On Lecture Strikes and Academia
A Conversation with Joshua Forstenzer
20th March 2022
Joshua Forstenzer is an American-born French academic specialising in education, political thought, and American pragmatism. He joined the University of Sheffield in 2003 as a student, was the President of the Students’ Union at the University of Sheffield in 2010-11, and is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Sheffield. He is the author of ‘Deweyan Experimentalism and the Problem of Method in Political Philosophy.’
How have things been amongst university staff?
The strikes this semester have been a difficult time for most colleagues. I don't think many people expected that the employers would ignore us this much and for so long. The UUK (Universities UK, i.e. the university employers’ association) have responded to the strikes with nothing but denigrating comments, which just adds insult to injury because no one really wants to be on strike. We would rather not have to ask ourselves, ‘Why is it the case that when I work really hard, somehow they take from me but employers don’t give back?’ That creates a difficult environment for a lot of people to work in.
Has there been any progress?
None at all?
None at all. The UUK have said something quite outrageous when UCU said that they were going to have a new round of strikes. I think the phrase was that our union has ‘an ideological fixation with strikes’. And that feels very insulting because striking is our only means to express the fact that we don’t agree with what they're doing. With pensions, the valuation they're using to say that there's a need to cut the pension was conducted in March 2020 when all the stock markets tanked because of COVID and no reasonable person can think it is reflective of the real value of the pension. In fact, the pension itself estimates that it has much more money now than then… So, insisting on unnecessary cuts is just irrational, baffling, and probably ideologically motivated.
What kind of pension reduction are we talking about?
It changes dramatically depending on where you are in your career progression. The closer you are to starting an academic career the more damaging to your pension. And I think this is probably done on purpose to cut support for strikes among the more senior colleagues whose pensions are still okay. For someone like me, the UCU have produced a model and it’s a net reduction of 40%. My pension was going to be over 19k a year if I retired at 66, and according to the UCU pension calculator it’s now around 12K a year if I retire at the same age.
How does this compare to how it was 10 years ago?
Well, just a bit longer than 10 years ago, academics at Russell Group institutions were on a final salary pension scheme, much like the ones teachers and civil servants have. Had that still been in place, someone like me could have expected to retire on something like 27k a year at 66.
So it’s just decreasing more and more?
It’s dramatic, that’s right. For people who are fairly close to retiring, they’ve had many years on the final salary version of the pension scheme, and then a long while on the career average version, and so their pensions will be less affected by these latest cuts. For people closer to retirement, the reduction will be five or ten percent. It is much worse for younger academics. Now, I am no expert in pensions, but I’ve seen some estimates say that those who are starting off as academics now will ultimately take out of the pension less than what they have contributed personally. Every year we contribute around 9% of our salary towards the pension and employers put in around 21%. But the estimates I saw said that new academics will never benefit from all of the amount they‘ve put in and won’t get anything from what the employers have put in. It’s wild!
So, in essence, they’re being robbed?
That’s a phrase that’s been used. Right now, what I have to contemplate is that UBER driving may have to be a my plan to supplement my pension in old age, assuming that I can even make it to retirement at 66. God forbid health gets in the way!
What kind of message do you think this is sending to academics, and who’s sending it?
Unfortunately, my sense is that it could be the result of unthinking reflexes, rather than a conscious message from employers. My best guess is that employers at the moment see themselves as wanting to act in accordance with often unstated government wishes. The government is not too happy with universities and academics in general as they see them as a part of the “culture war”, as the “other side”, rightly or wrongly. The government sees academics as one of the cultural enemies to the project of “Brexit and beyond”, as I sometimes call it. And they don’t like unions either. It may also be that employers are trying to diminish the power of the academics and university staff’s union (UCU). UCU was able to fight off one attack on our pensions in 2018 and then has stopped a number of redundancies in specific universities since then. So maybe the employers have decided to show who’s boss. Either way, this is a ridiculous time for employers to be doing this, because we worked so very hard during the pandemic to keep things running and looking after students through all sorts of scary situations. But also, many Russel Group Universities have made enormous surpluses during the pandemic. Sheffield’s surplus last year was of £45 million and the year before it was £20 million.
