Adrian Shaughnessy on the marketisation of design education

Prior to the arrival of coronavirus, staff at UK art and design schools had been taking part in strikes over pay and conditions. Here, designer and RCA visiting lecturer Adrian Shaughnessy explains the complex reasons behind the action

Like nearly everything else in life, the recent strike action by teaching staff from UK art and design schools has been engulfed by the Covid-19 pandemic. But the action taken by lecturers at 74 universities was also caused by a virus, one that entered the bloodstream of higher education a decade or so ago, with a dire outcome: the marketisation of universities.

The strikes were the inevitable consequence of the barely tolerable pressures that have been heaped on academics in recent years. Universities have behaved like the worst sort of exploitative private sector employers. They have expanded the use of zero-hours contacts to suppress costs. They have allowed gender pay inequality to run rife. They have vastly increased student numbers – and that’s before we take into account the shameful treatment of cleaning and catering staff. Something had to explode, and it did.

The roots of the unrest can be traced back to the government’s stealth-like reduction of funding for higher education and the simultaneous introduction of life-crippling student tuition fees. This changed everything. The commercialisation of education went supernova, and students became trapped in a quagmire of debt and anxiety.