Long Read: The Badger’s Tickell interview revisited amidst UCU strikes

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In the wake of the UCU strikes, The Badger‘s former Editor, Freya Marshall Payne, revisits her 2016 interview with the then-new Vice-Chancellor, Adam Tickell. She explores how his comments two years ago stand up against his current decision not to publicly support striking UCU staff. Read the full original interview here

When Adam Tickell came to Sussex as our new Vice-Chancellor in September 2016, it was widely known that he had once been an Economic Geographer who critiqued neoliberalism. So when I interviewed him for The Badger on his arrival, I was interested to find out how he was planning on running the university and how his academic insight might come into play.

I re-visited this interview in light of his current reticence to support striking University and College Union (UCU) members and pressure Universities UK (UUK) to protect the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme. The changes mean a typical lecturer or member of university support staff will lose £10,000 a year in retirement and £2,000-£3,000 in yearly salary – and an increasing number of university Vice-Chancellors are throwing their weight behind striking staff . Tickell, however, has not issued a statement of support, although students protesting in solidarity with their lecturers are demanding it.

This seems out of keeping with the claims he often makes about Sussex’s radical history and nature, but Tickell’s pattern of invoking radicalism while collaborating in the neoliberalisation of Sussex has been evidenced since that very first interview.

Before looking at the interview more closely, it’s worth first addressing what these changes to the university sector are, and how they are linked to the neoliberal economic model which Tickell critiqued; how the USS pension dispute fits into them; and lastly where Sussex was on its neoliberal path as Adam Tickell joined us in the summer of 2016.

The neoliberal university: the changes going on and Tickell’s academic background

“Like globalisation, neoliberalization should be understood as a process, not an end-state… Analysis of this process should therefore focus especially sharply on change – on shifts in systems and logics, dominant patterns of restructuring, and so forth – rather than on binary and/or static comparisons between a past state and its erstwhile successor.”

– 383, Peck and Tickell, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8330.00247/epdf

So, then, a short history of the neoliberalizing changes and processes going on in the UK Higher Education sector, and where you can spot these around you at Sussex:

Universities are being run more and more like businesses in line with the economic trend rising globally since the 1980’s, in no small part thanks to Reagan’s and Thatcher’s economics: neoliberalism.

To put it bluntly, neoliberalism means venerating the markets and their logic. Neoliberal economic plans rely on two main pillars: competition and privatisation. These are two trends which have taken over the British university sector – and led us to where we are now, with the biggest education strike in British history staged over workplace security.

British universities’ finance model used to be based on government grants but since £9,000 fees were introduced in 2010, the current finance model has come to depend heavily on income. Income is generated through increasing student fees, as Sussex did with no warning in February 2017. It is also generated through universities’ estates, through charging students exorbitantly high rent for accommodation, as Sussex has done by knocking down the affordable East Slope and replacing it with accommodation twice the price.

This financial restructuring has led to a drive to rapidly expand student numbers to increase revenue, which carries with it an additional cost as universities build state-of-the-art buildings to entice prospective students (think: Jubilee Building, which cost a staggering £29 million – or the Life Sciences Building, which has been scrapped after £5m was already spent on it). This is, of course, a feature of the neoliberal market at work in universities today: they see themselves competing to become top of the league tables, student satisfaction surveys and gain the most money.

Since the government removed regulations on student numbers, financial incentives have led to universities taking on more students than their campuses can physically fit. Just look around you at Sussex: study spaces are hard to come by and the library seems constantly crowded.

While all of this expansion goes on, universities are also cutting back on supposedly non-essential running costs in an effort to be more profitable. Part of this national drive involves cutting salaries and pensions of staff – ranging from the elite academics who bring prestige to a university, to the admin staff who keep everything running smoothly, to the associate tutors who run most first year seminars earning only minimum wage. In 2013, Sussex outsourced security, catering and cleaning staff – to uproar from academic staff and students. This is where the pension dispute fits into the bigger picture of increasingly business-like universities.