Is that a result of covid, do you think?
Yes, to some extent, but there’s also a demographic shift which has boosted UK demand for undergraduate study. Covid has lifted postgraduate taught recruitment last year. So, I suspect that it’s true - many people in the face of covid thought ‘it’s not a great time to enter the job market, so I’ll do a master's first”. What is worrying, however, is that in our own university there was a 15% cut in all budgets across the board in 2020-21 out of a fear of lack of student demand; but in fact we over recruited. So in effect what it meant was that we had to teach more students with less resources. In addition, during the depths of lock downs, students had heightened mental health needs that we, as academics and student support staff, addressed as best we could. This past semester when we returned to in-person, students also had a whole new set of needs and problems, where the University didn’t seem to have the systems in as good a condition to respond to these needs as they had previously. The cuts must have had an effect. So, in the last two years, we’ve had a larger number of students with greater needs and the same amount of teaching staff now in worse conditions and with less institutional support in the background… And this is the time when they decide to cut our pensions by as much as 40%! This pension cut really feels denigrating after we worked extra hard to look after students in the pandemic… It is hurtful and insulting. Not quite the ‘thank you for going above and beyond in this period of hardship’ one might have hoped for…
What do you think is going to happen?
In the immediate, more strikes. It is going to get worse before it gets better. Academics have to fight, for personal and collective reasons. The reason I’m worried personally is I don’t really fancy retiring at 66 and driving an Uber around. And I had always thought that my job, which required about eight years of higher education and prolonged periods of instability to get, would pay enough for me to retire with some degree of dignity. But on a systemic level I think that we have to worry about the degradation of the research-intensive universities of the UK because at some point it will become extremely attractive for the most talented academics to leave. Younger academics with promise will end up only taking a job at a UK research institution for a short while and leave to go to an institution in a country where they have a better pay and pension package - the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, and the United States will all give the UK system some serious competition. If this happens, then UUK will have taken a university system which was once the envy of Europe, and arguably of much of the world, and made it into an unattractive environment for top researchers to carry out their careers. Then you have to wonder: ‘Why would they do that? Why would they even risk this happening?’
Is there any advantage to that at all?
It has been expressed to me that an implicit long-term vision of UK HE (although I think it’s a catastrophic one, if it’s true) is to adopt a power-law model in which they reward massively a small group of ‘star academics’ at the top whilst everyone else gets paid at bottom dollar. If that’s true I think that would be the end of something very precious, because very few British universities have the money to compete for the very top academics. Much of the success of UK HE is that the system as a whole produces world class research and world class learning opportunities. Other than Oxbridge, I can’t see any other UK institution competing with the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and MIT for talent. So, all in all, I suspect there’s just a lack of vision in higher education leadership at the moment in the UK. So I think there's a sense of bemusement. They ask ‘What should we do?’ And in the absence of a better reply, they answer: ‘Well, let’s just save as much money as possible.’ And this simply doesn’t create good conditions for academics to flourish in and therefore it generates worse conditions for students to learn in. The nature of higher education is that it is a communal endeavour, a thinking, caring, fine-tuned relationship between academics, students, and professional staff. What we currently have on offer instead is a model of higher education that’s managerialist, and where a lot of styles and fads are being transported unthinkingly over from the business sector. For example, I’ve heard of phrases such as “spend per student” and “profit per student” being used in certain leadership spheres in UK higher education, which I find very shocking and depressing given that UK universities are overwhelmingly charitable institutions obligated by law to dedicate their money to support student learning and academic research.
It’s the lack of objective then?
Exactly. Or better put, it’s the leadership’s shallow mammonism (worship of money above all else) that guts the core commitments of universities.
What are the implications of the marketization of education?
I think they’re devastating. We’re seeing the victory of an unthinking market fetish and I think unfortunately it’s short-termist and self-defeating and it can only lead to a worse educational context for students. It’s basically undermining what universities are for – which is the pursuit and transmission of truths. The marketization of higher education models itself on big business, assumes that if you can reduce the costs of things whilst keeping some kind of external veneer of ‘quality’ then that’s it, “Job done!”
