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.

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