If you’re not bargaining, you’re begging

Andrea Brady

The trade union movement in the UK is in the middle of a resurgence. Decades after Thatcher vowed to destroy ‘the enemy within’, union membership had declined to around six million. But in recent weeks, Google searches for ‘join a union’ have gone up by 184 per cent. Part of this growth can be attributed to the barnstorming media appearances of Mick Lynch, the general secretary of RMT. At last someone was willing to challenge Tory austerity. He landed numerous blows through plain speaking and mastery of the facts; he called out liars; he refused to engage with attempts to paint trade unionists as violent 1980s throwbacks or wild-eyed Marxists (as if those were bad things), and reminded us that if you’re not bargaining, you’re begging.

More important, Lynch made an argument rarely articulated with such clarity and power by the opposition: that the UK is in the middle of a staggering transfer of the surplus value produced by the working classes to the ruling classes. With falling wages, a desperate cost-of-living crisis and double-digit inflation driven by company profits that are now 30 per cent higher than they were pre-pandemic, Britain needs an immediate redistribution of wealth.

While the Labour leadership offers nothing but drab managerialism, condemning strikes and banning MPs from picket lines, trade unions are the last form of collective strength for working people. At the end of June, members of the Communications Workers Union voted to strike at BT. Other CWU members rejected a 3 per cent pay offer from the Post Office, with strikes resuming in mid-July. British Airways check-in staff won a ‘vastly improved pay deal’ that restored the 10 per cent pay cuts made during the pandemic. Unite secured a phased 18 per cent rise for cabin crew based at Heathrow. Criminal barristers struck and were immediately offered a 15 per cent rise. GMB has won increases of as much as 27 per cent for environmental service workers. The summer of discontent looks likely to continue. Doctors are balloting. Teachers rejected a 9 per cent pay rise for new recruits and 5 per cent for everyone else.

As Marx put it, capital has ‘a constant tendency towards increasing the productivity of labour in order to cheapen commodities and, by cheapening commodities, to cheapen the worker himself’. Universities are not exempt from the pressures of extractive capitalism, but take part in the drive for productivity through the cheapening of their workers. According to the University and College Union, 68 per cent of academics are on fixed-term contracts; many of them last only ten months, coming to an end in June and restarting in September, or worse (I’ve heard of colleagues getting laid off for the Christmas break). Hourly-paid lecturers who cobble together full-time workloads may earn less than £10,000 a year. Staff at Leeds have spoken of relying on food banks or not being able to afford heating. One university tutor had to live in a tent while doing her PhD research; another slept on the floor of the library because they couldn’t afford accommodation in the town where they had a short-term lectureship.

Meanwhile, workloads increase with every passing term. The British Academy recently reported – to no one’s surprise – that workloads and higher education policy make it impossible for British academics to teach and research to a high standard. Four out of five academics say they are struggling, and fifty-hour weeks (or more) are typical. Clunky IT systems, massive bureaucracies and obsessive data-gathering exercises like the REF and TEF, which absorb millions of hours of labour, mean that little of the extra work goes into the value-generating practices of teaching or research. Instead, the admin grind is leading to sector-wide burnout and in some cases even suicide.

Since 2018, UCU has been engaged in disputes with Universities UK on these issues and on pensions. The employers’ raid on the deferred wages accrued in the USS pension scheme began with attempts to move members from defined benefit – you know what you’ll get when you retire – to defined contribution: you know only what you’re putting in, a market gamble. Since then, pension contributions have gone up, but employers have reduced the amount those on defined benefit schemes will receive, based on a flawed valuation taken in March 2020 – when stock markets hit bottom because of the pandemic – even though the fund has since recovered most of its value.

Throughout the negotiations, Universities UK claimed the cuts would be only 10 or 15 per cent, until last month, when it emerged that – as the union had repeatedly insisted – employees actually stood to lose around 35 per cent if inflation remained at 2.5 per cent. The cuts will disproportionately affect scheme members under the age of forty. Most graduate students, meanwhile, will never be in a position to claim an academic pension at all. Nonetheless, they have been at the forefront of the struggle, showing up to picket lines and organising teach-outs.