Essentially they’re treating it like a business, trying to streamline it?
Yeah, and what’s fascinating is they sell this whole strategy as being for “the sake of the student experience,” but it’s not as if universities have been spending more money on students. In fact, my sense is that the student-facing spend per student is dropping in most Russell Group institutions, and the Higher Education Policy Institute’s reports show that student perceptions of “value for money” have eroded since the introduction of 9k fees.
Is that in your view a false excuse to justify the cuts?
I think so. I think it is a shallow attempt to pacify the public, make it sound like academics are against students. It’s the language of government, it’s the language people want to hear. But I think it’s little more than bullshit. We have a track record to look at now. It was in the 2010 Browne Report, which recommended the marketization of higher education and the lifting of the cap on fees to 9k per year. That language was disingenuous then and I think it’s clear by now that it is bullshit – in the technical sense, of being meaningless speech. But lately I’ve even been wondering whether it comes from a place of mal-intent whereby there's a belief that you can get world-class education on the cheap – with little direct government support – and that it’s all just a matter of accreditation. What this worldview asserts is that it’s not actually about real learning in the end, it’s about having a good time when you’re at university then getting a piece of paper that said you went there, and ideally a high paying job when you leave to pay back the loans. I think that it’s an untenable educational project. I think it has no future in the end. But it can limp on for a very long time, undermining faith in knowledge, expertise and educators along the way. I think it's not incidental that British society seems to have less faith in basic standards of truth and epistemic responsibility than before, because I think that marketization invites the thought: ‘If it’s all for sale, then why trust academics or universities any more than salespeople or big companies? They are all just trying to make a buck in the end!’ This is dangerous and inaccurate.
Would an example of that be covid or vaccine sceptics?
Yeah, I think those are good examples of distrust. The same with climate research. There's overwhelming difficulty for people to accept that the facts are the facts when experts present them clearly. The IPCC reports in particular are damning documents that the majority of people studiedly ignore. If people knew that IPCC reports are actually already watered down versions of the science – insofar as the scientists are having to soften their language because the UN member states are asking them to say what they have to say in more diplomatic terms, even when alarm is warranted – I think more people would be scared for their future. But climate change is impacting all of these and it will only get worse if we do not act on the science. At the moment, UK universities are not helping the world understand the value of academic knowledge, because they’re devaluing their academics very publicly. It does not help the cause of public trust in expertise to cut support for those who embody expertise in the public sphere.
Do you think the mistrust in academics is worsening? That it is very different to what it was a few decades ago?
Yes. My experience in UK higher education goes back to 2003 as a student. The first time I lectured was in 2009, I finished my PhD in 2013 and started my role as an academic in 2015. At each of these steps I have seen serious changes that basically imply that people have less faith in academics. And things got a whole lot worse in 2016 with Brexit and then again since 2020 with Covid.
In terms of internal management in the university, the degradation of academic conditons also match this trend. Whoever does direct research is pushed to tick more and more boxes at the behest of those who really run the show in universities but who you, as a student, will never really see. Some of these managers used to do research and teach, but other managers come from the private sector.
What would you say to students who are fed up with the situation?
First, I’d say that I’m really sorry. Because it’s terrible that they’re having to go through this, and if we had any other option but to strike, we would take it. It’s that simple. I don’t even think the union is hoping for the employers to agree with us on everything - if they met us halfway, I suspect there’d be a deal tomorrow and the strikes would end. Call me naïve if you like. But that’s what I believe.
So, it’s on the university managers?
Yes. In November 2021, UCU estimated that there had been a 20% reduction in real term academic wages since 2009. But in light of new inflation figures, there was a new estimate that said it was 25.5%, since 2009, because inflation is so high right now. But if pay was only one of the strike issues arising at a time it would be big enough. From casualisation, from the racial pay gap to the gender pay gap, to the salaries not tracking with inflation, and the pension cut – every one of these issues is a major issue on its own. The fact that these issues are all left to fester for over a decade is unforgivable. I worry that that’s not at all what’s being communicated by our current Vice Chancellor himself to the university community or to the public; personally, I’ve heard nothing from him about his views on pensions or pay disparity to reassure me that he has a vision for a new settlement that would respect students and staff.
