Attacks on the university body: on work, exhaustion, and industrial action


How do we age? As the decade approaches its close, ‘me in 2010 v me in 2019’ memes crowd the internet. Some of them bring back memories of 2010, when the wreckage produced by the 2007–2008 financial crisis was different from what is being lived through today. Others catch the tenor of the current moment, as bland political horizons open towards more vital futures. Today, Monday 25 November 2019, over 40,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU) – lecturers, technicians, librarians and other university staff – start an eight-day strike.[1] Some of those university staff, might well have their very own and very precise ‘me in 2010 v me in 2019’ meme ready to go. For it was exactly at this moment, late November, that student protests took place in 2010 – against the trebling of university fees and the market-driven vision of higher education being pushed through by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Many who took part in the student protests of 2010, as either students or university staff, are surely standing on the picket lines today. They will be contesting that same market-driven vision – which now takes the form of attacks on defined benefit pensions; shocking levels of casualization, pay erosion and inequalities; and an unendurable workload.

The Birkbeck picket line: 2018 UCU strike. Credit: Robert Byford.

The strike that starts today carries with it unspent energy from the 2018 strike over pensions. That strike, so far the longest in UK higher education, was notable for the tight solidarity manifested by many student groups towards university staff. Students and university workers are increasingly united in their fight against the marketisation of universities. The bodies, both fleshy and institutional, that are involved in the industrial dispute today are animated by rhythms from the past. The shadow of 2010 falls on our present in multiple ways.

In 2010, on 9 December, Alfie Meadows, a 20-year-old student, was allegedly hit on the head by a police truncheon. He experienced bleeding on the brain and required surgery to save his life. He and other protestors were charged with a public order offence. It was not until 2013 – after three criminal trials – that he was cleared of charges of violent disorder. It was not until 2018, eight years on, that a court ruled that a City of London police officer should face a disciplinary hearing on account of using excessive force. Redress from state violence, with its profound and long-lasting bodily and psychic injuries, moves unendurably slowly. It casts long shadows.

In 2010, Meadows was a second-year philosophy student at Middlesex University. In 2010, as well as protesting against the trebling of fees, he was protesting against the proposed closure of the philosophy department there. If Meadows and other student protestors somehow survived the attacks on their bodies and minds, philosophy at Middlesex University did not survive the attack on its institutional body.

In 2010, my partner and a good friend – both then academics at Middlesex University – worked alongside students in the fight to save Middlesex philosophy. The next year, humanities in the university were further eviscerated in the service of a vision which staked its success on expanding overseas campuses. My partner and friend both took voluntary redundancy from their permanent academic positions. Subsequently this same friend, Rachel Malik, wrote about her decision to leave a job that she had once loved, in a piece that addressed attacks on universities from within. These were both ‘attacks on staff, academic and administrative’, and ‘attacks on knowledge that come from inside universities themselves’. Rachel documented an institutional body so wholly caught up in perpetual restructurings that ‘[a]nyone who expresses reservations about the direction chosen for the future is, by definition, inflexible and disloyal’. She documented how ‘research’ was beginning to float free of content (in the form of highly specialized knowledge) as education became a ‘training in learning’. She documented an institution so committed to remaking both its own institutional body and the bodies of its workers that it almost ceased to have a past.

In 2010, my partner kept saying that Middlesex was the canary in the mine. That those attacks from within would spread to other universities. We noticed together how many colleagues in other universities closed their ears. Their silence implied that such things only come to pass in certain universities. They wanted to imagine that the body of their university was different.

In 2019, we know the attacks on universities – from within as well as without – have indeed spread. That UK universities are in many ways committed to killing their past. Martin Nickson has analysed how a commitment to ‘agility’ and constant change within university management is a commitment to breaking the social and psychological contracts that previously underpinned collective university life. The agile university brings ‘chaos, stress and uncertainty’, as ‘highly regulated and structured UK universities lumber around trying to act as if they were a Silicon Valley start-up’. As the breathless language of one registrar at a Russell Group university puts it, ‘after nearly four years of continuous reorganisation and savings I and my team [are] running out of levers to pull and initiatives to run’.

In 2019, the bodies and minds of university workers are frayed. Being subjected to non-stop-lever pulling is, it turns out, exhausting. And it is of course particularly exhausting for those who are most precarious, those subject to the hostile environment, those experiencing – inside the university – the quotidian violence of racism. Testimonies of exhaustion sound all over Twitter:

I am sitting in my office at 7 pm crying. I am surrounded by piles of marking I need to moderate tonight. I have worked solidly for the last 10 days, often 12 hour days. I am utterly overwhelmed + exhausted. This is the life of a British academic … #academiclife.’ ‘[U]nimaginable amounts of overwork, life-worsening (and at times, life-threatening) levels of workload.’ ‘I have so many things I want to do, so many stories and papers I want to write, so many books I want read, and I can’t do any of it. I’m not depressed. I’m not sick, I’m just exhausted. And I feel like it’s slowly killing me.’ ‘At the start of my lecture this AM, having spent half my weekend writing it, & the other half indexing a book, while my kids yet again didn’t get an outing, I stood there & realised I was on the brink of crying. Took a huge effort to hold it in. & then give the lecture.’ ‘[E]veryone I know who is going on strike is partly framing their participation through exhaustion: people genuinely don’t feel like they can get to the end of term.’

Something is at work in this exhaustion. In the thousands who will, today, on picket lines, both mark and refuse the drawn-out attacks that slide from 2010 to 2019. But time curls in strange ways. And some Vice Chancellors read the rhythms of the decade back to front, or upside down. One, for example, is concerned that ‘repeated industrial disputes may inadvertently nourish a view of higher education that encourage [sic] the commodification of the sector’. He presents socio-political symptom as cause. But as bodies gather on the picket line, they have history the right way up. And they gather inside themselves the past that the agile university disavows. They are inhabited by that which will not, now, go away.


[1] I am unable to join them. The UCU branch of which I am a member registered a handful too few votes to reach the 50% turnout of eligible members which is required by the anti-trade union Trade Union Act of 2016.


Profound thanks to Stan Papoulias and Rachel Malik. Neither is responsible for what I have written here.

Robert Byford’s photograph of the Birkbeck picket line during the 2018 UCU strike was originally published at 


Felicity Callard is Professor of Social Research and Director of Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR).





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