Back to work after the UCU strikes. The power of the Institution

Universities are ‘total institutions’. They control the time, activities and movements of people who work and study in them. I study institutions, and their history, and those who fought to change them. After the first wave of UCU strikes came to an end, it was fascinating to see how quickly I was ‘re-institutionalised’. On my first day back at work, my stress levels rose. I felt that crazy, manic feeling of rushing from place to place, reading emails constantly, meeting with students, juggling dozens of balls in the air, without any sense of achievement or having done anything. Universities are also extremely inefficient places, where huge amounts of time are simply wasted, every day. Emails are constantly sent to people who have no interest in them, but you need to look at them to confirm you have no interest in them, and then throw them away. Systems are set up which simply take up time. Students and staff spend hours moving from place to place, turning computers off and on, entering data on systems. This week I had to go all the way to another city in the UK to conduct one interview. I then attended a ‘post-offer visit day’ where I spent most of the time chatting to my colleagues – which turned out to be the best 90 minutes of my week. We multi-task, all the time, which means that none of our tasks are done properly. This week we were also told to prioritise nine ‘student-facing’ activities by management, and ‘de-prioritise’ research, following the strike. But nobody in term-time in a modern university can ever ‘prioritise’ research.

The institution pulls you in, atomises you, divides you from your colleagues and isolates. I felt that familiar sensation of rushing past colleagues with a simple ‘hello’ – sorry, no time to actually talk to anyone, all day. There were vague plans to ‘have a coffee sometime’, which you know means in two month’s time at best, and lists of events which you realise you can’t attend because they clash with other events, or teaching, or meetings with acronyms – SPARC, RPG, DTP etc. etc. Nobody really understands how this place works, Why are there ‘Deans’, why are there ‘Faculties’ and ‘Schools’, what is the ‘Senate’, who are the ‘Trustees’,  what on earth are the ‘Ordinances’? The opaque nature of all these rules and regulations is where the institution’s power really lies. I actually read through Bristol University’s ‘Ordinances’ this week – it was illuminating, as much as for what they didn’t say as for what they did. Words inside this institution actually mean the opposite of what they should. ‘Consultation’ means ‘we will do this anyway, but we will pretend to ask you about it’. ‘Study spaces’ are ‘places where nobody in their right mind would ever study’. The ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ is not about Teaching, nor about Excellence, and it’s not even really a Framework. All this is so far removed from the playful anger of the strike over the last few weeks, the brilliant banners, the sense that something was changing. Many people working in universities now feel differently, but the institution itself has remained exactly the same.

An Open Letter to the Vice-Chancellor – Bristol University. The UCU Strike, Universities, Staff and the Future

Open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, University of Bristol





Dear Hugh Brady


I am writing this letter as we go back after 14 days on strike. You might be surprised to hear that I am not desperate to return to work. You recently said that this strike has been a ‘lightening rod’ for so many other issues. I entirely agree with you. While the main dispute remains about pensions, so many other issues have come to the surface over the last four weeks. Above all, there is a sense that staff at all levels in our university are over-worked, suffer from stress, taken for granted and – in many cases – entirely ignored. Ever since the fees were introduced at such a high level, the entire focus of the university has been on students. This has made staff and their work almost entirely invisible. We have been loaded up with more and more tasks, with no extra reward or even acknowledgement of who we are apart from spin around REF and TEF results.

I would like to provide you with two concrete examples of this trend. First, staff collective spaces – these have been systematically removed without any consultation or discussion – common rooms, the Hawthorns, etc etc. There is nowhere for humanities staff to go for lunch within our structures beyond one, cold, common room, and our timetables are often scheduled for us to teach at lunchtime. Lunch, discussion, the chance to meet other colleagues – all these things have been abolished. Meanwhile, previous collective or staff spaces have been covered with generic and extremely ugly ‘student study spaces’… What about staff study spaces?

A second issue is staff mental health. There is counselling provision for staff, but very little ongoing or directed mental health support. A student in our department committed suicide last year. This was a horrible and tragic event, above all, of course, for the family of the person involved. But it was also traumatic for staff in our department many of whom knew the student well. Yet no support whatsover was provided for staff involved in this tragedy. We are expected to be at the front line in terms of pastoral care for our students, but no support is even contemplated for us and the mental health training we receive is, I’m afraid, laughable. This is an urgent issue which needs addressing immediately.

I’d like to tell you a small story about my professional life, if I may. I am a relatively senior academic and  was recently involved in a major bid which would benefit – if successful – not just our university but 9 other institutions. This bid took more than 18 months to complete, and was put together in addition to my normal job – teaching, research, administration. It involved over 60 physical meetings. During certain key periods I worked through weekends and late into the evening. The stress of the bid process put strain on my family and private life and affected my research activities. Yet, I was happy to put this time in. Why? Because I care about this university, I care about post-graduate research and I want to do a job well.

However, what I have discovered in this strike (this was something which was obvious to me before, but which I couldn’t see) is that the university doesn’t care about me – or about staff – at all. All we got for the first three weeks of the strike was a hostile email from HR. There was nothing from you, no offer to meet the union or the strikers, no acknowledgement of our demands and the depth of feeling.

It has been on the picket lines and in meetings and in teach outs that I have (re) discovered the ‘community’ and ‘collegiality’ of which you so often speak. I have chatted to colleagues for the first time in years, met colleagues who I had only seen on email, laughed and joked and sang songs with them, marched with them down to college green. Without your staff, no class gets taught, no essay gets marked, no book gets catalogued, no email gets written. We are the university, and I hope that – finally – this message has reached the upper echelons of Senate House (it took the students occupying that space to finally get you to listen to us). I sincerely hope that things will change from now on. For sure, we have changed – and the old ways of doing things will not be acceptable to us any longer…


best wishes


Professor John Foot

Director, South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership

Bid Lead, SWWDTP2

Subject Lead, Department of Italian

UCU Rep, Department of Italian