Struggle against the Algorithm: A View from the Trenches at Reading University

By Anonymous, 21 September 2020
Image: The University of Reading has spent tens of millions in recent years on its Malaysia campus and on new facilities. Source: Rider Levett Bucknall

The pay and jobs dispute at Reading University is just one battlefield amongst many, linked to a broad pattern of algorithmically and financially-driven managerial power that uses the pandemic as an opportunity. It is not a power worth compromising with, argue the authors. 


In On War, Carl von Clausewitz talks about a certain ‘knowledge of friction’ that contributes to the difficulty of making considered decisions in the battlefield. Against contingent conditions – unknown terrains and enemy positions, unpredictable weather – the theory of war is almost useless. Real analysis of chains of events can only be derived retrospectively, after forces and counter-forces have completed their game of chance. But without a theory, without a concrete understanding of what war can achieve (as an extension of politics), goals are impossible to pursue, and victory is elusive. In other words, when managing a campaign, one has to strive to achieve a balance between intimate, detailed knowledge of the specifics of an event and a detached overview between intuition and hindsight. 

Perhaps these two perspectives always battle it out in any serious attempt to think about the relationship between events and theoretical constructs. Louis Althusser is dismissive of the more story-like and descriptive chapters in Capital where Marx describes in great detail the realities of 19th century work and daily routine. For Althusser, Marx is not analysing these concrete situations, he merely uses them to illustrate his abstract theory of capitalism. For liberal economists, Marx is only a historian of a particular phase of industrial capitalist production and his ideas have little bearing on Capital’s present post-Fordist manifestation. But the stories contained within Capital, meticulous descriptions of forms of labour that do not conform at all to the rigid notion of collective factory work, are what make it more relevant than ever today. The journeyman baker who bakes all night and sells his bread door to door all day, and whose only brief period of sleep arrives when he puts his head down on a sack of flour on a hired shop floor to wait for the dough to rise, is paradigmatic of the itinerant hot-desking freelancer of our times. It is the narrative sections of Capital that turn Marx’s theory more universal and not just historically contingent. The forms of labour that existed, even at the height of the industrial revolution, were always more diverse than an unimaginative reading of Capital accounts for. The stories in Capital are more than the flesh that renders the theoretical bones of the book more ‘real’. They are a demonstration of how economic theories fracture into a million different realities, how lives are lived and lost in the shadow of the cathedral of capital. 

In the higher education sector in the UK today, we find ourselves at one such event, just one burning battlefield amongst many, where workers are fighting against loss of income, but also against the deterioration of the conditions of their employment, against a management with a hat full of dirty tricks, determined to make any form of oppositional organising impossible. Ultimately, this is a battle for the soul of the university to protect it from a government that wants a utilitarian education system to feed the market obedient engineers. In the 1990s, many in academia debated the erosion of critique, the fact that critical thinking and freedom to define one’s own work, reserved until then for artists and philosophers, were becoming desirable qualities for the post-Fordist worker in general. But now, after successive Tory governments, the fuzzy confusion of the New Labour years has evaporated and been replaced with a simple return to Gramsci’s understanding of education in the industrial state: a broad humanistic training for the ruling classes and a specialised, vocational training for the working classes. 

This particular battleground is also a good point to gauge how a broad ideological framework folds into the everyday practice of management and workers. Some of the big narratives of the right – around structures of knowledge and new technologies, productivity and competition, the wisdom of markets, meritocracy and human nature – keep pushing against a chaotic world made of buildings, machines, flows of capital and human bodies to produce an experience so strewn with contradictions that it is often hard to remember whom we are fighting and how we can fight them. Higher education is pivotal in the struggle against neoliberalism because it presents a counter-narrative, offering transformation through education against essentialist ideas about ‘talent’ or the fiction of ‘hard work’. At the same time, it is also a mass organised industry with hundreds of thousands of workers, with deep ties to military and biomedical industries and to government bodies. 

