Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Sir Christopher Snowden, the Vice-Chancellor (VC), recently announced that he would be retiring in the spring of 2019. Of course, the usual rhetoric from the university establishment erupted, praising his ‘tremendous contribution to and passion for Southampton’ and a ‘relentless drive to create the highest quality education experience for our students’.
This propaganda won’t be believed by the students and staff, who have experienced first-hand the reactionary policies that Snowden has implemented. In our opinion, his 3-and-a-half-year term at Southampton will be remembered, not for improving the quality of education, but instead for the savage attacks made on the livelihood of workers and by extension, the livelihoods of students.
Snowden’s grand aim for the university has been the creation and implementation of a 10-year plan, first announced in 2017. A fundamental aspect of this plan involved ‘restructuring’, a part of which involved saving £20 million. This was only ever going to be at the expense of the university staff. Indeed, in order to make this saving, the university made up to 75 lecturers redundant.
In sharp contrast to the suffering of university workers and students, Snowden received an annual salary of over £430,000 in 2016-2017, one of the highest VC salaries in the UK. This damning evaluation of the university management was further added to when it was revealed that Sir Christopher was a member of the committee who decided his pay. During the restructuring crisis, it was revealed that at the same time as staff were at risk of losing their jobs, the university was looking for a chauffeur for ‘University executives and visiting dignitaries’. When confronted with these revelations by students at the end of last year, his response was merely that he was from a working-class background and that he could have taken another job in Australia with a salary ‘three times higher’. Upon investigation by students, no such Australian job could be found.
Non-academic workers have also suffered as a result of Snowden’s policy of cuts. In the summer of 2017, UNISON Halls of Residence student support workers went on strike after the university cut wages by 20% for 42 staff members. The student support workers are the front line in looking after students in halls. So much for Snowden’s claims of improving the student experience!
In our view, these attacks on workers and students’ education have been watched with a passive attitude by the student union (SUSU), which like most student unions across the country, is in the pocket of senior management. Throughout the period of the restructuring and the UCU strikes, the Union has dragged its feet and only moved to make a statement about these issues thanks to pressure from students. Despite a vote in which the overwhelming majority of students involved (92%) believed that the cuts to staff would be ‘detrimental to the student experience’, the Union has slipped the issue under the rug. In our view, it has fundamentally failed to represent the interests of its students.
Sir Christopher Snowden will be gone by Spring 2019. There will be many who’ll believe that the new VC, whoever it is, could stop the austerity policy because they are “nicer” than Snowden, but this is a misguided idea. The VC’s resignation will not change anything. The policies of university management, and of higher education in general, are not the result of “bad” people being in power. To us, the austerity attacks on our education system are ultimately a result of the crisis of capitalism, where the wealth that the productive forces produce is too great for the social system to contain. For the university establishment, as for the ruling class in general, there is now no room to manoeuvre and no room for concessions to workers or students.
So where should the movement go from here? At the moment, members of the UCU and UNISON are being balloted for strike action until mid-October over the falling value of their pay. To bring the struggle forward, the university workers must vote yes in their respective ballots. Students must support their striking staff by joining them on the picket lines. SUSU has the influence to create an organised and effective strike solidarity campaign in Southampton, backed by the majority of students. However, as the experience of the restructuring crisis and UCU strikes show, they will not move on their own. Only pressure from students will force the Union to break its ties with the university bureaucracy and truly represent the interests of its members.
Ultimately, the only solution to the crisis at Southampton, as well as in all higher education, is for the ousting of the Conservative government and the coming to power of a Corbyn Labour government on a socialist programme. In order to end this crisis, a Labour government must create a National Education Service that will end the marketisation of higher education. Universities must be placed under worker and student control and out of the hands of bureaucrats like Snowden. They must be run in the interests of society, not profit.
For a National Education Service!
For worker and student control of higher education!
Students and workers unite and fight!