On 20th Feb (last Thursday :) ) UCU, the University and College Union, began 14 days of strike action, in which 74 universities across the UK are participating. In London specifically, the 4 big art schools are participating: the Royal College of Art, University of the Arts London (Central St Martins, Chelsea, Camberwell, Wimbledon, London College of Communication etc), Goldsmiths & UCL (the Slade/Bartlett). I’m sure you’ve all seen something about this on twitter or instagram, but I think I want to use this moment to stop, take stock and think about the state of art schools, their slow dismantling, what these strikes mean in a wider context, and how this affects the art world we find ourselves in now. These strikes are a big deal, imo, because this is the first time casualisation has been on the official list of concerns; the importance of that is massive, especially from my perspective as an art worker/creative labourer working in London. Since well before the Tory government’s introduction of £9k+ tuition fees, we’ve slowly seen the dismantling of the art school, but since 2012 there has been a full-scale rush towards a transition from art school to arts university. What does this marketisation of teaching mean, what does it represent, and what’s being done about it? I spoke to a source in one of London’s art schools about the strikes, about the disputes and their experience of the sector within their respective university. The university they work for will become apparent throughout the text, but obviously I can’t name them or the institution they work for. I have attributed problems to specific universities where possible, but for some instances, that has not been possible. For complete clarity, this strike and the 4 disputes at its centre are definitely about sector-wide problems, transcending art schools and representing a problem in higher education at large. Poor working conditions are not specific to any one institution, they just happen to be the examples I have access to.
This strike specifically is centred around a dispute that has been in ongoing negotiation between UCU and UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association - the lobbying body for the universities themselves, their union if u like) since July 2019; it’s the second wave following the walkouts in November/December last year. The last strike action was centred on pay & pensions, this year’s strike is more comprehensive; it’s the first time UCU has campaigned about or around casualisation. Casualisation is the transformation of a workforce from one employed primarily on permanent contracts (with access to all our country’s full-spectrum of employment rights) to one primarily engaged on a short-term or casual basis (this includes the use of zero-hour contracts). Casual employment is characterised by its precarity for the worker, and the unilateral power it affords employers. It’s a significant component in the neoliberal restructuring of our economy that is currently unfolding. At present, more teaching staff in art skls than ever before are on insecure, casual, zero-hours or other kinds of insecure contracts. Beyond art schools, in universities at large, 54% of all academic staff and 49% of all academic teaching staff are on insecure contracts; yet this seems to be a problem that congeals specifically in arts teaching with 90% of teaching staff at the RCA employed on zero-hours/other insecure contracts (the highest in the country according to the Precarious Work In Higher Education UCU Report 2016), and at UAL more than 2000 teaching staff don’t have a secure contract. Staff employed in this way are not automatically entitled to sick pay, maternity pay or annual leave, and can get fired at any time.
In terms of knock-on effect, this precarity represents a slippery slope for working practices. At the RCA there are entire departments where almost everyone is on a zero-hours Visiting Lecturer contract aside from the Head of Department, and the management expects that Visiting Lecturers will come back to teach each year. We know of multiple instances where staff have been made redundant, only to then be re-employed a few weeks before term, but on worse conditions (less pay and fewer rights). Not only is this dickhead behaviour, it’s also so that colleges can get away with not having to put these temporary/casual staff members on permanent contracts - which by law they have to do automatically, if temporary staff are doing the same job for more than four years. With power resting almost entirely in the hands of the employer, and a precarious workforce of teaching staff with relatively little in terms of actual tangible material rights, this can only breed an institutional mentality, and subsequently working practices, that treats its workforce as disposable. If you drop out of this mad rat race, there is a fresh crop of MA graduates from the university’s own ranks able to fill the gap. For time, teaching has been a stable source of income for artists, in a sector that is renowned for not providing meaningful or consistent income from exhibition or practice. With the wider sector not providing any alternative from this, this casualisation in art schools represents a significant erosion of what was once a stable provision of employment in the arts. I cannot stress or emphasise this enough, almost every artist I know that’s making a living outta this thing, is a teacher as well. It is a stable source of income, the primary source of income, for so many practitioners that are exhibiting in galleries, touring shows, international biennials, turner prize winners.