It is worth contrasting this situation with the huge amounts of money university Vice-Chancellors and other members of senior management get paid. As The Times Higher Education reported Sussex paid £545,000 to its two leaders in 2016-17 – including a controversial £230k “golden handshake” for outgoing VC Farthing.  Adam Tickell was paid £293,000 between September 2016 and July 2017.

Back in 1994, Tickell seemed to take a more ideological stance than his current position, invoking his own memories of being a student protester (in an academic paper, no less) and urging the academy to “attempt to slay the neoliberal beast”:

“Capitalism is the enemy, but neoliberalism seems to me to be worse than social democracy. Perhaps we should set our sights a little lower than capitalism and attempt to slay the neoliberal beast” –Adam Tickell, “Reflections on “Activism and the academy””,  Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 1995, volume 13, p237

If you want to know more about Tickell’s later work on the neoliberal university specifically, watch this lecture he gave at the University of York in 2013. 

Where was Sussex in this neoliberal path when the interview with Tickell happened?

Sussex had undergone years of being marketed as radical while simultaneously embracing the increasingly neoliberal direction of higher education in the UK. Our university’s advertising slogan, “Let’s Change Things”, implies a collaborative will to make the world better – yet, when it comes to bucking the marketised trend, it’s clear there is no desire for collaborative change for the better.

Mr Tickell came to take over when Michael Farthing suddenly resigned in 2015/16 academic year.  

Sussex students and staff were still very much stinging from the university claiming Sussex’s radical heritage in advertising material yet calling the cops onto campus and suspending five students for protesting against the university outsourcing services in 2013 . The university, parallel, was still very much stinging from the PR disaster which this caused and the £23k payout they had to make due to a libel case brought by a student protester.

Many students and quite a few members of faculty seemed to hope all of this would dictate the mood when choosing a new Vice-Chancellor and that Adam Tickell, with his academic expertise, would be different.

Given all of this, when I was granted the first interview with this new Vice-Chancellor for this student newspaper, I was excited to figure out just how he would be running the university. In light of his current reticence to support striking UCU members and pressure Universities UK (UUK) to protect the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme, I re-visited the interview.

Make no mistake: UUK is pushing through another neoliberal change to the Higher Education sector which erodes job security and privileges the markets. So when Adam Tickell refuses to join the 17 other Vice-Chancellors who have publicly challenged UUK’s pension changes, he is making a telling choice.

Interview

Read the full interview here. I will just be drawing out the choice parts which I think illuminate Adam Tickell’s relationship with Sussex and shed light on the rather long roots of his pensions stance.

It is worth noting that at the time I was representing a student newspaper which represented and catered for a student body, and so my questions were largely crowd-sourced from ongoing campaigns which had dominated the university news the year before as well as individual faculty members. I owe them all thanks and credit.  

“There is a very particular sense of what a university ought to be and I think that for various reasons, in the 1980s, Sussex began to lose a certain sense of what that could be and in particular Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, she wasn’t particularly keen on the kind of institution that Sussex was. There was no sort of vendetta against Sussex but that kind of institution. And for me, the rediscovery of some of what Sussex is about is something which is really exciting to me and I think should be exciting to the university too.”

This is actually the story of how neoliberal economic attitudes came into conflict with universities, especially “the kind of institution that Sussex was”. What Tickell didn’t say about “that kind of institution” was that it was explicitly going against the pre-established order: along with York, Essex, East Anglia and Warwick, Sussex was part of the huge expansion of universities in the 60’s which aimed to combat the staid elitism of the small number of pre-existing institutions.

Sussex was experimenting with education, so for example interdisciplinarity was fostered with the innovative “Schools of Study” model. The best case study of this is AFRAS, which died thanks to the 2000’s changes to higher education where league tables became central – and interdisciplinarity simply wasn’t compatible with the league table system and the research awards which depended on league table prestige.