Disputes are also brewing at individual institutions. Mass redundancies, course closures and fire-and-rehire programmes have targeted the arts and humanities at Goldsmiths, Leicester, Roehampton, Huddersfield, Wolverhampton, De Montfort, Portsmouth and Sheffield Hallam. Universities UK has promised to weed out ‘low value degrees’ by 2023 – that is, courses which see fewer than 60 per cent of their graduates in ‘skilled employment’ after six months.

In 2018, standing around braziers as the UK was hit by the cold spell known as the ‘Beast from the East’, singing and marching in the snow, we hoped to reclaim our universities from the chaos of marketisation and neoliberal management. But that euphoric energy had dissipated by the time of the strikes that took place in autumn 2019 and the first few months of 2020. Uncertainty about strategy and uneven participation chipped away at morale. How long had it been since we had won something, rather than just delaying the inevitable?

The struggle resumed in December 2021, as workers and students emerged from lockdown, with several weeks of strike at my university in February 2022. Like other employers, Queen Mary University of London responded with a threat: if we didn’t reschedule classes cancelled when we took strike action, our pay would be withheld indefinitely, and any work we did would be considered a ‘voluntary’ donation to the university. Many colleagues interpreted this as a threat to the right to strike. If workers are required to perform the labour they withdraw when they strike, then striking becomes meaningless, and doubly impoverishing.

The dysfunction of university systems has meant that the threat hasn’t yet been carried out, though it was never withdrawn. We have now moved out of the active strike phase, into a marking and assessment boycott. Like other UCU branches across the country, we have refused to hand in feedback or marks for our students. This is more painful than it may sound. Nobody wants to inflict harm on our students, who have endured two years of disruption and stress during the pandemic. Giving them rich, specific, individualised feedback is central to our work as teachers. We’ve spent months in the classroom with our students, encouraging, supporting, listening and collaborating. We want to see them across the finish line.

But care for our students also entails a care for the future of higher education. The tactics being employed to break the strike – including threats to suspend recruitment to the QMUL Film Studies programme – show a management class that is willing to abandon all standards of quality assurance, pedagogical good practice and norms of collegiality. The mass resignation of external examiners led to announcements from several universities that they aren’t needed anyway – a change that will possibly become permanent.

For now, the national dispute has fragmented into a series of local ones. Many branches reached compromises that entail real progress. QMUL, however, which supposedly can’t afford a pay deal for its employees, looked into paying millions of pounds to an Australian consultancy to mark our scripts. People with no knowledge of our courses were hired to provide bot-like feedback at a rate of one minute per script: ‘70: nice work! 65: perfect!’

UCU will reballot in the autumn, having learned some lessons from this latest round of actions about what works and what doesn’t. Management’s punitive responses reveal the power of a marking boycott to gum up the system. If no one can graduate or progress to the next year, the university conveyor belt stops turning. An email from HR set out the consequences for staff at QMUL: in addition to the 25 days’ pay that would be deducted for participating in strike action, a loss which everyone in the union accepts, we would be docked 42 days for boycotting the marking and assessment of our students. Payslips have been released today, showing that some colleagues have been paid £0.00 for the month of June. Whether or not this would be ruled disproportionate in court, its symbolic impact is clear: the university is willing to starve its employees back to work. It’s a curious strategy for an industry that relies so much on overwork, vocation and diminishing good will. But the more aggressive management response gets, the more resolved we are to hold the line.


  • 20 July 2022 at 6:17pm
    JPH says:
    Why do you think Universities want to cheapen their workers? (it is a genuine question).

    In a truly capitalist market, universities would be much like financial services - both employ highly capable people (and scarce talents) who can move easily between institutions as their personal capital is high and more valuable than the university name (with some exceptions the same as finance e.g. Goldman, which has a brand like Oxbridge).

    In these kinds of markets labour captures an unusually high share of value (or closer to its true share from a Marxist standpoint). However, it assumes there is economic value to share around, which I suspect is the issue. I imagine if universities were making reliable annual surpluses the tension between management and faculty would be much lower but maybe that's wrong - are universities very profitable (the ones I have looked at haven't been)?

    All of which leads me to think, (assuming there are not big University surpluses) this is at heart an issue of how much the state (which ultimately is tax payers I suppose) should pay to keep the system going because universities are a good thing.

