Catherine Rottenberg and Neve Gordon

UK Universities in Time of Corona: Will the Experiment Succeed?

When the coronavirus hit, 74 universities in the UK were in the midst of a historic 14-day strike whose goal was to protect our pensions, decrease our workload, push back against the casualization of labor, and demand an end to the gender and race pay gap. In a show of unity—unlikely to occur in the US—permanent faculty stood together with their fixed term colleagues (adjunct professors) on the picket line, protesting the marketization of the universities and the incessant imposition of corporate managerial models into academic life.

During this latest wave of industrial action, we learned that Catherine’s teaching assistant in her American Literature Survey course was being outsourced to a temp agency. Because the PhD student is employed by UniTemps and not the university, he could not strike. While we have spent years fighting for the insourcing of cleaning staff and other service providers, and are thus well acquainted with the endless push to streamline institutional costs at the expense of vulnerable populations, the discovery that academic labor was being outsourced to temp agencies still came as a shock. It was yet another indication that UK universities—25% of which are in deficit due to an unsustainable funding model—are at the forefront of the global neoliberalization of higher education.

Indeed, even before the corona pandemic, UK universities were already pressuring faculty to “lecture capture”; namely, to record lectures and make them available to students. In many classrooms, “capture” is now the default and, if you prefer not to be recorded, you have to actively opt out. The argument is that this will enable students—and particularly those with learning disabilities—to hear the lectures more than once.
There is little doubt in our mind that the universal transition to on-line teaching precipitated by corona will serve as an experiment that is likely to have a dramatic and devastating impact on higher education, particularly in light of the looming economic crisis. Whether the changes will be carried out via a Chilean-style shock doctrine approach once the pandemic is contained or (more likely) integrated in a gradual fashion, we suspect that the outcome of this experiment will lead to the end of academia as we have known it.

Corporate managers—particularly those working in deficit struck universities—may already be thinking that distance learning is the way to go. Class recordings will enable them to reduce the number of permanent positions, while those who mark student essays and exams can be hired through temp agencies. With the possible exception of a group of elite universities whose social, cultural and financial capital sets them apart, over time, more and more courses will likely be purchased from vendors, while the few remaining permanent faculty members will then be asked to focus on assessing and evaluating the “products” sold to students. Moreover, with fewer students on site, some universities might also decide to sell their lucrative real estate, allowing those located in central London, for example—University College of London, SOAS, Birkbeck, King’s and the London School of Economics—to reap substantial profits.

​This, to be sure, is a dystopian prediction. But without active resistance on the part of faculty, it will become a reality. For those of us who still believe that intellectual pursuits are worthy in and of themselves and that classroom settings—whether discussion groups or even lectures—are unique sites of learning, where people get together to discuss ideas and cultivate critical thinking, a future of virtual learning, motivated by market factors and assessed by market metrics, is a very frightening prospect. One way of rendering this future less likely is by ensuring that the current experiment, however practical it may seem during the current crisis, does not succeed in the longer term .