Beyond casualisation, there are 3 other central disputes: workloads, falling pay, and the gender & ethnicity gap. The dispute about workloads is that they are unsafe; currently staff are doing a lot more than what they’re paid for, this is of course bound to the casualisation of labour. Not only are staff, being asked to work harder and for longer than ever before (the average working week in higher education is now above 50 hours, with 29% of academics averaging more than 55 hours), they’re not being paid for this increased workload - the 100,000+ teaching staff on casual contracts in the sector report that they are only paid for 55% of the work they do. On average, across the sector, tutors and lecturers are doing 2 days of unpaid work every single week. This is unsustainable, unethical, and fucking ridiculous. These are invisible hours, filled with unpaid work that’s being foisted on a workforce that is clearly already too precarious to refuse these increasing workloads. It does nothing other than serve the management and the employer, line their pockets with profits that are directly extracted from the teachers and students both - in higher fees and lower wages.
These increased workloads are a problem directly attached to the 3rd dispute of falling pay. Since 2009, university lecturers’ pay has been effectively cut by nearly 20% in real terms, this is worse for Visiting Lecturers who do not receive any pay increments each year. If you’re an associate lecturer, you don’t get a pay rise in line with inflation automatically; you have to wait until the general rate is raised. There were no raises to the general rate between 2013-18. For 5 years that just wasn’t addressed until the union pushed for it to be reviewed. It also represents a wider problem, of wages not being adjusted to meet living costs or to accurately reflect the labour being done; at the RCA alone, visiting lecturer rates weren’t reviewed for 5 years, and when they were, lecturers still weren’t paid for prep time. Beyond not being paid for prep time (which is not necessarily a consistent failure throughout the sector, it seems to be specific to the RCA) there is still the wider and vaguer problem of irregularity in workloads. We know about cases of lecturers in senior positions, like a Head of Department, leaving, and then the remaining colleagues would be asked to fill the gaps of the Head of Department job, but the college would not give them extra pay - anecdotally, almost all these stories came from women. These 2 disputes are inextricably linked, and inextricably destructive.
It in no way benefits students to have teaching staff that’s run ragged, and underpaid, and unable to adequately support them because of this overworking. UCU's own research showed that 42% of staff on casual contracts have struggled to pay household bills; I don’t know how anyone can be expected to deliver the highest possible standard of teaching, engage meaningfully with their students, or even just support their students with any kind of dedication and focus, when they’re genuinely worried about putting food on the table and keeping a fucking roof over their heads. Falling pay, unsustainable workloads, and a precarious workforce on casual contracts without any meaningful access to the employment rights of a proper contract; these are not the characteristics of an education system geared towards meeting the needs of students. All this does is turn art schools into profit-making enterprises; where the students are customers, the tutors are haggard workers and the bosses are laughing their way to the bank. It does not prioritise students and what they need over that 3/4 year period of being at art school, it does not nurture them and hand them the tools they need to be successful practitioners in their field when they leave. It normalises a mode of working that is reflected in the wider sector: of exploitative working conditions where your position as an employee is legally pretty shaky, where your employer has all the power over the terms of your engagement with them, and where you’re paid buttons to do the work of at least 2 people, just so you can scrape by in our nation’s great capital where living costs are soaring and people are struggling to break even every month. That’s what this system teaches students: this is what to expect, welcome to neoliberalism.
The 4th dispute over the gender and ethnicity pay gap is maddening to me. The universities’ own analysis highlights that women and black and minority ethnic staff experience significant pay discrimination - at the RCA the gender pay gap rose 10% last year. It also reflects a wider madness with regards to ~diversity & inclusion~ within the sector: by the RCA’s own admission in their 2018/19 Equality & Diversity report, ‘Amongst applicants for jobs at the RCA in 2017 29% of applicants for roles were BME and 65% are white yet around 20% of shortlisted applicants are BME and 17% of appointed candidates are BME. White applicants were almost twice as likely to be appointed to an RCA role than a BME applicant’. Yet somehow this pretty harrowing admission doesn’t appear to be being followed up with sincere consideration of the problem; the same diversity report holds some pretty frustratingly vague statistics regarding % of BME staff in the workforce from 2014 - 2019, a break down [link] of full time academic staff, part time academic staff and NO CLARITY on where staff on precarious/zero-hours contracts, as Visiting Lecturers or otherwise, sit within that - we can only assume the reporting is only talking about contracted staff, as almost all staff at the RCA are part-time. A source has told us that they don’t collect data on Visiting Lecturers at all, despite the fact they make up 90% of their teaching staff, so this admission and the following provision of stats feels markedly like an ~ALLEGED~ smokescreen, pulled out of their literal bumholes. Art schools proclaim themselves to be strongholds of progressive, radical thought and action, perhaps implicitly more than explicitly nowadays. This being an issue might not be surprising news for most, but it is at odds with the optics of their own marketing. On this specific point, I am just tired. Too tired to say again what the impact of this will be if not checked with the sincerity and seriousness it needs. You all know what the effect of an all-white teaching staff is, what the effect of an institutionally racist hiring system in art schools is. If teaching is such a significant and stable source of income to practitioners, and POC are prevented from access to that stable source of income because of racist hiring practices, you know what that’ll do. I’m fucking tired man, you do the work, you know what I’d say.
