from students and staff against the University’s current structure appears to be rooted in the hope for the University they wish to create; where creativity and critical thinking is encouraged, and where education enriches society rather than the economy.
Dr. Sarah Weakly, a postdoctoral researcher, insisted on the importance of students and staff working together to achieve this goal. She said: “If we work together, a lot of these issues can be solved at the same time, whether it’s a joint letter to all of the Russell Group Universities, whether it’s joint demonstrations about the way that education is being marketised. I think there is a lot of value in that. If we work together a bit more we can have a stronger voice to pressure the University.”