Class Consciousness, Trade Unionism and WP

I have always had a very strong sense of ‘class consciousnesses’.  I probably never described it in these terms as a kid growing up on the outskirts of Liverpool in the nineties, but I (and many of my contemporaries) were brought up to value our working class roots and ideals.  It (being working class) was the norm, and most definitely wasn’t something to avoid talking about. 

Liverpool in the nineties was probably less radical than during the 1980s, when Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and Militant ensured that the city’s Labour Council (adopts Welsh windbag voice, “A Labour Council”…) resisted the cuts imposed by Thatcher’s government and their attempts to impose a state of “managed decline” upon the city.  However, there was still a prevailing sense of radicalism.  The Liverpool dockers dispute took place during the late nineties when I was still at school.  This resulted not only in me calling a local Bank Manager acting as a Young Enterprise advisor “a gobshite” for his dismissal of their stance, but also saw Liverpool FC’s star striker, Robbie Fowler, fined for wearing a T-shirt showing his support for the strike when scoring against SK Brann Bergen in a European Cup Winners Cup tie in 1997.  My Dad (me auld fella) was an active trade unionist, had been ‘Father of the Chapel’ in most roles he held in printing and tales of picketing and trade union disputes at Winwick and Wapping were part of my political awakening.  Weekly visits to the GMPU building on County Road helped to solidify my thinking that supporting your fellow worker, rather than stabbing them in the back was the thing to do. 

In my adolescence, a ‘new’ Labour government was elected and almost immediately, there were noticeable changes in the area (Knowsley) where I grew up.  The school library got a swanky new IT suite, a teacher was paid to support our year via this ‘Study support centre’ and the local health centre was renovated from a dilapidated, run down facility.  Whilst I was never fully taken in by Tony Blair, it is fair to say that none of this would have happened under a Tory government. 

As someone who has worked in Widening Participation (WP) in Higher Education (HE) since 2007, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve advised young people that going to university is a life changing experience.  Whilst on the surface, this can sound like a somewhat trite statement; I believe it has some merit.  As a result of studying at university, and subsequently working in them, I have done the following things:

  • Gained a degree and a post graduate qualification
  • Studied in two cities in the UK and spent time studying overseas, meeting people from various walks of life, some of whom have become lifelong friends
  • Worked in a variety of roles in three very different, but excellent universities in the North West, again meeting lots of great people (and some absolute bellends, more of which later)
  • Been involved in national and international conferences, exchanging ideas with people from all around the world
  • Delivered projects which have had transformative impacts on the lives of participants
  • Been involved in study abroad projects in which young people from the United States (Black Roots and TRIO) visited the UK and took part in ‘study tours’ to universities in Antwerp, Amsterdam and Berlin
  • Led projects on an institutional, regional and national level
  • Been an elected representative of two member led organisations
  • Had a research paper published

Therefore, you will not really ever find me arguing against the transformative value of HE.  However, whilst I do recognise and appreciate the opportunities which participation in HE has afforded me, a number of these things (importantly not all) have been down to individual endeavour.  Whilst I’ve been involved at Executive level of two membership organisations, HELOA (Higher Education Liaison Officers Association) and NEON (National Education Opportunities Network), I’ve never felt that everyone in these organisations fully shares opinions like mine about the sector.  A lot has been already written about ‘imposter syndrome’ and university by people far more intelligent than me, but it is fair to say for much of my career, especially as I have progressed into senior roles, I have begun to notice certain things.  Reflecting further on this, I question if is it coincidental that I did not notice these things as much during my undergraduate study at a Post 92 institution, but definitely did during my postgraduate study at a Russell Group?  I have tried to summarise the things I have noticed in HEIs in bullet point form below:

  • Not many people speak with a regional accent, many that do try to soften this accent – Increasingly noticeable in ‘elite’ institutions
  • It is acceptable to be incredibly rude to someone verbally, but only if you use professional ‘management speak’
  • It is assumed that respect should be automatically afforded to anyone in a senior post, rather than this respect being earnt
  • To show passion for something can easily be misconstrued as being aggressive
  • To annoyingly repeat your point of view, whilst disregarding that of others is often dressed up as being assertive and strong
  • To be part of a trade union is something which is accepted, but not applauded or welcomed

The last point obviously touches on negative attitudes towards trade unions; it was in my first term of undergraduate study that I first encountered anything of this nature.  In the early part of my undergraduate studies, I, along with a mate, had become members of a political party and started attending local branch meetings.  One of the modules on my history course was around ‘Political Ideologies’.  In a discussion in class, I described myself as “A Socialist”, and “someone who believes in the power of trade unions”.  On the way out of the seminar, a fellow student tried to indulge in what student types these days label as ‘banter’.  He said “Socialist” and “Trade Unions” were “dirty words”.  I was initially taken aback, but then realised he was smirking and had a copy of the Daily Mail protruding from his rucksack.

