Strike out the Discourse, March Straight to the Facts

When discussing academia, it is almost wholly impossible to leave out the power trio of politics, power, and market sensitivity. The comingling of these three terms have fostered a platform for discontentment, conflict, and dissatisfaction with the happenings of the administration not solely in the United Kingdom, but worldwide. This article will focus on the current University and College Union (UCU) strikes regarding the University Superannuation Scheme (USS).  Starting 22nd of February, lecturers from over 61 of the United Kingdom’s top universities will be going on strike in hopes to enact a change in the current university pension scheme. Starting for most universities in 2013, universities begun to switch over to a new pension scheme: USS. This scheme provided a riskier solution to attempt to meet the original agreement universities had entered with their staff. To simplify the economics of the pension issue: universities promised a sum of money to staff that they financially could not maintain. In hopes to keep their promised pension sum, universities switched over to the USS pension plan in hopes that market fluctuation would boost pensions and provide a solution. Unfortunately, the market investments were susceptible to risk, and with sour investments at hand, staff could lose up to £10,000 of their pension per year.

Norwich public sector pensions march in November 2011, Image Courtesy of Roger Blackwell via Wikimedia Commons, © 2011, some rights reserved

In the career of academia, staff take daily risks. Doing research on an unknown topic, darting into the realm of the unexplored, universities have always endorsed discovery and innovation. However, because not all chances pay off, the secure pension provided stability. If research did not produce any ground breaking findings, staff were not penalised but covered by a pension that would account for their needs in retirement. This deduction in pension directly correlates with the quality of life lectures and professors will be eligible to lead not only in the present, but post university. The amount of time, dedication, and passion these academics put towards only their students but to their universities should not be rewarded with an unsustainable pension. To illustrate, the UCU on their website have outlined the progression of interest staff have been subjected to within the USS pension scheme:

Starting 1st April 2013

  1. staff earning under £26,000 or full-time equivalent will pay no more than currently.
  2. Staff earning £26,000 but under £32,000 will pay 0.6% extra a month.
  3. Staff earning £32,000 but under £45,000 will pay 1.2% extra a month.
  4. Staff earning more than £45,000 will pay between 2.1% and 2.4% extra per month.

As seen from these numbers, younger professors are being unfairly targeted by this pension scheme crisis. Due to the fact that these younger academics entered the field more recently, their pensions have been taking greater losses and will accumulate more and more narrowness as investments continue to sour. This is harmful not just to current professors, but those planning on entering the field of academia. With aching pensions and this new problematic structure, the desire to enter higher education as a profession is becoming less and less desirable. Not only will students lose out on new professors, but the strength of universities and the education they can provide as a whole, will weaken.

Now besides the economic side of the strikes, it is important to also dive into the politics of the strikes. Strikes will be taking place Thursday the 22nd of February and Friday the 23rd, adding a day each week until the full five-day strike through the Friday of March 16th, the 5th week of the protests.  While staff are justified in their actions to strike and exercise their freedom of speech in regards to their livelihood, this protest not only penalises the university, but it also punishes the students. Many students in their honours levels will be directly impacted by the strike, leaving them with less contact hours and point of references (as staff will not be answering email or coming into work). Dissertation questions will be unanswered, and students will lose value lectures that potentially could have served vital for their academic career. This creates a power struggle. If staff choose to strike, their students are hurt as a logical consequence. Not only will students be hurt academically, they will also be losing large amounts of paid contact hours, money and time that will not be reimbursed. However, the despite horrendous and detrimental consequences this strike could have for students, staff nevertheless have much more to lose. Staff who decide to strike and are not part of the UCU face even greater consequences. Not only will they be losing money each day they strike, they will also face harsh charges from the university, in some cases suspension or termination of contracts. So while students face the financial hit, academics are facing threats to their finances and profession. Below is a statement from Dr.  Anindya Raychaudhuri, lecturer in the School of English, and a committee member and Equalities Officer for St Andrews UCU:

“This unprecedented level of industrial action is certainly not wanted by the trade union, but is being forced on us by the complete refusal on the part of the Universities UK (representing the employers) to take part in any meaningful negotiations. This refusal to negotiate is even more shocking because the proposals represents the most significant and negative change to terms and conditions in the sector in the last twenty years. The Universities argue that these changes are necessary because of a deficit in the pension scheme. UCU believes that this deficit is the result of the valuation method chosen by USS, which assumes that the pension scheme could close tomorrow because the Higher Education sector as a whole could go bankrupt. We believe that for all practical purposes, the probability that this would occur is zero. 

It is important to recognize that the intransigent position taken by the University of St Andrews is not matched by all the other universities. Vice-Chancellors of Warwick, Birkbeck, Loughborough and Glasgow, among others, have publicly called for further negotiations, or for Universities UK to reverse the changes. University of St Andrews could do the same, and if your university truly had staff welfare as a priority, it would do so.

It is undeniably true that the proposed strike action will adversely affect your education. It is difficult to know how long the strikes will last, and how severe the effects will be. We have taken the decision to strike knowing this will happen, not because we do not care about your interests but because we have no other option. We would much prefer to go back to doing our jobs, but we would like to be able to feed ourselves when we retire. Over the last few years many of you are paying more than anyone has ever had to for a British University education, while our pay and conditions have become worse and worse.

The pensions changes represent a drastic move towards the ever-increasing marketization of education. We believe that is to the detriment of your education. Your university experience as a student, and the experience of subsequent generations of students is directly connected to our living and working conditions. The changes to the sector as a whole – stagnation of pay, increased casualization of labour, cuts to pensions – all of this mean that we will soon be in a world where academia is a viable career only for the rich. This is bad news for education everywhere. 

Please support our industrial action by writing to the Principal asking her to publicly call on Universities UK to return to meaningful negotiations. The Universities can avert strike action if they so wish. University of St Andrews has publicly declared that it cares deeply about its staff – now is the time to prove it.”

As seen in Dr. Raychaudhuri’s statement, students are being called to action as well, and should educate themselves as to how these strikes will not only effect their professors, but will, in a wider context, affect their education. While there is truth in the many campaigns to refund students for their class time missed, these concerns are not, and justifiably should not be the top priority of the university. The goal of the strikes is to raise awareness regarding the USS and its faulty profits and investments. However, only time will tell whether the faculty will succeed in their endeavours. As students, who benefit when the faculty benefits, our energy should be used in supporting their cause.

Leave a Reply