The View from the Trenches

In the face of a stream of data and ‘worrying news’ posted on a mushrooming number of social media pages devoted to particular struggles, it is easy to get bogged down by the detail of these struggles, each one unique but all linked to a broad pattern of managerial power. Exploiting the pandemic as an excuse, universities across the UK have announced far reaching cuts and redundancies while many staff members are away and before students arrive to discover the radical changes being put in place. At the University of Sheffield, management declared a deficit of £100m independent of admissions data. It then served an S188 consultation to unions about firing and rehiring staff, potentially re-engaging them on worse terms, but quickly withdrew the consultation under union pressure and after government lifted the cap on admissions. At the University of Coventry, management has declared that staff need to be available weekdays until 10pm, as well as until 2pm on Saturdays, in light of international students now dialling in from different time-zones.[1] At the University of Kent, 148 full-time jobs are being axed despite the university having raised sufficient funds through voluntary redundancies to address its purported deficit of £60m.[2] Roehampton, UEL, SOAS, Imperial and Liverpool have all announced similar plans for job cuts.[3] Several impressive campaigns, for example at Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art, saw some ground gained in protecting the rights and livelihood of casualised labour.[4] It is also clear that it will be women and black staff who bear the brunt of a proposed restructuring that will increase workload, precarity and loss of autonomy in an already deeply unequal system. But it is the University of Reading that has been the most egregious in its the manipulation of data and brokering agreements with the union in secret over severe and unjustified restructuring.[5]

The University of Reading is not inherently different to many other institutions in an industry defunded by the state and driven towards marketisation through systemic exposure to risk and the encouragement of wild management ‘investment’ plans (property deals, overseas ventures, franchising etc. ) that benefit neither staff nor students. Although Reading was always in a much better position compared with a lot of other institutions because of its significant land portfolio, the university still found itself under financial pressure through mismanagement of funds, corruption and bad investment. Perhaps the most serious was the initiative to open a new franchise campus in Malaysia that continues to incur significant losses year on year. A string of shady dealings with trusts where the university and its representatives act as trustees got the university deeper into trouble with creditors and regulators and exposed the incompetence and dishonest practices of university management. A heavy reliance on external management consultancies has led to a series of disastrous efficiency and cost-saving exercises that have achieved little in terms of efficiency or savings but made life harder for staff and students. A notable example is the Professional and Administrative Services review. This was meant to reduce administrative posts by centralising them in hubs, but in practice it simply increased workloads and eliminated support for students grounded in local departmental knowledge. Here, too, despite good profits, the university invented negative financial figures to justify the cuts. 

Former Reading Vice Chancellor Sir David Bell faced with student protests in 2016. Source: Wikimedia.

A vote of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor in 2016 did little to change the course of Reading’s management, simply replacing him with another member of the university’s executive board. Before this new appointment, the new Vice Chancellor, Robert van de Noort, served as the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Academic Planning and Resources and was highly involved in everything that took place during those years. For a long time, the university has been subject to a creeping privatisation, with services such as student accommodation and on-campus catering now managed by for-profit companies leasing property back to the university. Van de Noort himself was on the board of directors of UPP (University Partnerships Programme), Reading’s accommodation provider, which has a deal with the university requiring a high occupancy of students on penalty of paying for empty rooms. A similar situation plagues the University of Kent and other institutions in the country. This is a not-so-subtle form of wealth extraction from students, where services that were once considered a free common good – to be cared for, housed and fed during your studies – are now a lucrative market. Problems inevitably emerge with this model when so many choose to become distance learners in a pandemic. Like the University of Sheffield, Reading has also issued an S188 consultation letter on firing and rehiring staff at inferior conditions. In the university’s letter to UCU, they similarly threaten to fire and rehire the workforce, a strategy that has been tried recently by the likes of British Gas and British Airways. This is part of what has been described by Unite as ‘a disturbing trend where employers are using the pandemic to shed staff and erode employment conditions’. Like Sheffield, and presumably not by coincidence, it is also indebted to a novel financial instrument requiring a high level of cash flow to avoid incurring early repayment fines.[6] It is this financialisation, rather than a fall in admissions, that is dictating the current policy of putting a tourniquet on operational costs while haemorrhaging money on yet more vanity building projects like the new science building and film studios. 

