The past three weeks have been amongst the most impressive of my life. The current University and College Union (UCU) strike about pensions is not the first political or social campaign I have been involved in, but it is certainly the biggest. Members of the University and College Union in 65 UK universities are striking for 14 days across 4 weeks, the longest strike action the British higher education system has ever seen.
What I was least prepared for before the strike was the intensity of emotion it would trigger in me. Throughout the last three weeks I have felt a range of expected and unexpected feelings and I would like to take the two most intense ones to reflect on the strike and what is to come after.
In a rather ill-advised move Universities UK tweeted their support for #unimentalhealth day on 1. March. The tweet reads “We all have a part to play in creating a positive mental health community at university. Join the movement this #UniMentalHealthDay“ It did not go down well. While I had an extremely enjoyable time looking at the often scornful but hilarious response s to this tweet they belie a darker reality. There is a lot of talk about the “mental health epidemic “ in higher education, with significantly higher numbers of mental health disorders recorded amongst both academics and students.
Of course good mental health care provisions are important. When someone has reached a crisis point they need support in order to get back on their feet. Staff and student welfare resources need to be expanded and made accessible for anyone who needs them; they save lives. But there is also something terribly symbolic and cynical about this focus on mental health. What we are really talking about when we are talking about a mental health epidemic amongst academics is the fact that neoliberal universities causes immense personal suffering to their staff and students.
The strike has enabled us to have some long overdue conversations on the nature of this suffering and the way it has affected us personally. Throughout an excellent Teach-Out on the topic and so many different conversations I have had over the last three weeks, often with complete strangers, the intensity of suffering and injury caused through the way we work has become abundantly clear to me. Through the focus on mental health we often allow ourselves to think of this suffering as form of individual defect which needs treatment. But really, when we are talking about rising numbers of depression and anxiety in academics we are talking about people who feel so overwhelmed with their workloads they can no longer cope. We are talking about people dissolving into tears over their emails, about people not being able to get out of bed on their days off, people’s hearts racing in fear at the thought of another meeting, about people whose bodies finally give in, making them physically unable to keep going. Maybe the most heart-breaking part about of this is the intense guilt that many of us feel when we finally reach breaking point. We know that by not pulling our weight, it is our colleagues who will have to shoulder our bit of the work too.
The strike gives all of us an opportunity to really talk about how badly we have been hurt. Maybe the most moving moments for me were those in which people spoke about how the constant stress affected their capacity to feel compassion for others. One of the most painful realisations about the neoliberal university is that it not only turns us into victims, it also turns us into perpetrators. Often we pass on the disrespect and pain we experience on to others, most unforgivably our students. We bitch about them, complain about their demanding attitudes and poor work ethic and their disinterestedness, while all the while we are contributing to a system which encourages exactly these attributes. I used to joke about marking exams, that with each copy of a particular exam I marked I cut off a bit of my soul. This may be a very dramatic way of putting it, but it is not an inaccurate one. Complicity in an unjust system damages us. The fact that each of these injuries we sustain is tiny in itself (we are, after all, still on average incredibly privileged compared to so many others) makes it hard to really admit the emotional toll it has on us. We feel we are dying a death by a thousand cuts. Continue reading