Even Francis Bacon Supports Strike Action – and he’s dead

Students support strikeToday and tomorrow (May 25-26 2016) university teachers and lecturers are going on strike. The issue is about unequal pay conditions, casualisation of contracts, tuition fees and marketisation of education (especially in regards to the recent White Paper). Nina Power sums this up better that I ever can – read it.

Despite the levity evoked by my title, this is a serious matter that is reflected in well-being of students. A clear increase in students’ mental health issues is marked in 4 out of 5 universities in the UK. From the Times Higher Ed article:

Shelly Asquith, the National Union of Students’ vice-president (welfare), said that student mental health was “in crisis” and that support services were “creaking at the seams”. “Students are experiencing increasing pressure in a more marketised environment, with high fees and a culture of competition over cooperation; this is leading to stress, anxiety and other mental health problems,” Ms Asquith said.

It is not a coincidence that these students are taught and marked by underpaid and overworked people, too often on a short term contract. A friend of mine teaching at Birkbeck said that his approximate hourly wage is £4 – very little is left after the London rent. [Edit: See also this piece on teaching pressures.] If the mental health of students are affected by this vicious environment so must be the people teaching them; but they might be in a situation, particularly with casualised contracts, where they cannot afford to seek help. Adding to this is the pressure of research scrutiny framework soon to be joined with the addition of teaching scrutiny. (Along with everything else, the biopolitics of the Home Office extend to the classroom.)

For the little support this can provide I have conscripted the aid of the very dead Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon (perhaps against his will, who knows or cares?), whose great intellectual project was the reformation of knowledge. He writes:

In the traditions and organisation of Academies, Colleges, and other institutions designed as seats of learning and for the interchange of ideas, everything inimical to the progress of the sciences is to be found. Far the greater number of persons there are concerned primarily with lecturing and in the next place with making a living; and the lectures and other exercises are so managed that the last thing anyone would be likely to entertain is an unfamiliar thought.

These words bear an uncanny weight in the light of our concerns. The bare life of the lecturer makes the primary and the secondary almost interchangeable. Research is parenthetical here: it is a necessity in modern academic life for any advancement beyond casualised contracts but the actual possibility to do it is a privilege afforded to few. ‘Making a living’ by lecturing, teaching, grading is marked by fact that anyone is expendable – they can be replaced at any time by a hungrier academic.

The ‘management’ of ‘lectures and other exercises’ in its modern guise is beyond the ken of Bacon; but the effects of this managing totality are eerily similar: ‘unfamiliar thoughts’ cannot be afforded in this economy. Moreover, these ‘unfamiliar thoughts’ can be considered dangerous:

Anyone who allows himself freedom of enquiry or independence of judgment promptly finds himself isolated. If he survives this, when he comes to choose a career in the world he finds his enthusiasm and non-conformity a great obstacle. For in these places studies are confined to the works of certain authorities; a man who disagrees with them or raises awkward is censured as a disturbing and revolutionary influence.

It is perhaps cynical to say this applies to modern academia and most academics would probably like to disagree. Nevertheless, the message of austerity reads between the lines: “Freedom of thought is something that we cannot afford now.” The bare life of the academic rarely can afford this freedom neither in the classroom or in their own work. Deadlines and other pressures even limit the mind – with the body – to bare survival. Bacon could afford the distinction between science/the arts and politics. We have no such luxury. Yet he gives us this:

The conclusion: in actual life the educational policy and administration now in vogue crushes and checks the development and propagation of the sciences.

Science, for Bacon, should enhance and better the life of all humankind. Enhancement and betterment is something fewer people have access to than we would like to admit.

The politics of austerity will not give anything away for free. It must be fought for. At stake is not a mere privilege that should be afforded by the wealthy or the wages of some already privileged academics (as some might be led to believe) or even just the advancement and betterment our whole society; no, the immediate stakes are the survival and health of everyone at teaching and being taught at university. That is the bottleneck that the rest depends on.

People are on strike because something must be done. In this case doing something is better than nothing and it is one of the few times when I would agree with Lear’s sentiment: ‘Nothing will come of nothing’.

Support UCU strike

This is a Thinking Through Shakespeare blog post. Please comment and give the writer feedback.

About Timo Uotinen

Timo Uotinen is a Finnish PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London working on Shakespeare and philosophy - more specifically on Baconian philosophy, Shakespearean tragedy, and ethics.
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