Creating Cracks for Collective Care in the Ruins of the University

by: Mel Jones, Tilly Fitzmaurice, and Gavin Brown

“Abandoned University Institute for Anatomy (3)” by janbommes is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Co-Authors note: Mel Jones is a PhD candidate in human geography at a Midlands University currently under academic boycott, Tilly Fitzmaurice is a PhD candidate in human geography at Durham University, and Gavin Brown is Professor of political geography and sexualities at a Midlands University currently under academic boycott .

We all know that the current situation in British higher education is bad. Most of us are also aware that it’s likely to get much worse over the next few years. The redundancies and departmental closures affecting places like Chester, Leicester, Portsmouth and others are likely to become more commonplace. There is a real risk of some universities going bankrupt, or trying to attract foreign investment to stave off bankruptcy. We are likely to see the arts, humanities and some social sciences subjects becoming increasingly concentrated within the Russell Group. And that’s without taking account of the never-ending assaults on our pay, working conditions, pensions and job security. On top of this, there are the staggering inequalities that are making universities hostile spaces in which abuse of power is rife and which pose dangers for racialised, queer, trans, disabled, and chronically ill colleagues and students.

The coming period is going to be a challenging one for UCU and the other education unions, as disaster capitalism takes hold of the further and higher education sectors. We are going to be faced with a lot of defensive disputes and, as most reflexive activists realise, our capacity to carry less active union members through multiple ballots and episodes of industrial action is severely constrained. We don’t believe UCU can simply rely on defensive action to resist attacks on our job security and working conditions. So, what else can we do, and how might we use other strategies to build our members’ capacity and willingness to fight those attacks?

The danger of focusing too much on defensive struggles (important as they are) is that we get sucked into defending aspects of our working lives in the neoliberal university that are already far from adequate or sustainable. As post-COVID disaster capitalism rips up and wrecks even the compromises of the last two decades of the marketised, neoliberal university, how can we survive – together – in its ruins? Here we take some inspiration from Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the Word, a multi-sited ethnography of the global trade in matsutake mushrooms. One of her key arguments is that we should pay attention to what lives on – and even flourishes – in the ruins of industrialised, plantation landscapes. As she argues:

“Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin. Still, these places can be lively despite announcements of their death, abandoned asset fields sometimes yield new multispecies and multicultural life. In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin.”

(Tsing 2015: 6)

For her, a key challenge is to look for opportunities for ‘progressive’ politics in a world where progress seems impossible and implausible. Tsing notes how the mushrooms that grow in the ‘ruined’ landscapes of abandoned plantation forestry have created new livelihoods and possibilities for precarious migrant mushroom pickers. Inspired by her observations, we ask: what opportunities can we not only find, but foster, in the ruins of the university?

Here we are also reminded of John Holloway’s analysis in Crack Capitalism (2010) in which he argues that contemporary capitalism is already badly cracked and these cracks expose ruptures in mainstream assumptions about social cohesion. Throughout the 33 theses in his book, Holloway explores the potential for these cracks to break the system. For Holloway, the force of these cracks is found in their potential to create space for activities that are not based on capitalist labour, but which embody other forms of activity (or ‘work’, if you like) that work towards realising the needs and desires that cannot be met by capitalism. Having space to read outside of our usual fields, taking part in local community initiatives, making room for discussion without the pressure of outputs and impact – to do things that are valuable not because they bring in money to a neoliberal institution but because they align with our core values and with the core values of knowledge production. To give us power and agency to explore the ruins and find a new language of value. It is here, in the cracks, that we see a potential for work of collective care to offer an alternative to the atomising metrics and competition driving the contemporary education system. How can we foster an ethics of collective care in the sector, which helps us survive, but also offers glimpses of how else the university could be? How can we expand and proliferate these cracks?

The illusion of stability in the university is just that: an illusion. As we can increasingly see across the sector, there is no such thing as a secure position anymore. There are no guarantees. However, collectively as academics, professional services staff, and PGRs – students and staff that make up HE – we have significant potential for solidarities that shouldn’t be underestimated. 

