Higher education institutions in the United States have received over $70 billion in government funds to help weather the pandemic without much fanfare in the media. Across the Atlantic, protests exacerbated by the early 2021 announcement of 50% cuts to the humanities and arts at colleges and universities in the United Kingdom, implemented by its Conservative-led government, are roiling the country — the result of outrage that has been brewing for not weeks or months, but for years. Institutions from Cambridge to Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London were already in trouble, not only due to an over-reliance on adjuncts and rising costs, but also a pension plan that favors their older (and larger) faculty membership. And so there, the scholars and educators struck back.
On February 24, an international student at Goldsmiths, University of London was expelled for withholding his tuition in protest of a controversial “compulsory redundancies” plan. The school has threatened other graduate students who were also withdrawing their tuition. According to the student group Gold Fees Strike, the administration hasn’t made good on their threats so far, but some of more than 200 strikers have had their campus and online access blocked.
The student protesters, along with some faculty and staff at Goldsmiths, have been battling the restructuring plans set out by the public university’s warden Frances Corner and her senior management team (SMT) since last November. The latter have threatened to cut 52 positions, including 20 faculty members and 32 professional staff; among them are educators in the school’s fledgling Queer History and Black British History MA courses, which are set to be slashed under the new plan. The disappearance of the latter is particularly egregious: As reported by the Nation, the UK employs exactly one Black Studies professor in the entire country. “Postgraduate” students — as graduate students are called in British parlance — of a university more famed for launching the careers of artists such as Lucian Freud, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Steve McQueen, Bridget Riley, and Gillian Wearing than for kicking out a young foreign student have banded together and refused to pay for their classes in retaliation, costing the school £400,000 (~$523,690).
“I feel Francis Corner is ideologically opposed to saving the school in its current form,” Katie Shannon, a part-time MFA student at Goldsmiths who is withholding her tuition, told Hyperallergic. Corner’s position, she continued, “is evident in course ‘restructuring,’ providing a lesser standardized education for maximized profit, the move online, and sacking staff.”
Shannon, a Glaswegian, has shown her latex gender-fluid fashion collaborations at the Tate Modern. Sophie Sekine, her German classmate, pays substantially more than she does ($31,919 for a full-time course load versus $14,379 for UK residents) and is also striking. International students from outside the European Union have it even worse: They risk deportation.
The collective decision to withhold tuition — as pragmatic as it is brusque — is also symbolic: These students are refusing the administration’s financialization and use of their money to pay for things such as a British-Dutch accounting agency with a history of controversy and misconduct to direct cuts across the school. At a solidarity rally in London’s Torrington Square last week, international MA student and Gold Fees Striker Kristian-Marc addressed the crowd in the rain.
“As students we are acutely aware of how much we pay in fees … and that this money often goes straight into the pockets of banks and financiers rather than staff,” Kristian-Marc said. “We know that this money goes to the SMT, to our warden, to the council, to consultants like KPMG who are making five-figure salaries monthly.”
With such tensions building for a few years, tactics like withholding tuition have become as commonplace as withholding rent in the UK — with some students living in university residence halls resorting to this strategy as well. Fortunately for the nation, which left the EU in 2020, graduate students, teachers, and other academic staff have trade unions like the University and College Union (UCU), founded in 2006 when two unions merged. The organization represents faculty and staff at 140 higher education institutions; Goldsmiths has representatives in most academic and other departments, including art, design, psychology, sociology, and more.
Roberto Mozzachiodi, a lecturer in the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies department and Goldsmiths UCU co-branch secretary, wrote in an email to Hyperallergic: “What we’re seeing at Goldsmiths is an effort by management to use the financial anomaly of the Covid period to justify a systematic restructure of the university operations and the downsizing of ‘underperforming’ humanities subjects.” (In a move that would make even opponents of Critical Race Theory in the US balk, the school administration is considering cuts to faculty in English and History, alleging that the two departments are not meeting their savings targets.)
Corner is the first woman to take on the role of warden at Goldsmiths. Prior to her recruitment, the university faced allegations of sexual harassment of its female art students by staff. If hiring a woman warden was meant to prevent further incidents, Corner’s administration has fallen short of expectations, withdrawing three years of promised funding from the school’s Against Sexual Violence project, Goldsmiths’s only on-campus sexual and relationship respect initiative. The resulting problems have been left to be handled by the students themselves.