Do you think he is deliberately avoiding speaking about it?
I think you’d have to ask him that.
But it’s creating systematic issues, it isn’t just surface level, is it?
Correct. No, it’s not just surface level. I would say this to students: the future value of your diploma depends on the fact that this institution does not become a junk institution. And that’s true from the day you graduate for the rest of your life. If your university becomes a place of study which people find laughable or unworthy of serious consideration, unfortunately that’ll follow you. We are fighting to make sure this does not happen to you. But given the context in which we are, there’s very little other options for academics to register their protest than through strikes. Union laws in Britain are very limiting. But for you, as students, there are more options to act, and if you see the future of higher education and the value of your degree as being what’s at stake, it becomes more obvious that directly registering discontent with the administration, with government officials, MPs, local councillors, anyone who is involved in leadership anywhere, can have an effect on the decision makers of the university, because really they are the ones gambling with your future and that’s actually one of the fundamental reasons why I am striking. I believe in the value of what we do at world class UK universities, and I am sure that the current actions taken by management will diminish this.
I think people perceive it as the lecturers acting in their own interests
It’s very frustrating.
It’s a problem that seems split between lectures and students, whereas this is just as much a concern for students.
The best analogy I can think of is that of a parasite that has taken over the university and that this parasite is turning two systems within the university against one another – turning students against academics. In fact, the parasite is the only net beneficiary of that conflict between staff and students. That parasite happens to be, in my opinion, a new class of managers in universities across the country who are giving up protecting the good work done by staff and students for the sake of bolstering their own power and, likely, pay. I truly wish that they would engage constructively in a dialogue about the future of higher education with staff and students instead of just making decisions and trying to impose them on everyone else.
So we need more dialogue in between?
Absolutely. And with students this is fundamental, this is about a very rapidly changing world where there’s tremendous threats. I think that if you witnessed the analogue of how managers are treating staff and students in a personal relationship, you’d think it was an abusive one, you would think that the stronger party – i.e. managers – is abusing the weaker ones – i.e. staff and students. And that is the experience that many academics and students have, I think, that this is an abusive relationship that only benefits a tiny minority at the expense of a huge majority. It’s just wrong.
Do you think that the government is to blame?
Yes, partially. Unfortunately, I think that the current Conservative government has next to nothing valuable to contribute to education policy. Since the Blair years there seems to be this articulation of universities as the answer to ‘What should I do with my life?’ for young people. Now, I don’t think that university is the answer to that question for everyone. But the current government’s approach seems to be that it should wreck universities for the sake of getting young people to do other things than undergraduate studies rather than really invest in alternative forms of tertiary education. This is a shame.
With the recent plan of the government to cut student loans from those who don’t achieve a five in English or Maths in GCSEs, what do you think the consequences of that could be for the future of academia?
Well, first I think it’s obviously a stupid policy. Your grades at GCSE aren’t predictive of your overall future intellectual capacities. If we are to draw the line anywhere, GCSE is not the right place to put a bar on future study. People are too young at that stage to make their results have lifelong impacts. I also think it’s an unhelpfully punitive approach to guiding behaviour. That’s one of the things I see a lot with this government, that when they don’t like something they look for simple mechanisms to punish a group of people or institutions that do that thing rather than thinking of a way to incentivise more of the behaviour they actually hope to see. And unfortunately, I see that tactic mimicked in university management – in both cases, we have a growing stick and a shrinking carrot.
It seems that we students and lecturers have more in common, and that they’re both being fucked over by management. How do you suggest that alienated students and academics can work together to fight these negative changes?
