February 10, 2023 - 7:30am

The toxic combination of identity politics and bureaucratic form-filling have placed universities at the very vanguard of politicised workplaces. But as strike season hobbles on, with 18 strike days this term, serious questions are being asked — even by Lefty academics — about whether the totalising political approach to work might be backfiring. 

Many of my friends are academics employed by UK universities. Some have been fervent strikers in the ongoing dispute between the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and employers over low pay, overwork and a 35% cut to employees’ pensions. On Thursday one such friend, who lectures at Goldsmiths, emailed me frantically. They wanted to alert me to their institution’s new policy of forcing staff — from groundsmen and cleaners to professors — to opt out, not in, of strikes. If they do not plan to strike, they must fill in a form with complicated rules attached for every week in which industrial action is planned. That’s every week bar one, by the way. 

If they don’t, their pay will be docked as if they had not worked at all. The policy change was announced via an email from Goldsmiths’ parodic-sounding ‘Head of People’. “At the start of every week strike action takes place, Goldsmiths will email all colleagues on our payroll with the online form to be completed,” the missive said. “You may opt out before strike action takes place should you wish, however you must opt out no later than three working days after strike action has taken place.” On it goes. 

On the face of it, the strikes have some legitimacy: the pensions cut in particular is troubling, and especially rich coming from institutions regularly criticised for overpaying their vice chancellors and senior management. But in many universities, the strikes have been co-opted by a far-Left agenda that has drifted far away from the original mission. The UCU is strongly anti-Israel, for instance, using its Twitter feed to cheerlead for the Palestinian cause, and to show ‘solidarity’ as fellow strikers. Condemnation for Israeli ‘attacks on children’ (a repetition of the blood libel at its most basic) is posted on official UCU platforms. The expectation of solidarity among striking UCU members with climate strikers is also commonplace, plus a host of other predictable “solidarities” — with Black Lives Matter, the trans rights movement and so on.

Perhaps more people at a place like Goldsmiths are assumed to want to strike than not, making this the easier way to keep track — though it’s hard to imagine university cleaners thumbing their nose at a day’s wage. Still, the end result is one of the most hyper-liberal universities in the land effectively punishing those who do not have time, ability or nous to constantly monitor their institutional email; as anyone who has been on a university email list will know, the volume of administrative emails is so enormous that all but the most careful will certainly miss some.

But maybe the good fight is losing its gleam. At Durham, a lecturer who refuses to participate in the strikes told me that support seems increasingly weak. “Union reps have no interest in resolving any kind of industrial dispute,” he says. “It’s always just about striking, which is why they post happy-clappy ‘Hurray, we’re striking’ posters on social media. For six years every term has seen a strike, sometimes just for a day. What have they got to show for it? Zilch, zero, absolutely nothing. It’s just ludicrous.” 

He goes on, “You don’t solve problems like this with juvenile activists: you need proper employment lawyers […] then you wouldn’t have to pump your fist and show Leninist symbols on a picket line every few weeks.” Of course, fewer and fewer of his colleagues are bothering to do so.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)