Corporate encroachment on academia must be stopped in its tracks-and students and staff must not be afraid to play their part

Senior management are deeply complicit in the plight of our universities, not least by creating a culture of silence amongst staff, writes László Molnárfi, SSP Convenor of the TCDSU

If we were to blame senior management for the problems that plague College, we would be sorely misguided. Government starvation of the third-level sector is to blame for the ills that plague our universities, including high student-staff ratios, insufficient infrastructure and widespread casualization. However, while senior management are not ultimately responsible, they are complicit in creating a culture of silence among staff, which I, as a Convenor for the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy in the Students’ Union, experience firsthand.

While senior management do not act in bad faith when it comes to the allocation of finances, they are willing participants in the growth of capital on campus and are happy to defend it from attacks. They view themselves as fair and impartial bureaucrats. Acting in what they perceive as the realm of apolitical administration, they implement decisions in the pursuit of profit margins.

In many ways, university administration mirrors the bureaucracy of a state government. As the university becomes corporatized, democratic decision-making wanes, its place taken by decrees or bodies unaccountable to the community. Enjoying a cozy relationship with government authorities, university presidents have left the third-level sector to rot, driven by the sanctification of capital that casts profit as the axiomatic logic of reality.

It is our communities that are sacrificed at its altar. Senior management has, as it is in their interest, created a managerial culture where no opposition is tolerated. They rely on maintaining a good image of the College, a center of political attention in the country, to curry favor with the government. 

“It feels like my School is on the brink of imminent collapse – the arts and humanities, although not exclusively, are under the most severe of attacks from the hands of capital.”

I see this culture when I attend committee meetings as a student representative. Staff are under immense pressure, but open dissent to higher-ups is not on the agenda. It feels like my School is on the brink of imminent collapse – the arts and humanities, although not exclusively, are under the most severe of attacks from the hands of capital. Being choked by the discriminatory baseline budgeting model, it is one of the worst for staffing issues, in terms of continuous turnover, contracts and stress for our administrators and teachers. The emperor has no clothes. 

In order for us to challenge the status quo, we must change strategy. There is an inward-turning of community members into committees. We are more than happy to discuss the ills of the system, but only amongst each other. This turns into passivity. The School committees are not organizing bottom-up pressure, but rather they are managing whatever rolls downhill. When there is dissent, it fizzles out in higher-up committees, dominated by the apparatchiks of the Provost, who is the ultimate mediator of capital on campus. There needs to be more of a public opposition, and a healthy democratic culture from below that challenges senior management. For example, in 2015, Professor Peter Coxon, Head of the Department of Geography, emailed students urging them to take action on budget cuts  “through your student reps, the Students Union and by tackling the School, the Faculty and College directly.” His appeal that echoes fainter and fainter with the passage of time, nevertheless cleaving across decades with a spirit of defiance, must be heard by the generation of today. 

There is also a need to politicize issues. The cut to staff numbers, cancellation of modules and overworking of the few teachers we have are concerns not merely restricted to the realm of balancing the budget, reallocating resources and timely communication to students. Imagine the case of a canceled module. The lecturer is due to come in on European Research Council funding but drops out at the last minute, having found a better offer elsewhere. Following this, they try to source another via casualization to no avail. While one can regard this as merely bad luck, this ignores the fact that our agency is structured by forces of capital. For example, the fact that the Dean of AHSS is unwilling to let Schools hire from their internal budgets, only permitting external hires as a cost-saving measure, compounded by the fact that such hires are known to be unreliable. Furthermore, casualization entails low pay, insecure contracts and lack of promotion. Finally, if we are not understaffed in the first place, a replacement module can be put into place. As such, the individual issue is perfect to mobilize on the political battleground by raising a collective grievance, highlighting the quiet death of the arts stemming from government underfunding and using it to appeal for more resources. 

We need to be transparent. In my School, the administrator:student ratio is 1:200 and student:staff ratio ranges from 1:25 to 1:32 depending on the department, which is frankly outrageous. This data is easy to figure out using public information, but should be more visible. It is in the interest of both students and staff to highlight these dire figures. Raising awareness of this to create a sense of solidarity is paramount, not least when it comes to showing students that delays in emails, registrations and timetables is not the fault of underpaid administrators, just as cuts to tutorial hours, one-on-one time and modules is not the fault of academics. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions, and the neoliberal reality which has attacked our communities must be resisted.

“With issues like online module enrollment being wholly unfit to meet the demands of ~18,000 students, and the administrators that manage them, there must be a public stand.”

There is a dire need for a fighting spirit. With issues like online module enrollment being wholly unfit to meet the demands of ~18,000 students, and the administrators that manage them, there must be a public stand. While students do make a fuss, troublemakers amongst staff are not appreciated. Trapped in a political system that sanctifies cooperation over conflict in every instance, they are disorganized. We must defend the rights of staff to join unions that are willing to not only bark, but also bite. Our teachers in the U.K. are currently on strike under the banner of the UCU, with 70,000 staff at 150 universities taking part, fighting for their rights. They understand that cooperation with the coalition of senior management cozying up to the right-wing government is fruitless, and that the task at hand is to remove them from power.

Toeing the line does not work. Student numbers grew from 16,646 in 2013 to 18,871 in 2021, marking an increase of 13%. At the same time, the number of teaching staff in the Philosophy Department decreased from 37 to 30, marking a decrease of 18%. If not taking into account teaching assistants, the decrease is from 25 to 18, or a 28% decrease. This is because affected departments are oftentimes forced to use short-term, part-time contracts to plug the gap, due to employment control frameworks which restrict the number of full-time employees. Underfunded, understaffed and underappreciated, these small departments face a quiet, deadly and suffocating existential crisis.

It is a testament to the viciousness of senior management in cahoots with the government that no widespread opposition movement has formed. Students must always stand in solidarity with staff. Staff, on the other hand, must abandon their fear and march on, alongside students, in the united front against corporate encroachment on academia.