Statement about the University of Exeter’s proposed new policy on online learning material
Educators have been stretched to breaking point during the pandemic. They were forced to rapidly adapt to online teaching with little advance notice due to repeated political and administrative mistakes. And all this while they have simultaneously contended with unsafe working conditions and the stress of threatened and actual redundancies.
As a thank you for all this hard work, the University of Exeter has put forward a new policy on Digital Learning Resources which would allow them to use all pre-recorded material in perpetuity. This would have profoundly disturbing consequences for educators, and may be a grim omen of changes to come across Higher Education in the post-COVID world. The University and College Union (UCU), which represents educators across campuses in Further and Higher Education, will dispute this policy.
Why this is so serious
At first glance, this proposed position for audio and video material might not seem that different from the existing and accepted position on printed material. However, it represents a very serious departure.
Audio and video material is eminently scalable: it can be broadcast without limit to a fee-paying, worldwide audience. The potential for generating revenue is enormous. This would not necessarily be a bad thing if the benefits from this change go to the workers, the students and the wider community. For example, recording lectures makes learning more accessible and gives students the opportunity to review previous material. Moreover, rolling lectures over onto new academic terms could free up educators’ time to focus on working directly with individual students’ learning. However, recent history has shown that management across Higher Education cannot be trusted to consider anything beyond the bottom line. This is illustrated by the recent threat from the University of Sheffield’s management to reduce costs by closing their archaeology department, which is doing vital cultural work of global significance.
The adverse impact on labour would be unprecedented. Educators’ positions in Higher Education are increasingly precarious. This has seriously harmful effects on their mental health and long-term financial prospects, and contributes to an aggressive workplace culture where bullying and harassment have been normalised. With the introduction of this new policy, university administrators could decide to downsize the teaching staff, thus deepening their precarious existence. It would also impact their ability to organise; if educators went on strike, their digitally recorded spectres could effectively function as strikebreakers.
The UCU will likely succeed in their dispute. The university has sole copyright over teaching material, however educators also possess “Performers’ Rights” which prohibits their employer from using this material without their consent. To carry out this policy all educators would therefore have to relinquish these Intellectual Property rights, which would involve renegotiating future teaching contracts. This makes the university’s position on this issue uniquely weak, and so the UCU is in an unusually strong position to make a challenge.
This individual case will likely be resolved in favour of the workers, but it continues a worrying trend in education (and across the whole of society). As new technologies enter the workplace, the opportunities for de-skilling increase, especially when combined with the increased commodification of public services such as education.
The unusually weak position of the university administration in this case raises the question of how they thought they could get away with such brazen policy. Clearly it’s a sign that the decision-makers are completely detached from their workers, which ties into the wider trend of technological de-skilling across society; more worker power is needed to reverse this trend.
Response of unions
While the UCU is in an unusually strong position to challenge this particular policy, it has shown itself to be incapable of curbing the commodification of Higher Education in the last decade. The sector has become increasingly extractive with tuition fees leaving millions of students with unrepayable debt, and a casualised workforce made to compete at every opportunity is driving an epidemic of poor mental health in staff. Meanwhile, the UK government, blind to these issues, is caught in a pathological fixation on internet-driven culture wars.
This extractive system worsens the education delivered and the lives of students and staff alike. Given their obvious shared interest, it makes sense for students and educators to collaborate on these issues. We need to organise large resilient networks to build power and face off the attacks on education; this is why the Education Workers’ Industrial Union advocates for an Industrial Strategy that bypasses traditional divisions. We advocate for a union including all workers, including students and educators alike.
However, students are not at all represented in the UCU. This Digital Learning Policy at the University of Exeter is a missed opportunity for starting such a collaboration. The new online policy would raise many concerns for students, as a push for further remote learning denies them opportunities to engage with fellow students and increases the dependence on online material which can often be out-of-date. Moreover, universities have done nothing in the last decade to suggest that any saved costs will be passed onto students. After a year studying remotely under maximally exploitative conditions, students would surely mobilise against further degradation of their education.
This latest incident highlights how foreboding the future of Higher Education is. For as long as policy is directed by a management that is completely detached from the workers, the corruption of education can only increase.