UCU Commons Blogs: 2021

summarized by Ben Pope

It’s been just over a year since we published our first post, which marked the transition of our community from an informal discussion group to a fully fledged organising effort to bring about the change that we want to see within UCU and in post-16 education in the UK. Here’s a quick overview of what we’ve published on this blog since then.

The blog has grown organically from the interests of UCU Commons members, with no effort to curate or cultivate any particular themes or positions. But perhaps for that very reason, this retrospective seems to fall most naturally into a structure that can be found within the essential features of UCU Commons that we set out in January 2021, including in that first post.

We defined ourselves as a non-hierarchical collective with a range of aims and interests but certain common values, the first of which is a commitment to equality ‘in all its forms’. We’ve put  that commitment straightforwardly into practice with two important statements on transgender inclusion and academic freedom and transphobia. But we’ve also written about the dangers of an insidious hierarchy of academic disciplines, and the cross-disciplinary solidarity that we try to practise in response. We’ve also identified key threats to the very existence of multiple ‘minoritized’ disciplines that should be the bulwarks of equality in education more generally.

We said at the outset that ‘commons’ and ‘commoning’ describe both our politics and our methods, and—as members of an education union—the knowledge commons are naturally especially dear to us. We’ve directly addressed threats to these commons, in the form of the pricing of e-books. At the same time, we try to share our own knowledge and experiences of UCU structures and processes—incomplete and imperfect as this knowledge may be—as openly and as clearly as possible, with a series of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) explainers on student number controls, the pros and cons of (dis)aggregated ballots for industrial action and the events that led to the particular ballot that was held in the Four Fights and USS disputes in late October and early November 2021. We also took a more tongue-in-cheek approach to showing how employers and their representatives have arrived at certain questionable depictions of the proposed cuts to USS pensions.

But these themes of equality and the commons have further important consequences that we’ve begun to explore in other posts. Our sectors are marked by an extreme and indeed hypocritical shifting of the burden of risk from employers to precarious staff—but a certain precarity and especially a vulnerability are also inherent in a radical adherence to concepts of equality and the commons. This unsettling, disarming precarity and collective vulnerability could be the ‘fertile ruins’ for the growth of new and stronger solidarities.

This seems an appropriate moment to note the many gaps and omissions in our blog posts so far. A list of issues, approaches, questions and problems could fill another whole post and more, but we should acknowledge in particular that the collegiate way in which UCU Commons grows has meant that we are currently a HE-based group. Any readers from the FE sectors in which UCU organises are warmly encouraged to get in touch: I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing in this overview of a year’s ideas and discussions that wouldn’t benefit from and couldn’t productively engage with perspectives from FE, ACE and prison education. We’re also using other media to address issues like those that we’ve tackled on the blog, such as our YouTube channel.

A final subset of posts, introducing ourselves and our activities—as activists before and beyond UCU Commons and as candidates for UCU’s equality committees—is a reminder that all of us are developing individually and collectively in manifold and unpredictable ways. 2021 has been a very particular part of these arcs, which remain open to new directions in 2022. But I think that the values with which we started out have served us well so far—may they continue to do so.

Ben Pope is a fixed-term researcher of medieval history at the University of Manchester.

Published by Ben Pope

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester

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