In Between Priests and Units: A Manifesto for Education as Labour


Originally posted on 22 October 2013 by Re.framing Activism

Maïa Pal explores the lessons that we can learn from Occupy Sussex for the 3 union-led strike day in HE on 31 October 2013.

Have educators sold out? Why should we occupy and go on strike? Either way, the fight for education must be qualitative, not quantitative. Pay rises will not solve the problem of privatisation and precarity in education. It is time to shake off the ‘vocation and privilege’ paradigm that devalues the labour power of knowledge production.

Neoliberal Reform and Occupy Sussex: Conduct and Counter-Conduct

From an economic, moral, social, educational and political perspective, the negative consequences and irrational bases for recent reforms in Higher Education (HE) have been demonstrated by a number of recent studies[1]. Overall, they share a sense of rushed inevitability, picturing educators as reluctant passengers on a runaway train. As the pace of reforms increases, is it time to jump off?

Government policy in the UK for the last 30 years has consistently argued that structural reform is absolutely necessary. The sector must remain a world leader by maintaining and increasing a high quality standard while insuring it can offer this quality at a competitive price.

This has led to squeezing and reframing research and teaching activities according to government-led themes and quotas, purging whole departments and research centres, concentrating departmental decision-making in the hands of senior management, revolutionising the funding system from the general public to individual students resulting in the tripling of annual undergraduate fees and an increasingly elitist and class-divided sector, the selling off of undergraduate loans and insertion of financial risk into student debt and university ranking, the unregulated emergence of for-profit private colleges and universities (even lamented in a recent report by the government-constituted Higher Education Commission), widespread casualisation of the teaching and non-teaching workforce from fixed 3-9 months to ‘zero-hours’ contracts, and the outsourcing of university workers and key services to global companies with alarming histories of industrial conflict and below par working conditions.

At the University of Sussex, the ongoing campaign against the outsourcing of 235 members of services staff, announced without consultation in May 2012 and now in the transfer stage to two global and scandal-ridden companies, Compass/Chartwells and Interserve, failed to halt the process. However, it helped trade unions secure better pension provisions and put considerable pressure on senior management to account for its secretive and unilateral decision making procedures.

Moreover, the campaign re-united a fragmented campus community otherwise disillusioned and depressed from the realisation of their second and third-class treatment in the face of first-class managerial efficiency. Indeed, a recent report shows that the difference between the highest and lowest paid worker in UK universities is alarmingly increasing; worse, this increase fails to account for growing numbers of low-paid outsourced workers.

In other words, the campaign put in the spotlight a radical restructuring that revealed a senior management hard at work in cementing the neoliberal vision of education driven by the government policies outlined above.

Events leading up to and during Occupy Sussex (prohibition to physically wear the campaign badge and to insert campaign logo in email signatures, complaint of email censorship by Council members, crisis of representation of students in Senate, University of Sussex Student Union and National Union of Students) show the intimate and mutually constitutive relation between processes identified by Michel Foucault as conduct and counter-conduct[2].

We use these concepts to highlight the importance of the education sector as a powerful conduct mechanism for individuals in late capitalist economies[3]. Like the priests or conductors in Foucault’s analysis of pastoral power in the 16th and 17th centuries, university managers today are preaching an ideology of reform that descends from the heavens of globalisation. Students are conducted to act as customers evaluating and consuming their degree in terms of how it transforms them into skilled and employable units.

Stuck in between, academics are on the one hand more or less forced to implement and pay lip-service to the managerial credo by giving in to added pressures to ‘publish or perish’ under the mystifying REF; on the other hand, they must respond to their customers’ demands by increasing administrative duties that tick the unequally survey-gathered boxes of student satisfaction. In other words, academics sell themselves, labour and conscience, beyond the measurable confines of calculated labour time.

In response, internal battles refusing the way in which the means of education are being managed and restructured, i.e. counter-conducts, are more and more present in universities where neoliberal reforms on working conditions and research output are being drastically implemented (e.g. London Met, Birmingham, Lancaster, SOAS).

Largely due to specific political and economic circumstances and a rich history of protest, these battles generated a two-month occupation at the University of Sussex that stirred many consciences and attracted global media attention. As Kerem Nisancioglu and I argue, although in many respects senior management adeptly managed the occupation, forms of counter-conduct cultivated inside the occupied conference centre at the heart of campus went beyond the simple form of refusal characteristic of the more common battles identified above.

In occupying a permanently active social space, deployed for the needs of the campaign, Occupy Sussex also opened potentialities for the emergence of counter-conducts that experimented in alternative social relations. In this regard it resembled what Foucault describes as ‘a counter-society, another society’, that is, ‘the project of giving birth to a new social order and creating a new man.’[4] This is observed in how the subjectivities of students and staff were transformed by the space where people produce and reproduce forms of conduct, but also the space in which people are trained, rather than educated, in how to ‘conduct themselves’.


Vocation and labour: rethinking our work as educators

What can Occupy Sussex teach academics about how to respond to neoliberal reforms? Firstly, the solidarities, communication networks and spaces created though the campaign and occupation are continuing to inform our behaviour. In other words, the struggle continues subterraneously. Although less visible and vocal, the anti-privatisation word continues to spread, new activists and supporters are joining the debate, and related struggles are emerging or being reinforced (Campaign for the Public University, 3 Cosas campaign, UCU). Importantly, these struggles are linked to similar fights against privatisation in the NHS (demo in Brighton on 2 November), probation services,  and Royal Mail.