Sussex’s Schools are now traditional university departments, and although Sussex still offers many joint honours degrees, interdisciplinarity is no longer at the heart of the university’s mission.

So when Tickell said in 2016 “the rediscovery of some of what Sussex is about” it seemed to go against Thatcher and the neoliberal mood. But that word, “some”, was troubling, indicating that some parts of this radical history would remain neglected.

You have a background studying neoliberalism and I was wondering how that influenced your view of the role of the university or the role of Vice-Chancellors?

“We’ve been going through this moment where the common sense, if you like, has been one where market rules are the primary defining feature (…) In a sense, these are the rules of the game.

The university in neoliberal times: we are not independent actors, and so we can’t turn round and say we can pretend we exist in some sort of different state.”

The message here is clear: his hands are tied, so to speak. No: our hands are tied, in fact, he claims. “We are not independent actors” puts the blame on the environment, not on those of us invoked by his use of “we” (who are “we”? The University of Sussex or a more nebulous, rhetorical “we”? Does this “we” correspond to the “us” who will change things in university marketing?).

For someone who has studied “the rules of the game” so intently, Adam Tickell seems keen to follow them rather than use his expertise to challenge them. The troubling thing is that it seems clear that saying no to the steps of neoliberalization doesn’t require “pretend(ing) we exist in some sort of different state”. It requires being in the present state but being willing to exercise power to change the nature of this state.

Mr Tickell himself showed that this is possible later in the interview – exercising power to change the way things are within the neoliberal university.

“You can do things which make a really substantial and positive difference about the world even if the overall rules of the game are quite difficult”

Asked about whether he would consider reversing the privatisation of university services, he said:

So I want to be convinced that that we’re not seeing a reduction in people’s pay or the quality of service as a result of the need to make that margin. So I don’t have a strong ideological view about it, but I do think that if you look very hard at the contracts you’re not just thinking that somebody else is that much better than you are. At Birmingham we did pretty pretty much everything in-house and we did it effectively and efficiently because we had really good managers who ran the services. So we’ll have to see. Most of the contracts are new, so I suspect that they’ll run to term. I can’t imagine making the changes quickly.

Reversing privatisation would be a big move to ensure proper conditions and decent pay for staff. His attitude, as evidenced here, is a pragmatic financial one – and one which seems content with slow changes. Of course, services have not been brought back in-house to date.

In sum, Tickell’s stance from the very start of his time here has been one of reluctance to commit to big changes or deviations from the national mood of higher education. However, when discussing the challenges for the sector, he said that his priority was recruiting students and staff – and I see this concern of his as directly related to the USS pension dispute. It’s no secret that almost every science professor is taking a pay cut to work in education compared to private business, and that the most prestigious academics who attract students to universities are doing the same. These people will be forced to leave if their annual salary and pension security are eroded further.

I am a student who made the active decision to come to the UK in an effort to escape a dwindling, chronically underfunded and not-very-prestigious university sector in Spain. I saw the British education system as a bastion of education-for-its-own-sake. When I try to imagine being five years younger and think about Sussex five years into the effects this pension change may have, I wonder whether I would see any of the remaining value I see in our education system now. The reality is we’re at a crucial time where staff security is being eroded, students are being financially exploited to come to university – and the future of the sector looks bleak if this continues.

So, if Tickell values making a “substantial and positive difference about the world even if the overall rules of the game are quite difficult!” and if he really does care most of all about attracting students and staff – he needs to throw his weight behind striking Sussex staff and add his name to the growing list of Vice-Chancellors who are trying to stop this change to higher education.

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  1. Pingback: Re-visiting Tickell’s thoughts on neoliberalism – Freya Marshall Payne

  2. Pingback: My Strike Scrapbook by Lucy Robinson aged 48 1/3 yrs | Now That's What I Call History

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