Students have the loudest voice, certainly the louder one compared to academics, and that’s part of the reality of numbers and the reality of marketisation. If students have faith in the interactions they’ve had with academics, then they need to advocate for the value of academics being treated with respect. A targeted approach towards university leadership is often strategically beneficial, particularly in sending letters saying that ‘we as a group of students are concerned and upset about an important situation’, because university managers seem to be absent from the negotiating table in the present disputes. They’re just not there. They are not talking to our union or altering their proposals. They are just trying to force compliance through fear and indifference. What that means is that they’re the ones who have really given up on finding a solution. If students can see that we genuinely have done the best we could under extremely difficult circumstances during the pandemic to support them, just like students have to continue studying, this can be seen as a testament to the fact that we have held each other up, that we have done what we could to find a way through a terrible time, where people have lost loved ones and worked in much worse conditions than normal, maybe then students can see that the minimum for us would be to not take a slap in the face on the other end of the pandemic. But managers seem to be offering only a series of slaps combined with some ‘well-being’ seminars. In my experience, one of the radical ways to breaks with marketisation is public expressions of gratitude to people and staff who have made a lasting impact on our lives. It is really moving to see what students say about their teachers and I wish there more of these things were seen by the wider public. The human ways in which academics impact on the lives of their students for the better seem to go unnoticed. So students can come to protests, picket lines, do what they think is useful, and highlight the good. I really think that we need to reshape what people think academics are up to. I see it in UK TV shows sometimes where academics are put in these beautiful offices with mahogany shelves and Georgian windows…
Oxbridge style buildings, armchairs…
That’s right. Not in basic offices with second hand chairs, chipping paint, hundreds of emails to answer, and no time for lunch. Academics on TV look as though they’re just hanging around, thinking, having a good time. For us, honestly, during term time, it’s very difficult to do more than answer emails, prepare for teaching, give lectures and seminars, and answer emails again – that’s what most days in term time look like. People also think we have all these vacations in the summer. But in fact, most academics I know never get to take their five weeks of paid annual leave, because the Easter break and summer is when you get to do your research.
So not much pipe smoking with a hard-back in a lounge jacket?
No. But it’s even worse than that! One thing that’s outrageous is that the way the structure of the university is going means that if your job is to research by reading, there is less and less time to read, because they think that research should be externally funded and that makes some sense in some fields – maybe in sciences, engineering, or some social sciences…
But they apply it to everything…
Yes. And in philosophy that’s obviously nonsense. The main thing that we do is read and write.
Not many machines…
No, there’s not a lot of funding externally for having time to go and sit on a bench and read a book, which is often what I need to be able to do to write the thing I’m meant to write or teach the things I’m meant to teach. Students can see the difference when an academic knows what they’re talking about and when they kind-of-know…
Yes, you can tell that as a student…
Maybe it’s not picked up by the NSS (National Student Survey), right. And many universities say ‘the NSS is the answer’ to know whether or not students are satisfied, and that’s it. But satisfaction is the wrong measure of learning - the right measure is student engagement to see if students are truly brought into the experience of learning something new. If they are engaged, they will learn. Satisfaction is largely irrelevant to learning. I can feel satisfied without having to learn anything at all, and vice versa – deep learning can be painful.
And that functions in all levels of education, true learning is often ignored. NSS isn’t in the classrooms or lecture halls…
That’s right. Each level of education has its own measures of supposed ‘success’, but these attempts to come up with these metrics are not expressive of the desire to capture the real human experience of learning. I think even marking is not that expressive of real learning. I know this can sound a bit wild, especially in Britain where people love marking and rankings. But I think that marking is often taken too seriously by students, because they look at the grade and pay much less attention to the comments and to the discussions, and that’s unhelpful because real learning comes much more in the dialogue between the reader who is telling you what they think than in the final grade you get. We live in a world where we really want to believe that complex things can be collapsed into quasi-algorithmic numerical entities, and I think it’s wrong-headed. There simply are many things in life that cannot be and shouldn’t be reduced to numbers, and education – along with friendship, love, grief, and joy – is one of them. We need less numbers and more authentic dialogue.
Is this numbers focus a reflection of that marketised thinking?