On my PGCE, I quickly felt a much greater sense of imposter syndrome.  This was in part due to the fact teaching was not something I had wanted to do since an early age (which rightly or wrongly, it is for a lot of teachers).  This was compounded by the fact that much of the course content and associated discussions came from a very middle class starting point.  For example, one of my course mates was aghast when I did not know an answer to a question at a pub quiz about “The only child King”… (I still don’t).  Members of same cabal later mockingly critiqued my ability to answer a lot of the other questions as they were “only about sport and popular culture”.  When I decided not to pursue a teaching career at the end of the course, I met my tutor to discuss next steps.  In the midst of our conversation, I mentioned I wanted to continue working with young people, he initially reacted warmly to this saying there would be “plenty of opportunities for someone like you, from your background”, I was unsure as to what he meant and asked him to clarify this, he did so stating “Oh you know, probation”.  Looking back, I find this funny and I do genuinely think he was trying to be helpful, but it was a hugely ignorant and potentially offensive comment. 

As an active trade union member; I was on the picket line each day during the 2018 USS dispute and was again actively involved in UCU’s ‘four fights’ action during November/December 2019 and during the second phase of action in February/March 2020.  Indeed, myself and comrades involved in this network (Ant Sutcliffe and Hannah Merry – Higher Horizons+) spent the last day of this phase of action delivering a Teach-Out session at Keele University.  This session focused on how marketisation has impacted (negatively) on Widening Access over the course of the past decade – (Part One) & (Part Two). 

Little did we know as we delivered this session that COVID-19 would soon result in us being locked down for 10 months and change our daily interactions completely with many of us finding a newly found expertise in online engagement via Teams, Zoom et al!  As the COVID-19 situation has evolved, many Universities actions have shown how their business models are speculative at best, and almost akin to venture capitalism at worst.  This has only served to highlight why Widening Access and the Trade Union movement could and perhaps should be linked more intrinsically than they are.  One of the key tenets of the session we delivered was that WP practitioners should never forget that a key part of their role is to oppose the status quo.  WP practitioners should continually remind Senior Managers within institutions, and those who shape policy of the importance of our work.  Not only in terms of the role the agenda plays in supporting Student Recruitment, but also in making institutions more fully representative of society as a whole, encouraging institutions to act as a force for societal good.  Universities should make telling contributions to the communities in which they are based.  Indeed, many of the Russell Group of institutions were established by local philanthropists to support the growth of major cities during the Industrial Revolution.  This is a fact many seem to have forgotten over time, and one of which we should continually remind our Senior Managers. 

Policymakers have also shown themselves to be weak during the COVID-19 situation, with the Office for Students (OfS) initially deciding to behave in a complicit manner and look sideways, whilst institutions have redistributed funding purported to support those in disadvantaged communities in favour of propping up flawed business models.  Reflecting on April’s ‘Moving Outreach Online’ event co-ordinated by the National Educational Opportunities Network (NEON), NEON’s Director, Dr Graeme Atherton commented how Chris Millward’s input “was reassuring in stressing the OfS’s continuing commitment to the widening access agenda and emphasising there would be flexibility in how targets around access and participation would be interpreted this year.”  Viewed another way, Millward’s contribution showed little or no commitment to holding institutions to account on ensuring suitable usage of APP monies.   The same body also actively stopped Uni Connect partnerships from using funding to support provision of laptops and sim cards for young people unable to access the move to online delivery due to the fact they do not own resources or have limited accessibility.  Their rationale for doing so was that the Department for Education (DfE) had made funding available.  The reality is that this funding was limited and difficult to access and barely scratched the surface of the issue.  Having led NNCO and NCOP projects previously, I am aware of how respective governmental departments are well versed in hiding behind others to explain away poor policy, but this represented a pretty low ebb.  Especially given the noises emanating from the OfS in their infancy around how they were going to differ from OFFA-HEFCE and have teeth in order to hold institutions to account.  To my mind, they had a real opportunity to show their commitment to the agenda here through direct action, but instead appeared to prefer to stress their “ongoing commitment” in words. 

What is positive is that many practitioners responded rather differently to the COVID-19 situation.  Rather than being deterred by shaky leadership and poor policymaking, practitioners have once again risen to the challenge and some excellent examples of practice connecting young people in disadvantaged communities with their local institution began to emerge.  Once again, this has served to highlight how the “passion of a group of individuals and how their desire to continue what they correctly saw as a worthwhile endeavour anticipated and perhaps even precipitated a shift in policy.” (Bayes, 2019).  The quote taken from my previous research paper ‘Blurred Boundaries – Encouraging greater dialogue between student recruitment and widening participation’ is referring to the period following the scrapping of Aimhigher by the Coalition Government.  Following on from this “there was a black hole year or 18 months where [the network] was mainly held together by a group of well-meaning individuals [who] found scraps of money, literally hundreds of pounds to run an activity here and there to keep the network going”.  As stated, this colleague is talking about another era, but the above quote could easily be applied to the current situation.   The important factor here is the reference to the determination and knowledge base of the practitioner community often exceeds that of those determining policy. 