Since 2016, union members at Reading have participated in wider national campaigns and strikes for pensions and greater equality in the sector and against casualisation and declining pay and conditions. These disputes are still ongoing, and it is clear that their specific targets were chosen almost symbolically, because unions are limited in how they manage strikes and campaigns. Amid increased workloads and declining wages, these campaigns asked important questions, but there is no doubt that a more generalised despair over broader and deeper processes of change introduced by successive right-wing governments is pervasive. Perhaps because of this, and because UCU’s campaigns move at a very slow pace, despite the sacrifices made by staff, much negativity and suspicion towards collective workers’ action exists in many institutions. 

When COVID-19 hit the university sector, it was clearly seen as an opportunity by cynical management to introduce lecture capture regimes and online providers that would further devalue academic work. More importantly, however, it was a chance to implement some more far reaching changes that would push universities in line with the government’s vision, as outlined in the Higher Education White Paper published in 2016: even greater ‘competition’ in the market for education, the reduction of research and the enhancement of quasi-mystical quality assurance procedures such as the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework, desperately and very inadequately trying to quantify research and teaching in bureaucratic terms. The deaths of Dr. Malcolm Anderson at Cardiff University and Prof. Stefan Grimm at Imperial College, both subjected to such unbearable demands that they took their own lives, illustrate the horrific consequences of the drive to impose ‘metrics’ such as grant income targets and work allocation models that underestimate academic tasks. At the University of Reading, these broad historical processes have been translated into a simple message of market survival. Ignoring its pre-existing debts, its history of labour struggles, and increasing casualisation and outsourcing, management informed workers that COVID-19 forced the university to look into making cuts equivalent to 800-900 jobs. It has been insinuated from the beginning that the burden of rescuing the university and jobs will fall on workers in agreeing to all sorts of cuts and changes to employment terms. 

Banner by Reading Between the Lines.

The university’s narrative unravelled rather quickly. But even after it became clear that recruitment for next year is actually rather healthy, and after it turned out that the mathematical formula used to calculate the deficit is flawed, the university held on to its threat of job losses and pay cuts. Its ‘light touch’ review of the calculation simply replaced it with another that hastily identifies scenarios leading to a potential deficit, all equally speculative and misleading, such as a ‘necessary’ increase in employer’s pensions contribution. The numbers magically remained the same as before. This isn’t just about the pettiness of a management who, in the same spirit of the factory owner in Capital who winds back the clocks fifteen minutes to draw a little bit more labour time, do not find it too distasteful to lie through their teeth to get what they want from workers. This conduct also illustrates perfectly what it means to live under the ‘borrowed time’ of capitalism. The fact that a (flawed) algorithmic projection can determine work conditions in a university is simply another facet of a model of power that is based entirely on speculation. This is a model of power that treats humans as flows of data in a world where higher education – and, increasingly, health – are financed through personal debt, where an ASBO is given for a crime not yet committed, where people are ‘preventively’ tracked through a long immigration process before they even hit the shores of Europe, where the government’s health policy is dictated by models of statistical probability. 