I think that’s right. People think of the accreditation as an end in itself, of getting the diploma at the end and they say, ‘that’s what I got from my three years!’. Now, I understand that’s what will help you get jobs, but it isn’t what you got. What you got was three years of being around people who have spent their lives thinking about the things you think and talk about on your course, three years with people trying to induct you into the conversation of human kind with itself. And that’s what academics are, we are not service providers. Being an academic is not something we switch on or off. We care, we are committed, we keep doing it regardless of whether we are paid to do it or not. And frankly, I worry that this sense of dedication is what our managers keep taking advantage of… We don’t know how to put down the tools, so we need a strike to try to use the tools for a different purpose – to lift minds and to teach our students that it is right to stand up for one’s community, for one’s rights, and for what one believes in. That too is an important lesson.
What is your vision for what education should be – away from the management and money?
Education is about fostering growthful human relationships within mutually supportive communities of learning. Education should be continually available to us from the youngest age and until we die. Education should be open to whoever wants to learn anything. Fundamentally I think we have to shift our perspective as a culture and in fact as a civilisation to be one where we recognise that people have immense capabilities, and tremendous potential – not all of which will result in a pay check – and that they are all worthy of serious developmental efforts.
Do you think that’s compatible with capitalism?
I think it’s compatible with a certain type of mixed-market capitalism because I think some Scandinavian countries come very close to accomplishing these things. The Finnish model of state education is very impressive. And they have a process where students make active choices about what they want to learn along the way from a young age. The teachers are available, well paid, and respected, they have a lot of control over what happens in the classroom, and students themselves are co-creators of the learning environment. So it’s possible to get closer to the ideal within less unequal capitalist societies… More generally, I don’t have much of a hope of knowing what the grand alternative to capitalism actually is, but I think that capitalism as we know it is doomed. I think that the climate crisis alone spells the end of certainly Anglo-American ‘compete-till-you-drop’ capitalism. We have no choice but to rethink what ‘private property’ and what ‘success’ mean if we want to survive the climate crisis, and part of that is having a much greater space for developing the commons - both in terms of literal common property but also in terms of understanding that culture is our common heritage. The culture we create and participate in is a constantly evolving commons which we all benefit from. Education – and university education, in particular – contributes to sustaining and enriching culture. That is why it is worth fighting to preserve it.
That makes sense…
I definitely feel that way. I think that having enough money to be able to stably live and design the life you want to live is one thing, but actually having a deep sense of who you are and acting congruently on the basis of that should be how we view ‘success’ in human life.
And that’s what academics are asking for?
That’s right. We are asking to be able to work within conditions that allow us to act out of concern for the truth, for our students, for learning, and for our scholarly communities without having to worry about continual burn-out and poverty in old age.
You’re not asking to be millionaires
No, nobody goes into academia to get rich.
It seems ridiculous that academics who are experts in their fields, are not in these managerial positions, do you see that changing in the future?
It is a complicated one. Some managers come from the academic community, originally, but others do not.
That’s again like the business model; you don’t have to be qualified for positions of power over fields of expertise.
There’s been a big shift in the last ten years. Before, Vice-Chancellors were often people who had had major academic careers, were eminent in their field, and became managers as a late career service to the university. In the last decade, I think we’ve seen a real shift whereby academics who got midway into their career, but before really making a major academic mark, started becoming managers. And I think that’s part of why we’re seeing this fragmentation between managers and academics, because there is less of a commitment to the intrinsic values of scholarship and research and teaching within this generation of managers. University managers have come to think like managers in a private company, that is that they think oppositionaly – us (the bosses) vs. them (the staff) – as opposed to seeing themselves as stewards of a common community, responsible for keeping the flame of knowledge alive for generations to come. Their horizon seems to be the financial year or maybe the strategic plan period, not the next fifty or one hundred years. They think more in terms of carrot and stick than in terms of dedication and service. Oddly enough though, they don’t mention that in universities there’s not a whole lot of carrot, there are more and more sticks though, making life difficult for academics who just want to get on with teaching and research. Carrots in the private sector are often outright bonuses. Weirdly enough, there was an introduction of something like bonuses at Sheffield University, but the amounts were not like in the private sector: the max bonus that was given was seventy-five pounds, I think.