Other issues also continued unabated. Goldsmiths’s student body is 40% non-White, closely mirroring London’s own rich diversity. During the current strike, artists-teachers like Rehana Zaman, a Goldsmiths UCU representative who received her degrees from the school and teaches in its Fine Art MFA and Artists’ Film and Moving Image MA programs, have had to step up. “We’re all aware academia is overwhelmingly White, and part of our work has been to call out the institutional racism of the institution and to dismantle it when we see it appear in our organizing spaces,” Zaman, who was born in a town near Leeds and is of Pakistani descent, told Hyperallergic. “I’ve taken a more active role in the union since last summer largely because of a fallout around the precarious contracts myself and the majority of the other BIPOC members of staff in my department were/are on.”
The administration has voiced a commitment to improving conditions for non-White people at the school. When asked why the SMT is overwhelmingly White, a spokesperson for Goldsmiths told Hyperallergic in an email that the school is “working to address the under-representation of people of color in senior management roles” by launching efforts to recruit more diverse staff.
After a group led by students of color at Goldsmiths occupied a school-owned building for 137 days in 2019, in protest of what they viewed as inadequate administrative action against racism, the administration at the time formally agreed to an overhaul of the curriculum and hold anti-racism training for all staff. Currently, there is an effort at Goldsmiths to diversify its library collections as well as a summer career week for “students from underrepresented backgrounds.” A spokesperson for Goldsmiths told Hyperallergic that the school “will be interviewing selected suppliers of anti-racism training in April and pilot sessions will be scheduled in summer 2022 before being rolled out.” He explained the delay in the implementation of anti-racist training:
“Following a period of discussion between key stakeholders including [the 2019] activists, members of Goldsmiths Race Equality Group and senior leaders, a working group re-convened in July 2021 to oversee the development of all-staff anti-racism training. The training contract was advertised through an open procurement in August – September 2021 however the training tender review group decided none of the submissions were adequate as they did not convey a strong understanding of systemic and institutional racism. The contract was [then] re-advertised.”
While it may seem that Goldsmiths’s SMT has addressed the institution’s race-based disparities, the class aspect remains out in the open. Warder Corner authored the book Fashion Matters (2014), described by its fans on Amazon as “great,” “thought provoking,” and “smelled amazing,” and led the London College of Fashion for 14 years. Concerned about sustainability, she banned beef from Goldsmiths’s cafeteria and got the school to stop investing its endowment funds in companies that profit from fossil fuels when she took over. Corner herself is a product of UK public higher education, having attended the famed public art schools Central Saint Martins and Chelsea School of Art before getting her PhD at the (private) Oxford University.
“They are shit at biz but wanna be real estate kings and queens,” a Goldsmiths lecturer told Hyperallergic more bluntly in a message about leadership. Whatever the case, according to the Goldsmiths UCU and others, Corner has refused to make appearances at dispute resolution meetings.
This lecturer hasn’t been alone in their sentiments: Over a year ago, nearly 700 Goldsmiths staff expressed a non-binding vote of no confidence in the SMT. When asked if they had approached any of the so-called Young British Artists for funding, a spokesperson for Goldsmiths told Hyperallergic, “While we are actively working on fundraising this is not a quick fix and the reality is philanthropists want to support projects tackling major societal challenges rather than funding shortfalls due to Covid impacts, rising costs, and government funding cuts.”
It’s not clear how defunding higher education isn’t already starting to pose “major societal challenges” in the country, or how the powers behind a famous school haven’t worked out the understanding gap among potential funders that is their entrusted task. Nevertheless, Corner and her team have already made a deal with outside institutions. According to the Goldsmiths Students’ Union, the SMT “have signed a deal with their banking ‘partners’; in exchange for limited financial support, the SMT has committed to cutting staffing by £4 million this year and a further £2 million next year.” As some of the current strikers have implied, it seems that what the administration at Goldsmiths and others like it are really great at doing is using the loss of public funds and a worldwide pandemic to cut up a school and its reputation. The administration plans to start sending out formal dismissal notices to already notified staff on April 12 and 13, a spokesperson for the school told Hyperallergic.
In the meantime, the Goldsmiths community has shared several resources to support badly needed services and departments on the chopping block. Individuals can comment on an open letter to lend their support for Goldsmiths’s Black British History MA program, and sign a petition demanding that the UK government require universities to refund students during the strikes. A second petition asks the school to restore funding for Goldsmiths’s Against Sexual Violence Fund. Finally, supporters can donate to the Goldsmiths UCU strike fund.