    This comes back to the issue of most public sector strikes - it strikes (sic) me as difficult to decide what is fair, when the economic value is lower than the social value of the service. The (simplified) Marxist analysis quoted in the blog assumes there is value to be shared around. I think universities are somewhat ringfenced so it should be fairly straightforward to see what is affordable, but I suspect it is not the answer the writer wants to hear.

    I think this is one reason that far more strikes are seen in the public than private sector. The private sector will make a calculation of what is affordable and what the alternatives are. The public purse is different and it becomes a discussion about social value and fairness for which there are ethical views but no absolute answers.

    • 20 July 2022 at 8:26pm
      Vingtras says: @ JPH
      Universities may not generally be in a narrow financial sense profitable. But neither are schools!

      Without a functioning education system, you cannot have a modern economy. So the primary economic value of universities is that they supply a highly educated workforce. Public expenditure on education thus typically generates an exceptionally high return on investment.

    • 21 July 2022 at 4:40am
      Khalid Mir says: @ JPH
      She says "productivity" not profits. I don't think anyone can deny that with the introduction of the audit society (M. Powers) and higher fees (see Colini on the Browne Report or 'HiEdBiz) there's been a push to get 'value for money'. I think that's the main point.

      Also, faculty cannot easily move between places and I doubt many want to think of their contribution in terms of 'value' or 'returns'.

      The fundamental point about 'cheapening' is a good one and similar to Jason W. Moore's ( Seven Cheap Things). It requires two steps: firstly thinking of education as human capital; and then practices built around (self- ) optimizing.

      My tuppence worth.

    • 21 July 2022 at 8:06am
      JPH says: @ Vingtras
      I know that. My questions are more subtle.
      I asked two: w

      Why did the writer (or you if you have the same experience) think the university is cheapening workers? Do they want to or do they have to as they are struggling to budget in a balanced way? Its usually useful to wonder why somebody is doing something and assume they are say, stupid or malicious.

      The other was how and how much to fund universities because their value is not captured properly. One cannot just say there should be more money it has to ocme from somewhere, so how do you decide how to fund universities? Would you put taxes up (maybe there should be a levy on large corporate who employ graduates - they benefit the most from the education universities provide?), or take the money from somewhere else (hard for me to see where it comes from)?

      I would also note (although I can see you will focus on this and not answer the hard questions) that while university obviously has a large return on investment for society, I imagine the marginal return has been low since the expansion of the sector. Otherwise, with far more graduates our economy should have seen an uplift in productivity and activity, which of course it hasn't. There will be some other reasons for this but its not clear to me we wouldn't have been better off with more technical colleges than larger universities.

    • 21 July 2022 at 3:59pm
      Tom MacColl says: @ JPH
      Take the money from defence, stop having a nuclear defence system at all. Raise more by taxing corporations more (or perhaps more importantly, enforcing corporation tax), and by introducing a new top rate of income tax, let's say 80% for income above £1m but I'd be happy with 95% over £500,000.

    • 21 July 2022 at 6:37pm
      JPH says: @ Khalid Mir
      OK so if I understand cheapening is being asked to do more for the same or less pay, i.e. to be more productive. I think the productivity requirement is an issue because there is not enough money in the system and if the system needs more money those in it have to advocate for that and raise it externally or make the case it should be the taxpayer.
      I think you (in a general sense) would be better off setting out and advocating far and wide the positive case for that, than anything else, because in the long run it is the only answer.

    • 21 July 2022 at 6:42pm
      JPH says: @ Tom MacColl
      I would probably support most of that agenda. It'll never happen though.

      (And there is a threshold - I would guess 50% - beyond which tax receipts begin to collapse, which the UK could not afford. Personally, I would swap the 80% income tax for 100% inheritance tax but that will never happen either for the same reasons).

    • 22 July 2022 at 1:10am
      murdoch gabbay says: @ JPH
      @JPH, @Vingtras: It's a deep question to ask from a capitalist point of view why university staff are being so poorly treated.

      Surely a capitalist system would be at least somewhat sensitive to the value that education adds, even if not all that value is directly captured.

      I give a market-based analysis of why this might be so in a THE article from March 2022, here:
      (permalink: ).

      Here is an overview: University employers are an oligarchy which is not responding to market forces at all: this is a *false* market. Instead, employers are responding to metrics --- e.g. REF and TEF, as mentioned by the author --- which in the context of UK HE can be only loosely correlated, or even inversely correlated with teaching quality.