A national campaign over the employers’ pay offer ‘rise’ of 1% has been called by UCU, Unison and Unite. Set to begin on 31 October 2013 with a one day strike, it is a strong sign of trade unions coordinating their efforts and a willingness to show some muscle in the face of otherwise unchallenged managerial reforms. It must be approached positively and strongly supported by staff and students across the country. However, it is also the occasion to discuss strategy and what can be achieved by this effort.

To insure an effective all-out closing of campuses, we must secure support from an overwhelming majority of staff and the general public. The strongest obstacle to this support, from inside and outside the sector, is the sense that academics are privileged workers in the wider economy. The idea that HE teachers and researchers do not have the social legitimacy to criticise their working conditions is based on the argument that their work is vocational and relatively enjoyable.

But, by forcing us to reconsider our subjectivities and roles in the university, Occupy Sussex is, secondly, an inspiration to contest this paradigm. Because of our choice of career, and of the highly interdependent relation between personal intellectual capital and professional qualifications and training, academics’ actual labour time is very difficult to calculate. The work required to prepare a new course, or teach a course already set up, can vary greatly, although the pay can be identical. The time required to produce publications, the time spent with students, the time used to keep updated with news, academic debates, educational policy and recommendations, and increasing administrative duties all determine how academics are rated, ranked and employed, and more and more, whether they can be fired.

This means that surplus value in a knowledge economy is more and more produced by one’s personal human qualities and unpaid labour time. Furthermore, determining the cost of cognitive labour time is based on the assumption that such labour is privileged by not extracting surplus from other workers. It’s enjoyable and does not involve physically exploiting people or luring them into consumption. This is the ‘privilege’ of providing a social service, of giving cognitive capital to others, to enhance their potential to be less extracted or to be extracted in a non-industrial economy (crucial so as to maintain the UK’s dominance in the global skills competition). Hence, the neoliberal ideology goes, academics are ‘privileged’ in helping make capitalism more human, more palatable, more digestible to the higher educated masses of late capitalist societies.

In other words, the boundaries of what a vocational career demands as unpaid labour and training are being increasingly pushed. And academics have generally been very compliant in letting these boundaries slip out of their control, because ultimately they are a privileged sector. But how far can we go? And is it economically, sociologically, and politically correct to cast our labour as vocational, if it is then used to transform education into a factory of employable units? Will our ‘vocation’ then be blamed for producing a generation unable to question the unequal distribution of and access to resources, or to imagine the utopias necessary for alternatives to capitalist realism? As sons and daughters of the 60s generation, surely we can do better.


In conclusion, the national strike over pay conditions is essential, as it has managed to unite trade unions and restart a process of contestation and debate over the future of universities. However, we need to push the boundaries of academic struggle. As Occupy Sussex taught us, we need to rethink and create spaces of educational dialogue that aim to forge new subjectivities in university that contest those reproduced by managerial reforms.

Crucially, we need to stop selling off and selling out our labour because of guilt towards other sectors which are not privileged to do tasks they enjoy. Such morally patronising arguments are anathema to the principles of empirically-based, theoretically-open and critically-bounded research on which universities were founded. If we refuse to objectively analyse our own work, how can we claim to produce original and socially-useful knowledge about other people’s work?

We are labourers, and unless we are in complete control of the way we give our labour for free, the surrender and sell-out to managerial neoliberal policies in the name of vocation is an offence to the inner and only respectable vocation: the one that compels all members of society, regardless of their status, profession or place of birth, to learn and teach about their social environment in a way that respects basic rights to live and work – and hopefully, spend more time living than working.

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[1] McGettigan, A. (2013). The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press; Collini, S. (2012) What Are Universities For? London: Penguin; Brown, R. with Helen Carasso (2013) Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education, London: Routledge; Jefferys, S. (May 2012) ‘Shared business services outsourcing: Progress at work or work in progress?’ WLRI Working Paper 11; Martell, L. (2013) ‘The marketisation of our universities’, Shifting Grounds (

[2] Conduct refers to strategies, mentalities and behaviours of obedience and order, or ‘forms of power that do not exercise [political] sovereignty and do not exploit [economically]’ (Foucault, M. (2007). Security, Territory, Population. St Martins Press, p.266). Conduct is instead concerned with the ‘task of conducting men in their life and daily existence’ (ibid, p.267). It identifies the ‘instruments’ of conduct (the ‘methods that allow one to direct them’), and conduct as ‘target’  (‘the way in which they conduct themselves, or behave’) (ibid, p.259).  Such strategies, mentalities and behaviours simultaneously specify acts of conducting (others) on the one hand, and self-conduct, the way one conducts oneself, on the other.

[3] Pal, M. & Nisancioglu, K. ‘Occupy Sussex: Beyond Counter-Conduct?’ Unpublished paper, Presented at CAIT workshop at University of Sussex, September 2013

[4] Foucault, M. (2007) Security, Territory, Population. St Martins Press, p.265


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