Collapsing Lines of Defence

Acts of unity emerge where humans-cum-data-flows come together to put demands forward. In pre-COVID London, parliament square roundabout was occasionally occupied by a swarm of angry delivery bikers, circling around until dispersed by police in a jolly symphony of horns. Some activists and trade unions have worked tirelessly to redefine what protection they can offer to casualised workers, bodies that are dispersed in space and time, organised in a way that makes it harder for them to operate. There have been attempts to talk to Moldovan strawberry pickers flown in and out of the country for the harvest. The ‘Angry Workers of the World’ have covertly placed little notices on a magnetic board for customer addresses in a massive supermarket distribution centre where workers were too afraid to talk about work conditions. But some unions have been too slow to recognise the shifting image of labour and, in fear of becoming irrelevant, have huddled in the shadow of management. This is the case at Reading too, where a newly elected president replaced a more radical and critical negotiation team with one that takes pride in working well with management. The relationship is so amicable that the vice chancellor has joked about taking them out for a beer during a staff forum where the university’s plan for pay cuts was announced.[7]

In ‘Leeds – United!’, an episode of the Play for Today BBC series from 1974, workers from the textiles industry in Leeds embark on a spontaneous wildcat strike after a union-led strike leads to a pitiful compromise that even the bosses are surprised was accepted. As the strikers walk from workshop to workshop and argue, hassle and sing until every textiles worker in the city is out on the street with them, the union is initially sympathetic. But as events unfold, some of the key figures in the union – recognised by the bosses as legitimate negotiation partners – stir action towards another disappointing compromise that barely lifts workers out of their poverty and oppressive work conditions. The film is also about gender: the workers who lead the wildcat strike, who are the most passionate and committed to the cause despite paying the highest price, are all the women who occupy the lowest ranks on the shop floor and earn the least. The union representatives are men who are in slightly better-paid specialist jobs. They are being reasonable, ‘the adults in the room’, realistic about what strikes can achieve and very aware of the limitations of their own power. Through following both the town hall meetings of the strikers and the chamber of commerce meetings of the bosses, the film reaches a bitter-sweet ironic climax: had the workers held out for two more weeks, the bosses would have had no choice but to cave in. Again, they are surprised by the meekness of the compromise and yet alarmed by an organic and genuine expression of resistance that sabotaged their production lines for six weeks. It is hard not to notice that same narrative at play in Reading. The members of the committee who have been removed are all women, led by the only woman of colour in the committee, and one of the dominant new members is a more conservative male academic. Again, we have ‘loony lefties’ vs. reasonable negotiators who are willing to work with management and find too much resistance a little distasteful. The destruction of Corbyn’s Labour Party is another recent example of this script on repeat. Whereas across the country union branches have been mobilising vocally against such threats and misrepresentations, at Reading a split within the union has been hampering the process of holding the university to account.[8] Despite the wild discrepancies having been found in the university’s own projections as to why it needs to take these measures, the union has rejected calls to extend the consultation period and rushed through a survey not approved by the branch committee.[9] This survey misleadingly frames the cuts as a response to a reduction in student numbers, although the university has stated that, even if numbers are not down, the cuts will go towards protecting its investments rather than staff.

We need unions. For many workers they are the only organised line of resistance in the workplace and UCU branches can achieve important things that slow down the mad neoliberal onslaught on education. But UCU also needs to shake off the cold-war idea that unions are somehow a link into a larger welfare chain, and that the strategies of university management are in any way different to those used in other industries. UCU needs more democratic procedures and to support a wide grassroots feeling amongst those on the ground that we need a more committed and militant organisation to fight for our vision of higher education. 

The Theatre of War

It is becoming clearer that in order to salvage anything from this struggle, we must keep track of both perspectives, the macro and the micro. The detailed anatomy of a particular dispute between management and workers at one university, the duplicitous tactics used by managers, the complacency of some union leaders and the courage of other individuals to dare organise and resist are incredibly localised. But moments like these also stand in relation to the grand narratives of neoliberalism and are useful in understanding the fate of higher education in the context of the current political hegemony. 