      In other words: the shabby treatment of qualified HE staff, and the high burden of "data-gathering exercises like the REF and TEF, which absorb millions of hours of labour", are not incidental side-effects here. Instead, they are direct consequences of the system operating "correctly".

    • 22 July 2022 at 7:47am
      Khalid Mir says: @ JPH
      No, I don't think I would be better off.

      Part of the problem is that 'productivity' is simulated (as the great Mark Fisher said). It's part of the neo-liberal agenda to have us all self-optimize according to a criteria that academics wouldn't ordinarily subscribe to and thereby forcing them to justify their own or the department's existence. What is the 'productivity' of an English lit. professor, or a specialist in medieval history?

      Begs the question: why isn't there enough money in the system? In America (and I suspect in the UK as well) an increasing chunk is taken up by the army of managerial staff, administrators and HR folks. If you get the chance, read Peter Fleming's excellent Dark Academia.

      I'm *not* saying academics aren't complicit in the emergence of the neo-liberal university, but it's a bit more complicated than there's not enough money. It's part of a long trend to turn human capacities and nature into capital. Students, too, must be made into little capitalists, investing in themselves (because the state won't..not can't). I think that's one of the reasons for the huge increase in fees (see Colini in the LRB on the Browne Report). Plus the added advantage of getting everyone into debt (over $1.6 trillion in America).

    • 22 July 2022 at 10:05am
      JPH says: @ Khalid Mir
      I think you interpreted better off in a different way than I meant it (or you are thinking of being better off now not in 10 or 20 years).

      I meant the best result for the system in the long term would be advocating to change it e.g. working with say the Labour Party to prioritise a new university plan (change objectives, funding, etc.., seems like something positive they could present, being somewhat short of policies at the moment...)

      I say that as my own view is that complaining typically isn't a very effective way of changing things. Striking can work but only in quite specific circumstances and it's unlikely to address long term issues. So if you think universities can be better run (and I imagine they can be), explain how and why. (Not to me I suppose but people who might be able to change things).

      To take your specific example, show how the administrative cost of running a university is rising as a proportion of funding. Hardly anybody of any political persuasion is going argue that admin and managerial functions are directly productive or valuable work. Then work out how it could be reduced.

      I also think you could reframe productivity (capture the language, what does the word itself matter...). I fully agree that the trend toward data capture and the measurement of everything is bad, as some things cannot be easily measured. Equally, there must be good and bad academics as there are in all jobs and there are things academics are trying to achieve be it original research, education etc... I don't think its unreasonable to think there should be incentives encouraging these outcomes, and organising around them is hardly as difficult as trying to solve the hard problem, as it were. This is nothing to do with capitalism or socialism its about working out how best to organise a university so it can add as much to society as possible. This would (probably) involve binning the idea of a 'market' (this is an ideological position that goes against most education economics I know of) but as the Collini article states
      - "which is not to say that they do not need to be financially well run and to make good use of their, at present largely public, resources".

      I suspect the student debt horse as bolted. I don't like student debt and was fortunate (and am old) enough that the govt paid me to go to university. However, my (socialist) labour economics tutor was fully in favour of a graduate tax ......

      In short, all the comments, including in essence the Collini article, focus on what is bad and how not to do things. Somebody needs to say how things should be done. Is that really so controversial?

    • 22 July 2022 at 12:35pm
      JPH says: @ murdoch gabbay
      Thanks a lot. I like that article. What is the Labour policy on higher Education - there is likely to be an infrequent opportunity at the next election to change the system somewhat?

      BTW, without wishing to be picky, there are probably too many universities to call the market an oligopoly, barriers to entry is a different concept. It doesn't matter what the market structure is though if way in which demand is rationed (metrics it seems and some quite stupid ones) doesn't work well.

    • 22 July 2022 at 12:36pm
      XopherO says: @ JPH
      "I don't think its unreasonable to think there should be incentives encouraging these outcomes, and organising around them is hardly as difficult as trying to solve the hard problem" There were always natural incentives, and still are - one that was strong for me was the respect of my peers, and I suppose it still is behind the garbage of performance related pay, research funding etc. which becomes an end in itself ultimately unrelated to performance but related to how well you can smooze (and talk and write), in research networks, university committees, with PVCs, the VC and more. How to change this? Probably impossible now, it is too ingrained. Only a revolution...