Obviously, the impact of these working conditions leak out into the wider arts sector, as they are felt most outside of these universities by artists/creative labourers that teach while maintaining a practice. However, all this mess also leaves an obvious and significant impact on students. The strike action is pinned around the wider marketisation of arts teaching, something that has most definitely impacted art students’ experience of university, and the teaching they receive. Across UAL, the RCA, Goldsmiths and the Slade, the reporting has been the same: staff numbers have been at standstill despite increasing numbers of students, reduced contact time with the increasing number students, a lack of dedicated studio spaces, workshop facilities being booked up for weeks on end with large numbers of students unable to get access, art and design students in bigger universities not having priority to specialist workshop facilities because the photography studio (for example) is open to non-art students as well. Beyond BA & MA, we know of PhD supervisors with 13 PhD students. UCL and Imperial College suggest that full time staff have no more than 6 PhD students at any one time, so this represents a doubling of recommended numbers. Considering students are currently paying more than £9,000 a year for their education, at BA level alone, if we were to think about this in the purely transactional terms this system seems to love, this is an astonishingly bad deal. Art school is becoming a more and more untenable pursuit, in an industry where those 3/4 years of Foundation and BFA are widely declared as absolutely ESSENTIAL to inclusion within it. In an art world that places so much value and importance on the pipeline from Academy to Institution or Gallery, where access is made near on impossible from outside that formal pipeline, no meaningful alternative to it is offered; this marketisation of arts teaching is going to heap yet more straws on the back of a camel that is set to collapse ANY MINUTE NOW. NOT TO BE A FUCKING PESSIMIST, but the arts are already suffocatingly white and middle-class, your success within the arts is already too dependent on having access to existing wealth. This matters, all of this matters; to me, to Gab, to the teachers, tutors, students, and to any potential viewer in 2040 that’s going to be sat in a small to mid-size gallery thinking, ‘jesus christ, another posh white person making art about fuck all’. Art made by rich people is shit, and with the full-scale neoliberalisation and marketisation of arts education, the arts are going to be overwhelmingly populated by the rich going forward. This problem will only replicate, double down, become harder to unpick.
This has wider ripples that will effect our ability to affect change in an expanded galaxy-brain sense. This is all interconnected. This is urgent. We must support these UCU strikes, so here’s what students can do::::
You can write to the Vice-Chancellor/Principal at your uni/art skl, find the UCU website’s template email here. Work with your Students’ Union in support of the fight, co-ordinate action n be noisy. Follow it on twitter/IG n make noise there, and join staff on the picket lines and teach outs if possible. Support as vocally and visibly as you possibly can so that your university knows that you too are concerned about these issues, and students are on side defending decent teaching & learning, that they can’t divide & conquer. Help get the word out that these strikes were not inevitable, but caused by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s refusal to take UCU’s demands seriously. If you are a postgraduate you can join UCU for free as a student member. Be understanding that if your lecturers and tutors are on strike they are unlikely to be able to reply to emails as part of the strike – the picket line is digital too. If you do support the action, please be patient and email them after the strike. Above all, support the staff on strike, this isn’t ideal for them either. This strike is a last resort to protect the standards of higher education, and the issues under dispute affect both students and staff – they affect us all in wider but still tangible ways. This is important, we cannot lose this fight.
It’s now the end of the 2nd week of strike action, we have to make sure the momentum keeps up, and that fundamentally that UCU are able to successfully negotiate and resolve these disputes. With current working conditions the way they are, things are lowkey highkey dire. Pls, let us have one smol smol win.