The lecturers, librarians, office administrators and graduate student teachers who help to make British universities run are back on strike. The University and College Union (UCU) last took industrial action in February 2018, over pension cuts. That strike – at 14 days, the longest ever held in UK higher education – was gruelling, energising and politically powerful. It was brought to an end when Universities UK (UUK) agreed to create a Joint Expert Panel to reconsider the valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, rather than simply slashing staff pensions.

The current strike – again over pensions but also pay cuts, casualisation, overwork and the gender and racial pay gap – is again gruelling. The first wave of action, which ends tomorrow, has stretched across eight working days, many of them bitterly cold ones to be on the picket. It has also been energising: bustling rallies, teams of students handing out tea and biscuits, and a full schedule of teach-outs, film screenings and surgeries for precarious staff.

Last Wednesday, at a time when I would have been delivering an undergraduate lecture on feminism, my students organised a teach-out on some of the themes of the course: capitalism, work and reproduction. I sat at the back of a crowded seminar room in Balliol College – the Oxford colleges don’t recognise the UCU, which means that when we strike it is only with respect to our university, not college, contracts – and listened as students spoke about wages for housework and sex work, marketisation and commodification, Rosa Luxemburg and Silvia Federici.

A striking academic at Edinburgh observed on Twitter that the strike brings into being the university we all want to exist: ‘rampant collegiality, teaching on topics of importance with no bureaucratic overhead, staff-student solidarity, our children tagging along’.

The political impact of the current strike is so far unclear. The UCU leadership met with UUK yesterday, but there appears to be little movement. Part of the difficulty has to do with the ambition of the strike. In 2018 the action was focused on a single tractable issue, pensions; this strike is a howling protest against the ongoing destruction of higher education. In 2010, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, seeking to discipline universities under a market logic, eradicated block grants, tripled student fees and lifted caps on student numbers. Students were transformed overnight into debt-ridden customers, and universities now had to compete for their cash. They don’t do this by trying to offer a better education – impossible, given the massive student overcrowding – but by offering an enhanced ‘student experience’.

I once sat next to David Willetts at lunch, and asked him what he thought of the worsening classroom conditions since 2010. He said it wasn’t the government’s fault that senior university administrators had responded irrationally to the new incentives created by student fees. He also said that competition between universities was necessary in order to eradicate ‘lazy academics’. (How much government policy is shaped by the fear that someone, somewhere, is not working hard enough?) Many students, meanwhile, are too busy to learn: at UCL, where I used to teach, my students worked long hours most days as bartenders, waitresses and receptionists. It wasn’t surprising that some of them saw themselves as customers not getting enough bang for their buck.

In the last decade, the real pay of academic staff has declined by more than 20 per cent, while the amount of income generated per university employee has increased by 35 per cent. Vice-chancellors and other senior administrators are paid like the CEOs they increasingly resemble: last year, nearly half of VCs were paid over £300,000, while six made more than £500,000.

Increased student numbers, together with the absurdist hoop-jumping demanded by the Research Excellence Framework, has made many academic workloads unbearable. Last week, while on strike, I kept track of the hours I worked as part of my college contract alone: they easily exceeded the number of hours I am supposed to work for my college and university contracts combined. And I have it very good indeed. Across UK universities, nearly 70 per cent of research staff – covering 30 per cent of university teaching – are on underpaid, precarious and fixed-term (often hourly) contracts. At Oxford, more than three academics in four work without regular contracts. And because many of them are employed only by the colleges, rather than the university, there is little that the union can do to help them.

Despite the Tory government’s campaign to transform higher education from a public good into a private concern, students are not customers, not yet, and we who teach them are not sellers of commodities, not yet. We are still participants in the project of the university: a project of free and collaborative inquiry, of mutual respect, of imagination. The fact that most academic labour is not yet entirely alienated – that even now it contains a spirit of vocation and reciprocity – generates a seeming paradox. In striking, lecturers apparently double down on the logic of commodification we seek to resist: we become waged workers in a dispute with our bosses, the anger of our student-customers a means to improving our conditions. But it is in fact the refusal to strike – invariably defended as a form of teacherly concern – that betrays both our students and the university we share with them. When people insist that the university is simply a place of love, and not also a place of work, they offer cover to exploitation – of staff, of students, and of the ideals of the university itself.

Last week, one of my philosophy colleagues showed up at the picket line in front of Exam Schools, I assumed to cross it. (Earlier that week I had seen another philosophy lecturer shuffle out of the building with what I would like to think was shame; he had been delivering a lecture on ethics.) He was supposed to be delivering an undergraduate lecture on metaphysics and epistemology. Instead he put on an armband and took some leaflets. As his students came out of the lecture hall, confused by his absence, he handed them leaflets and spoke to them about the strike. He was still their teacher, just teaching them something new. Those who insist that striking lecturers do not love their students fail to see that love can still be work, and that the picket can be a classroom.