Given the dearth of national level co-ordination and leadership in terms of challenging poor policymaking, I began to think about the role that trade unions could play in supporting the voice of practitioners.  UCU and NEON have previously collaborated on some work around the admissions cycle and how this is not fit for purpose within today’s changing HE landscape –  Coupled with this, there also is obvious synergy between the commitment to social justice prevalent within WP and the overarching mission of UCU and the Labour movement more broadly as a whole.  However, participation in the Teach-Out at Keele and prior participation in a similar session during the 2018 USS dispute whilst working at Liverpool, reinforced to me how many UCU members (largely drawn from the academic community) have little or no awareness of the WP agenda.  Whilst not having actual figures to back this up, my own experiences of participation in several phases of industrial action over the past couple of years have shown that an increasingly diminishing number of colleagues in WP circles are active participants in such action.  There are obviously several factors at play here, not all practitioners are UCU members (many may be involved in Unison or Unite), but I feel this is also reflective of a shift towards a commitment towards a Tory led agenda promoting Social Mobility in favour of a genuine commitment towards Social Justice through activism.

Reflecting on my thirteen-year career in HE, I have regularly encountered ignorance amongst colleagues in relation to trade unionism.  When sending my apologies to a Higher Education Liaison Officers Association (HELOA) Executive meeting in November 2014, I received a response, in which the organiser questioned my right not to attend a meeting that fell on a day of action, as my HELOA role was “an elected position”.   When it became clear I wasn’t going to change my mind, he decided to indulge in what he later repackaged as ‘banter’ stating “Perhaps Clarkson was right” referring to insights from the former Top Gear presenter and renowned gobshite, Jeremy Clarkson, who had commented that striking Public Sector workers should be “executed in front of their families”.  My colleague may have wanted to frame this as ‘banter’, but it is an enlightening insight into the type of thinking around Trade Unionism prevalent amongst many university management structures.

Striking in HE is an interesting experience.  There is an immediate and obvious juxtaposition when striking as the son of a working class trade union official, as you find yourself picketing alongside polite, middle class folk.  Rather than actively giving it to the bosses as me auld fella’s contemporaries would have; pickets in HE take on a more courteous form of action.  This often involves dancing, engaging in discussion with colleagues before letting them cross, if they take a leaflet.  Babies and dogs are often brought along to the pickets for photo opportunities and some colleagues show solidarity by bringing various baked items as beloved by Paul Hollywood and his ‘Great British Bake off’ brethren.  Picketing alongside these people provides a healthy challenge to my own inverted class snobbery and has been hugely beneficial in terms of helping me to develop networks with genuinely like-minded people within each of the universities I’ve worked in.  At the end of the day, you have to respect colleagues who are willing to sacrifice their wages through collective action, no matter their background. 

The other issue I’ve encountered whenever striking during my career is perhaps more worrying.  Whilst most colleagues are not stupid enough to actively mark someone out for taking part in action, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard ‘banter’ (that word again) along the lines of that from my former HELOA colleague.  As we know, the past decade has coincided with an increased marketisation of the HE sector and a shift in terms of the primary role of WP from supporting social justice and promoting equality in society to a function that supports HEIs to deliver towards recruitment targets, measured through Access & Participation plans.  Alongside this, as stated previously, I have also begun to notice that less and less colleagues from WP teams actively engage in strike action.  There are some obvious reasons as to why this is a tricky thing to measure, not all staff working in Outreach and Widening Access are UCU members, but many are (or should be).  More worrying are comments I have heard increasingly over the years, the most popular one being “It is hardly The Miners’ Strike” or something akin to this.  There is a degree of legitimacy in this.  The Miners’ Strike was perhaps the most bitter and divisive piece of Industrial Action ever to take place in the U.K.  It divided families, saw the police employed as a militia, saw doctoring of footage from the state broadcaster to turn public opinion against The Miners’ and damaged communities for generations.  The USS dispute and more recent phases of action are incomparable when measured against a dispute of this magnitude.  However, the dirty undercurrent of this type of comment is that as The Miners’ were defeated, there is seemingly little or no point in taking part in strikes.  At the heart of this, is a lack of class-consciousness and an ignorance in the power of collective action.  What is hugely positive is that a large number of colleagues within the sector appear rejected this viewpoint and have come out on strike during the past couple of years.  One of the most powerful memories of 2018’s USS dispute was that it gave me an opportunity to have a voice amongst a community of like-minded people at the place I worked.  This without doubt is one of the key benefits of being part of a trade union.  The community.  Without the UCU and associated action, it is unlikely that I would have met these people and benefited from their support, experience and wisdom.  For too long within WP, colleagues who themselves are from working class backgrounds have allowed others to speak on our behalf.  The development of this group is an opportunity to provide colleagues with a community in which they can feel as comfortable as I have and continue to within the UCU.

Chris Bayes

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