Engaging with solidarity can be about taking an activist role; it can be standing on a picket line; it can be working within a local UCU branch; but it also needs to be concerned with the collective support we foster for each other. Two of us are PGRs, and we have spent our time in academia so far surrounded by precarity. Precarious ECRs certainly do not have all the answers, but there is tremendous value in discussing precarity across the boundaries created by differing levels of employment security. How can PhDs/ECRs teach ‘secure’ staff how to live with precarity? Having open and honest communication as colleagues, and as friends, is paramount to effectively negotiating this shared precarity. We seem to naturally want to convince ourselves that to not acknowledge the problem is as good a solution as we can get and this, we would argue, is one of the greatest barriers to effective collective care.

Firstly, finding, making and carving out spaces for honest conversations can be a way to engage in collective care in the first instance. We would suggest more senior staff with a veneer of security need to agree to acknowledge their vulnerability, and lean into it, sharing their anxieties and insecurities honestly with more junior colleagues. What would a collective agreement to be vulnerable with each other do? How might it help us acknowledge, confront, and tackle our fears together? This feels especially important when existing in the current state that COVID has created. The spontaneous moments of support we used to be able to have when bumping into each other across campuses are not there anymore and so there is a need to be more intentional with our support for one another. Within this it becomes even more important to recognise the structural inequalities across our academic environments and how we can also be intentional in recognising these and responding appropriately.

Part of our argument for collective care and accountability stems from a recognition that we are all complicit in reproducing the logics of neoliberal education systems. We all make compromises and are compromised. Here too, Anna Tsing’s thoughts on ruination and contamination resonate with us. There can be no return to an innocent, pre-contamination world, and the recognition that we are all contaminated (as well as complicit in this contamination) can form the basis for a new commitment to care, and compassion for one another, which remains inescapably political. This relates to our arguments about collective vulnerability – the admission of one’s complicity and contamination first requires vulnerability. But we can use our complicity as a weapon: whilst we cannot avoid being complicit in the logics of neoliberal education, by engaging collectively with the system we might find ways to engage in acts of ‘critical bureaucracy’, subverting the logic of the system in ways that create space for us to think together, care together, and protect whoever is most vulnerable in any given situation.

It is increasingly difficult to find spaces to chat with each other that are private or ‘off the record’ – the machine (which is often also our employer) now mediates almost all exchanges with students and colleagues. While this shift has been accelerated by pragmatic responses to the pandemic, it certainly works to the advantage of our employers – it is much easier to surveil employees, atomise and intimidate them into silence, just in case what they say doesn’t stay private. But those attempts to surveil and intimidate make it all the more urgent that we create spaces of collective care.

We need to attune ourselves to reading, noticing and responding to the clues in online communications that reveal when our colleagues are stressed, exhausted, worried or afraid and find ways of acknowledging and responding to that together.

At the core of UCU Commons is a commitment to equality, transparency and education as a public good. In terms of equality, collective care may involve intentionally noticing instances of inequality and responding together. It could mean looking out for members who are marginalised, checking in with each other, and meeting for that socially distanced walk. Transparency within collective care could be a willingness to be open and vulnerable about our anxieties, to be honest with our concerns as well as a commitment to transparency in our practices and decision making. 

As UCU Commons we have a shared agreement that education should be free and readily accessible, opposing the prevailing neo-liberal forms of management. If we are to imagine and pursue these goals we need to foster collective care. We need to be brave and vulnerable enough to look at the ruins of the neo-liberal university and to find the spaces for growth on our terms. Not just in an attempt at survival, but as a purposeful step towards the goal of growing something better. It starts with a shared acknowledgement of the brokenness of the system (and our own brokenness within it) and continues with gentle nurturing (and perhaps more than a little stubbornness).

For us, fostering collective care also involves working together to create opportunities for rediscovering joy in what we do, as a priority need – without this joy, where do we find the necessary reserves to push for better higher education? Share the joy. Collective joy is a threat to the logic of the contemporary university, which constantly seeks to individualise and commodify pleasure – as ‘the student experience’, or as personal professional advancement. Collective care is not just for the bad times. Taking pleasure in each other’s successes and joys is integral to forging a collective that can support each other when things are tough. When we collectivize care, we build solidarity; when we build solidarity in the cracks of the university’s ruins, we stand a chance of sustaining new commons.

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