    • 22 July 2022 at 1:28pm
      Khalid Mir says: @ JPH
      No, it's not controversial but it's not realistic. I may be wrong but I doubt if the Left-or what remains of it-has any ideas that are *substantially* different from the Right (I like what del Noce says here: the left has become radically bourgeois). Also-Graeber's point-it's dominated by a professional/managerial/metro class. Why would they change anything when they've benefited from the system?

      Also, forty years of neo-liberalism can't be so easily undone or reversed. So, yes, I agree there are deeper issues.

      It's not about "complaining". I know lots of people who have better ideas but it's about institutional/managerial control and the lack of democratic governance. If history teaches us anything it's surely that collective action is necessary. i.e. it's not just about: "Oh, I've got a better idea, please listen to me."

      The discussion about 'incentives' and outcomes is a long one. Who defines what the outcomes are, for example? 'Incentives' only make sense against a background picture of 'the good' and the individual. Lots of work (Bowles, B. Frey) on how 'incentives' can actually 'crowd-out' other ways of acting and inter-acting. For a good discussion of this, see C. Crouch's 'Knowledge Corrupters'

      I'm afraid it has quite a lot to do with capitalism!

    • 22 July 2022 at 4:16pm
      JPH says: @ Khalid Mir
      Well then I suspect we simply disagree.

      My case would be that idea's have a track record of being realised and changing things in my lifetime. A small group working the system are responsible for : Brexit (read Kuper's book), Tuition Fees (and you can add the Browne report to it), Academy Schools, Privatisation, Minimum Wage (probably) etc..

      What success did collective action get for those alive today (beyond higher wages now and job losses 2 years later)? I can think of the equality rulings that followed strike action a long time ago (before any of the things above) but not much else. What have I missed?

      As for incentives, all I mean is that they are a fact of organisations and systems whether they are overt or not, and all objectives (for the individual - e.g. status, or the body e.g. student numbers) means something else is de-prioritised (or crowded out if you like). Nothing is perfect, and none of just get to do as we please so its 'good' to set sensible objectives and have an organisation with positive incentives.

      I don't really think this is strictly to do with capitalism either. Its perfectly possible to think its important to nurture employees and have long term goals, as a manger of a profit seeking company (including in the media). I worked and invested in one large company like that and founded another (albeit a small one). Not all business has to be run for the maximum profit today and screw the workers - some companies do that, but it doesn't have to be that way and such thinking will often fail (and the more important people are to the business, the more often that approach does fail). This is something I would hope to know something practical about and I think incentives are derived from objectives, which can target the short or long term, tend toward risky outcomes or prudent survival, and many other things. Market outcomes and equilibria come in multiple forms not a single one. Its about individuals as much as anything else.

    • 22 July 2022 at 7:59pm
      Khalid Mir says: @ JPH
      I don't think anyone is arguing that anyone should get to do what they please. What a bizarre inference! Part of the problem centres around what is meant by 'sensible objectives'. I honestly don't know what you mean by "positive incentives". Are you Californian, by any chance?

      Well, I agree, it doesn't *have* to be that way (John Kay makes this point). But capitalism has a tendency towards extraction and exploitation. If it's in the interest to 'invest' long-term I'm sure that's what will happen. But right now I think it's geared to short-term goals ("quarterly capitalism") and rent-seeking. I think even some business school academics now recognize this (Roger L. Martin: ' More is not always better').

      Also, the *ideas* of social justice, welfare and co-operation from the post-war period helped reign in the more destructive forces of unbridled capitalism. The alternative ideas were always there but only got a chance to be put into practice with Thatcher et al. And that's where we are. I don't see how you can go back without a change in ideas and sensibilities. Perhaps the younger generation are seeing through the BS. That's my impression,anyway. And on that positive note...

    • 23 July 2022 at 8:55am
      JPH says: @ Khalid Mir
      "Are you Californian, by any chance?" That is pretty funny - my writing must not reflect my personality at all.

      Personally, I think your focus on language is a problem, it means you focus on semantics and not practical things. I would have thought its obvious that what I meant was "incentives for academics to mix research and teaching and pastoral education to improve the knowledge of society and their students" or if not that then whatever academics should be doing and I said positive because its shorter and to differentiate it from what you and many others see (I don't doubt correctly) as negative things you have to do today.