A book voucher.
Yes, enough to buy an academic book. If you’re going to think in terms of the private sector and carrots, bonuses are often in the thousands... In the context of erosion of real-terms of pay and pension cuts, the bonuses introduced did not come across as a real reward. I’d rather they kept the bonuses and instead made our salaries keep up with inflation and stopped messing with our pensions. It’s not complicated.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have multiple projects. I won this knowledge exchange and impact grant to do work with two organisations, one called Union of Justice, focused on climate justice, which is run by Magid Magid, the ex-Lord Mayor of Sheffield and a former MEP, and one called Synergie Family which is an educational charity that works with kids from the northern neighbourhoods of Marseille. I’m also working on a book in the background, which is on the nature of catastrophe and how education needs to change based on people’s experiences of catastrophe.
Thank you. I’m excited about it. And then I have a couple of papers I’m working on as well that are on the history of American pragmatism. One’s on W.E.B. Du Bois, and one’s on Josiah Royce.
We’ll have to do a book review.
Oh, wow! That’s very kind. I have to say, my ‘catastrophe’ book will take me several years, I think, because the more I dig, the more I find interesting things. I’m interested in the nature of emotions that are related to people’s experience of catastrophe, specifically grief, shock, and survivor’s guilt. To me, those are kind of the most interesting emotions that are pervasive in the testimonies of survivors.
That sounds like very practical research, and something that’s going to be very important for the world in the coming years.
Plausibly, yes. But I’d rather it wasn’t! It would be really nice if we could avert further catastrophes. Still, from another perspective, most of the history of humanity has been one in which the threat of catastrophes has never been very far away, and I think it’s been a lucky eighty years or so, maybe since World War Two, where we’ve come to believe that catastrophe wasn’t very likely to hit rich Western democracies on a civilizational scale. And now what we’re seeing with the war in Ukraine and Russia’s invasion is the realisation that anything could happen anywhere, really…
So quickly, as well.
Yeah, very quickly. We have tremendous destructive forces, both in their military form, but also in their economic form, since our economic system is driving the climate crisis. So, we have to contend with tremendous forces of destruction, and if we’re not trying to be aware of that, then we are very much at the mercy of their effects. And how do we do that without being hateful, or retrenching, building walls, or saying ‘well, I’ll just figure out how I can personally survive in this world’? That’s what I’m interested in.
Fighting destruction as a response to catastrophe…
Yes, exactly. Unfortunately, it seems all too natural. So I am looking at how we find a way to build something we want to be a part of, in the face of tremendous threat, and very clear socio-political retrenchment. We are seeing in the past decade a real push in many, many advanced democracies, of a certain xenophobic strain, a certain sense of despair, that pushes towards nativist and selfish thinking of the kind: ‘me first, me and people like me first’. But I fundamentally believe in salvation via building up the collective. And yet somehow the collective hope is not heard as much. People are much more sceptical of that these days. That’s a big difference with how things were not long ago. Ten years ago, in the UK higher education sector, I think no one doubted that when people said ‘look, we believe in a different form of higher education from marketized instrumentalism’, as academics or as students, many people in the general public thought ‘okay, fair enough, education is not a business’. And very people said to students ‘Oh! you people are just selfish, you just don’t want to pay’. Or to academics ‘Oh! You all are just lazy and useless’. And they were right. In 2010 students and academics said ‘No, we don’t believe higher education should be marketised’ and though the government did not listen much of the public agreed with us.
Whereas now, you kind of expect a different response.
Yes. Most people don’t believe us anymore. The ideology of the market, of competition, has become so dominant that very few people really stop to wonder whether education works at its best when it is treated as a commodity.
We’re looking forward to seeing all your projects coming to fruition!
Me too! Sometimes I have to take a breather and forget about all of this immediate fight and take the long view. I am glad I have philosophy to help me with that. It always brings me back to the big questions. But so do my conversations with my students. So, thank you very much for this opportunity!