Much has been written, in this journal and elsewhere, about the process of transforming higher education from a welfare institution, subsidised by the state, into a competitive market where degrees are closely linked to employability. With nowhere left to colonise but the future, capitalism has brought young people into the cycle of debt. The few might pursue academia out of scholarly interest, but for many it is a base-level necessity for a job in retail or administration, the kind of employment that would not necessarily have required university education in the past. At the same time, because of the loan structure instituted in the UK to introduce the market into academia, it is increasingly clear that this debt may well never be repaid, particularly in the humanities. 

Yet the contradictions inherent in the marketisation of higher education are insufficient to explain why it is constantly on the radar of conservative politicians in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Thatcher and Major already performed a frontal assault on the university, reducing its funding per student by 38% in a deliberate attempt to prepare the ground for later marketisation. Forty years of constant radical ‘reforms’, cuts, fees and deregulation cannot be explained simply by a desire to break up influential social institutions, diminish the hegemony of a cultural elite or keep tabs on liberal critical thinking. All of these reasons are there too, of course, but the targeting of higher education by the right also reveals another truth about it. 

Harry Braverman’s outstanding book Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974) documents the proletarianisation of clerical work over the course of the 20th century. Clerks were considered specialist workers with an almost artisanal skill-set, but gradually became part of a Taylorist mechanism that breaks down work and delegates smaller tasks to a large, unskilled and coordinated labour force, often also feminised. Proletarianisation obviously means lower wages, but even more than this it means a casualised workforce with less autonomy and greater bureaucratic control. For the clerical class in Braverman’s book, this is done through imposing the logic of the assembly line on a host of previously uncaptured human activities, from sharpening a pencil to sealing an envelope, ‘scientifically’ measured and routinised according to rational predictions. In higher education, on top of a complete reliance on casual labour with limited rights, the process involves the removal of academic independence through the bureaucratic exercises of the Research Excellence Framework, Teaching Excellence Framework and National Student Survey, designed to capture in quantifiable terms the quality of one’s research and teaching. It is also achieved through endless Taylorist ‘efficiency’ studies that sever the organic connection of administrative and support workers to academic departments and make them anonymous, as if working in an art department requires the same skills and vision as working in a food engineering one. 

The proverbial ‘sausage factory’ is often invoked to mean education that is uncritical, impersonal and trains a large quantity of anonymous students primarily for the instability and alienation of the job market. But in order for raw material to be processed into sausages, work in the factory also has to be organised in a certain way. Intellectual labour, but also affective labour (pastoral support, mental health, halls of residence etc. ), are squeezed into patterns of managerial control in order to make them predictable and rationalised. Applying capitalist management tools such as statistical predictive models or quality assurance metrics to such environments is a recipe for disaster: the recent scandals around herd immunity and the prediction of A-level grades are a testimony to this failure of neoliberal biocapitalism. But they continue to try again and again, and not only because of the desperate hunger of neoliberal governments for any last drop of blood from the productive powers of labourers.

The repeated decades-long attempt by the right to impose this type of bureaucratic streamlining is also a demonstration of the limits of post-Fordist accumulation. In many ways, education is the Achilles heel of capitalism. Here the mechanisms of valorisation are at their murkiest and no one can find a formula to convert human potential and cognitive curiosity into clear economic data. The Romantic ideal of a university education configures it as a haven of economic unproductivity (although most students hold part-time jobs these days, of course), but the real problem is that in a post-industrial west, value is supposed to emerge directly from the things that education is meant to give students: communicative, linguistic and interpersonal skills, flexible thinking and an ability to analyse complex data sets. Higher education today is not antithetical to capital’s self-image – it is a cartoon version of it. The University of Manchester even promotes something called ‘Commercial Awareness’, the ability to quickly grasp the challenges facing companies, as a transferable skill. But, at the same time, beyond the old class structures that separate institutions into ‘elite’ or not and give higher education its distinctiveness in the job market, it is hard to see how these qualities can be turned into concrete, tradable values. 

Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and alt-right guru, believes we are now in the midst of a higher education bubble akin to the housing market bubble that preceded the crash of 2008. In both cases, he argues, consumers pay for a commodity they can’t really afford through debt on the promise that what they are buying is an investment that would yield profit rather than a life-style purchase. Predictably, Thiel falls back on quasi-mystical capitalist tropes such as natural talent and self-motivation, which he believes are more important than a university degree. But he also clearly sees that education can never be an easy conversion into market value:

It is, in fact, considered in some ways inappropriate to even ask the question of what the return is. We are given bromides to the effect of, ‘Well, you know college education is good, but it’s good precisely because it doesn’t teach you anything specific; you become a more well-rounded person, a better citizen, you learn how to learn.’ There tends to be an evasion of specificity of what exactly it is that is learned. And so these human-capital intuitions may be very far off in a lot of colleges.[10]

This ambiguity around ontological categories of value translates into a simple policy for universities: invest in fixed capital, deepen the exploitation of human workers. Unable to quantify the worth of its human and intellectual capital (an organisation can’t really secure loans with ‘world leading research’), the University of Reading has invested fifty million pounds in a new science building, renovated the library at great expense and has committed to investing a similar sum in a new commercial hybrid television studio. It is clear that the university sees investment in people a loss making enterprise that cannot be justified. Operational costs are a burden; buildings and equipment can be quantified and paraded to prospective students (and even more crucially their fee sponsoring parents) on open days, not to mention creditors. 

Thiel also receives an honorary mention in Dominic Cummings’ by now famous ‘Job Ad’ blog entry.[11] Von Clausewitz’s concept of friction also makes an appearance in Cummings’ longer essay on education from 2013 (but no mention of Marx…).[12] In his extensive writing on the subject, Cummings sets his vision for the type of person he would like to see involved in politics today and the type of education they require. Cummings’ understanding of the political spectrum is typical of the new right: it is no longer the liberal field of rights and civic duties where reasoned debate and ethics play a pivotal role. The new political field obviously excludes any radical demands rooted in resistance to the structures of class, gender or race that produce inequality: it is about a capitalist realist management of ‘what is’ and never a speculation on ‘what isn’t’. Instead, for Cummings, the political sphere is a vast sea of data streams that need to be managed through a prediction-based, future-oriented, algorithmic approach. The vision here is of a biopolitical sovereignty grounded in the accurate statistical management of the movement of bodies and commodities, health and environments, vectors of desire and violence, and above all markets. The complexities and speed of these data flows necessitate a different type of thinking about politics that can no longer be supported by the training provided by Oxford’s famous PPE course. For him, Silicon Valley or big military-industrial research projects such as DARPA are equally, if not better suited to provide the right environment and stimulus for research as the academic world. 

Cummings would have undoubtedly benefitted from an old-fashioned critical engagement with a humanities subject, which he clearly failed to achieve on his History degree. His vision is full of ideological blind spots, where he takes for granted many very questionable assumptions, all the while assuming a ‘scientific’ neutrality. Most blatant is his reliance on discredited studies coming out of eugenics, intelligence studies and social Darwinism. But regardless, Cummings has identified something correct about the challenges universities are facing. That he wants to find ways of accelerating these processes in order to profit from them may be objectionable; but the collapse of more traditional structures of critical thought and learning is undeniable. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a university as ‘[a]n institution of higher education offering tuition in mainly non-vocational subjects’. But in a world where knowledge is clearly not an autonomous entity but a central commodity, the Humboldtian model that is somehow somewhere still behind the ethos of most higher education institutions is gradually losing its relevance. As Maurizio Lazzarato has argued, in new informational economies ‘collective learning becomes the heart of productivity’. Many PhD students today agonise over their inability to secure the continuous work time and space to achieve ‘deep learning’ – to spend ten years of uninterrupted reading in a university library to absorb everything that was ever written about a specific question in their field. Between several zero-hour contracts, unstable housing, affective labour in the family, struggles with mental health and with minimal support form institutions, this kind of research is near impossible. It is hard to find anything to celebrate about these precarious conditions and constant struggle. However, the type of research that replaces the Humboldtian one can also be productive and exciting. We must acknowledge the value of trading deep knowledge for the ability to produce arguments that cut across registers, fields and schools of thought by bringing together seemingly unconnected aspects in an unexpected manner. We cannot abandon the task of rethinking the institution in light of present day conditions to Cummings and his coterie of disaster capitalism vultures, nor can we work towards the necessary reconfiguration of academia when we are fighting for its very survival. 