      Its the same with obsessing about systems, which mostly reflect what societies are like at any one point in time. (I did read recently that this systems/people dichotomy was an important difference between left and right leaning approaches - but I'm afraid I can't find the link).

      Maybe you missed the point of my post but we were disagreeing about whether ideas have an impact and can change things - maybe you came round to my point of view as your post is perilously close to admitting that, excepting that you don't seem to think Academics can change a small thing like how universities are managed...Its a bit defeatist. I do know a couple of academics who have recently set up a new UK university, I'm quite interested following this discussion to find out more about how they did this and how they are managing it.

      Anyway, whether we disagree or not, I have enjoyed this debate. Thanks very much for engaging with me. (Did you right Ethics and Economic Theory?)

      BTW Kay was one of my tutors. I'm probably more influenced by his writing than anything else in general economics .

    • 23 July 2022 at 11:17am
      Khalid Mir says: @ JPH
      No, I agree with you, JPH. I think things can change and good ideas always constitute a part of that change. I'm just suggesting that in addition there's a need to: 1) honestly assess where the core problems lie (funding is, to my mind, something of a red herring) and, 2) collectively organize instead of retreating into individual complaining (who said I couldn't do optimism?!).

      There are many problems- such as the balance between research and 'transmission'. Since the 1870's the dominance of research and science has changed the shape of universities so "pastoral care" is really an antiquated notion (Nietzsche saw this in his brilliant 1870s lectures-reprinted as 'Anti-Education'..."Don't look for anything spiritual in the university").

      So, a lot of the issues really are quite old: specialization, the tying of "useful" knowledge to the state or the market, the forlorn attempt to retrieve the humanities tradition (Great Books-see Chad Wellmon) in the face of these changes. MacIntyre has a great discussion with J. Dunne on the difficulty of going back to a catholic understanding of the university. In that sense the problem is, as you rightly say, wider than just the "neo-liberal university" (W. Dereseiwicz is very good here).

      And then there's the elephant in the room which is that we're living in an age of distraction-and possibly one which sees the end of bookishness.

      Yes, I'm afraid I did write the book. Mainly to get the department off my back so I could go back to lazing around in true Kashmiri style.

      Keep well and salams,


    • 23 July 2022 at 3:22pm
      JPH says: @ Khalid Mir
      thanks let's end on that (sort of ) positive note.
      Khuda Hafiz

      (my wife is from the maelstrom that is Karachi....)

  • 21 July 2022 at 12:49pm
    Patrick Cotter says:
    The universities are inadequately financed because successive UK governments raise too little tax to pay for services and spends too much of it on a military which doesn't have the imperialist reach anymore to do anything adequate with its billions-costing ships, missiles, fighter and tank squadrons. Labour MPs barred from picket lines???!! Starmer is wonderful for not scaring the heehawing horses at the Tory-Pravda Press. Perhaps when the time comes for him to be ennobled he can be called Lord HeeHaw like the working-class Quisling that he is. If the Tory rank and file's sexism can outTrump their racism and select Truss as leader there would be an open-door for any competent opposition. Sadly the SNP does not field candidates in Albion.

  • 21 July 2022 at 2:05pm
    XopherO says:
    University staff are weak because union membership is relatively low compared, and even then many are members for the personal insurance against being got at by management and don't follow the voted action. Those who are not members take advantage of what the unions can get without paying for it in cash or action (loss of pay) In my experience albeit some time ago, HE unions were not good at expanding membership and spent too much time on matters that did not really concern the members, jockeying for position and those at the top not wanting to compromise their job opportunities outside education (I am sure they are threatened if they are too bold for government liking). But above all there is the mantra 'we don't want to hurt our students'. Naturally, but it seems like they are getting a poor deal anyway, so what the hell? They pay over £9000 a year for what? And that was only ever a way of pushing a large slice of the funding off the balance sheet, now not allowed but the farce continues. The government gains very little because it is still responsible for loans and the poor return on the loans for a variety of reasons, hence upping the interest rate. (Corbyn wanted to cancel this stupid debt.)The vastly overpaid spivs who run universities don't care - their pensions are assured, and the number of serious academics among them has been in decline for years. In the grand scheme of things HE costs very little, so why not fund it properly?

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