Goldsmiths, University of London, an internationally renowned art school, is under fire for a ‘Recovery Plan,’ aimed to improve the institution’s finances through compulsory redundancies, ultimately eliminating over 50 staff positions. Goldsmiths’ staff and students began protesting this restructuring plan in November. In response to protesting students’ refusal to pay course fees, Goldsmiths’ Senior Management Team (SMT) have expelled one striking student activist from their studies and are threatening to withdraw others.
On December 6th, after receiving no concessions from Goldsmiths’ SMT, Goldsmiths University and College Union released a statement that they would “escalate the strike” in the spring if the SMT did not “agre[e] to the union’s demands for no compulsory redundancies, transparency over the College’s finances and an alternative plan to reduce the College’s financial deficit.” Strikes have since escalated.
In protest, numerous students have refused to pay course fees until the demands of Goldsmiths’ University and College Union are met. In response, Warden Frances Corner has warned that students may be forced out of their programs of study. In an email to strikers, Corner warned: “Students engaging in the fee strike are not shielded from the consequences of not paying their fees as detailed above.”
“Today a student has been, without warning, withdrawn from their course for withholding their fees in solidarity with the striking staff; an action which up to 200 other students are also taking,” Sophie Sekine, a Goldsmiths student and member of the Context Collective, told Cultbytes. “They’re threatening to do this to other fee strikers, including students whose student visas would be nullified if they are suddenly withdrawn from their programs.”
“This threat actually puts students at risk of deportation,” argues Ben Seymour, a Critical Studies lecturer within Goldsmiths’ fine arts MFA. “International students, who are some of the biggest sources of money for the university, have been dressing up like ‘cash cows’ to reflect the feeling that they’re just being milked for money by a university that doesn’t care about them.”
A zine, created by self-identified “disaffected Goldsmiths MFA art students,” highlighted the concern that the university was more concerned with financial gain than the wellbeing of their staff and students. In one image, Medusa vomits British pounds, with images of Frances Corner, Goldsmiths’ Warden, photoshopped onto the heads of snakes. The sentiment within the caption—“me realizing I am actually a cash cow, not a student.”
In 2019, Goldsmiths’ £8m deficit caused the SMT to seek out KPMG, a Big Four accounting organization that has been criticized for sloppy auditing, cheating, and malpractice. Incidentally, Lynn Pearcy, ‘Independent’ Chair of Council at Goldsmiths, worked for KPMG for 34 years before calling them in to stitch us up for cuts.
“Underlying the Goldsmiths dispute is the broader problem of how universities are run, and by whom,” argues Seymour. “Specialist managers move from institution to institution, partnering with expensive consultants to impose chaotic restructurings.
In an interview with The Art Newspaper, an anonymous lecturer explained that KPMG was brought in to decide where the institution can cut courses, and areas of study in an attempt to: “transform Goldsmiths from a research-and-teaching high quality university, into a cut-price teaching-dominated college.”
“With no stake in the university, its students, or staff, they move on before their disruptions are even complete. Frances Corner [Goldsmiths’ warden] has a record of doing this. She talks sustainability feminism and BLM, but women and people of color are the first to get the chop,” Seymour continues.
“Both MA queer history and MA black history are at risk of being scrapped. What message does that send to black and queer people?” a student asked administrators after storming a meeting in Goldsmiths’ Senate House. Students and staff fear that Goldsmiths’ strong reputation within the arts could be jeopardized by these cuts which Seymour argues will predominantly affect the humanities.
Protests at Goldsmiths reflect broader discontent amongst UK universities. As of this week, 68 institutions are striking to protest pay, working conditions, and cuts to pension. The University and College Union (UCU)’s final day of striking, March 2nd, is set to overlap with a strike by the National Union of Students (NUS).
“Humanities are hard hit in general,” Sekine explains. “The Tory government has significantly cut Arts and Humanities funding throughout the country. It’s not only Goldsmiths that is suffering—there are course closures throughout the country.”
Sekine continues: “Goldsmiths is lucky for its prestigious reputation that attracts a vast influx of students and money. That said, the hypocrisy of an institution known for radical thought is evident when it closes courses that are not lucrative enough to turn over an ‘accepted’ amount of profit. Programs like Black British History are on the brink of closure, which says a lot.”
While activism remains ongoing, Sekine emphasizes that the dangers of this restructuring cut deeper than the impact on staff who will become redundant: “if the management gets away with these sackings and course cuts, ‘radical Goldsmiths’ will become nothing but a name. We fear the worst for all the arts and humanities courses in the university if we can’t stop them.”
Support the Goldsmiths UCU Local Dispute Strike Fund.
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Writer, Cultbytes Nina Potischman is a recent graduate of Pomona College, where she studied English literature with a concentration in creative writing. Her writing focuses on the body, autoimmunity, illness, and disability, with a focus in autotheory. She runs Queerings, a jewelry business focused on LGBTQ+ culture. She will be pursuing a masters in English Literature from the University of Exeter in the fall of 2022. l igram l