The predicament of Reading as our case study brings all of this into focus. New forms of labour, new technical and intellectual infrastructures, new political ideas and new forms of finance and debt have all come to the fore to lock staff and students alike in a whirlpool of algorithmic force. For the fight against these conditions to be effective, it must be waged on all levels from the analysis of ideological abstractions to the resistance to specific instances of exploitation. In order for unions to be effective weapons in this struggle, they need to listen to grassroots organisations like Reading Between the Lines, a solidarity group of University of Reading staff and supporters.[13] As the boundaries between academic and support work at universities continue to erode through the prolaterianisation and bureaucratisation of intellectual labour, unions need to represent a wider section of the university workforce and to enhance lines of solidarity between technical, administrative and academic staff. Most importantly, we all need to engage in a more serious debate over education and find ways of salvaging research and learning from both commodification at the hands of the market and utilisation at the hands of the state. Higher education is a Trojan horse: the more neoliberalism tries to break it down in its digestive tract the more poison it can release into its veins. 




All notes were composed by the editor using information provided by the authors.



[2] Jack Dyson, ‘University of Kent to cut almost 150 full-time jobs’, KentOnline, 20 July 2020. 

[3] Branch Solidarity Network For UCU HE Branches, ‘This is not a normal summer: job cuts, ballots & resistance across the UK’, 4 August 2020.

[5] The UCU negotiating committee admitted to side meetings with management, the minutes of which they refuse to release. These meetings were reported to the other members of the UCU committee who are, for the most part, in opposition to the current compromising leadership.

[6] For a more detailed account of university finances see the UCU webinar by Andrew McGettigan, ‘Studying Institutional Finances’, 8 July 2020. 

[7] See Reading UCU’s Jobs First motion:  ‘In particular, the branch mandates Sally Pellow as President to select a Branch negotiating team to represent UCU members in any consultation and negotiation meetings with senior management over the threats they are making as part of their Post-COVID-19 Response Programme.’ The grassroots organisation, Reading Between the Lines, a solidarity group of University of Reading staff and supporters, has commented: ‘On 21/07/20, the Branch President unilaterally removed two members of the branch negotiating team without consulting the branch committee. This not only broke local branch rules but resulted in the removal of the only BAME member of staff from the negotiating team’ Sally Pellow has acknowledged the disagreement in the committee in an email: ‘The committee disagreement stems mainly around the approach used to date in the consultation, which has been one of 'no deficit, no detriment': in other words, a statement that we disagree with the university's financial projections and overview and refuse to accept any changes in terms and conditions, or any redundancies.  This position was adopted at the start of the consultation period, before our recent AGM and the branch election results, and as you now had a new President and a new committee, I argued that the position should be reviewed’.

[8] There are four factions in the union, Independent Broad Left , UCU Left, USS Briefs and Independents. This is as complicated as the national position on the dispute. Jo Grady, the UCU president, came to a RUCU branch meeting and said she was supportive. The Union’s formal position is branches should not get pressured into agreeing to pay cuts to stave off redundancies, but they are also taking a jobs first approach, which contradicts that.

[9] Reading Between the Lines, ‘Statement on RUCU Branch Democracy’, 17 August 2020.

[10] National Review Interview, ‘Back to the Future with Peter Thiel’, 20 January 2011.

[12] Dominic Cummings, ‘Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities’, 11 October 2013.

[13] See the group’s website,