Comment debates: The UCU strikes

“We must do more to help striking staff”

Sebastián Sánchez–Schilling

From the 22nd February, lecturers who are members of the University and College Union (UCU) will be going on strike.

The strike is against the proposed cuts to pensions by Universities UK (UUK), which represents higher education employers. The changes could see lecturers lose on average £10,000 a year from their pension, potentially meaning a loss of £200,000 during their retirement.

UUK proposes to scrap the assurance of a guaranteed level of income during retirement, instead making pension income wholly contingent upon the pension fund’s stock market performance. UCU members’ response was, literally, striking: 88% voted for strike action. Many students across the country are opposed to the strikes. But this opposition is misguided: many are unaware of what a strike is and what it entails.

Lecturers could lose up to £10,000 a year from their pension

Some would-be student supporters of the industrial action claim that it is important to minimise the impact on students. But it is wrong to suggest that lecturers can strike and not impact students. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

A strike is a collective decision to withdraw labour – to refuse to work – by workers, in order to draw concessions from employers or retain rights which are at risk. As such, any strike will inevitably impact students, not because of any ill will, but since teaching is the essence of tutors’ work.

Likewise, the UCU have not deliberately organised the strike during ‘summative season’. The timing is the fault of UUK, who took action against lecturers’ pensions, not the tutors themselves, who would surely rather be teaching and not potentially losing three weeks’ worth of pay.

Strikes will impact students because teaching is the essence of tutors’ work

Some represent those striking as either malicious or unconcerned with the wellbeing of students, suggesting they are using us as bargaining chips. Why else would they go on strike at this time? But most higher education professionals are deeply committed to their students. One of the biggest drawbacks of striking for lecturers is the impact it will have on students.

Similarly, the UCU have demonstrated in the past that they have students’ interests at heart. They have been at the forefront of the fight against the marketisation of higher education; against tuition fees being implemented and increased.

An educator’s job is to provide the best teaching environment possible, which means actively supporting students – even if, in the case of the walk-outs, that’s not always so clear-cut.

Students now think of themselves as consumers, as if lecturers merely ‘provide a service’

So why should students support the strike? Most importantly, because this attack on pensions is just another acceleration of the marketisation of higher education under the Conservative government. Profit has usurped learning as the primary function of a university. Because of the exorbitant fees charged, students now think of themselves as consumers, demanding in petitions across multiple institutions this week that money ‘spent’ on lost lectures is returned. As if lecturers merely ‘provide a service’.

In contrast, Vice-Chancellors’ pay has ballooned, though few students know what they actually do. Meanwhile, students are paying more for less, as staff and contact hours are cut even as fees increase. Nowhere is this truer than at Durham – with increases conspicuously ignoring the fact that our University only received a Silver in the Teaching Excellence Framework. The idea of the university as a place for learning, a community between students and staff, is on its death-bed.

We should support the strikes because of the long-term harm that the pension changes, unopposed, would cause. They could discourage current academics from coming to the UK. Those currently in post-graduate study – who may feel particularly threatened by the impact of strikes on their teaching role – could opt for work outside of academia. Overall, the quality of our education will drop , as tutors’ teaching conditions are our learning conditions. The interests of students and staff are not mutually exclusive.

The longer the picket-line, the shorter the strike

Moreover, clear and vocal support for the strike is the best way to prevent or shorten it – and its negative impact. Ambiguous notions which support the strike, but also permit pickets to be crossed, will only strengthen UUK’s resolve, in the face of apparent division. In contrast, if the full force of a student body was behind the strike, then that would put overwhelming pressure on the administration to get back to the negotiating table. The longer the picket-line, the shorter the strike.

Finally, is it too much to ask that we support the strikes because the cut to pensions is simply wrong? It contravenes the contract under which lecturers entered work, and tramples on workers’ rights. There are, undoubtedly, good reasons for students to support strike action, and those condemning educators are wholly misrepresenting their position.

“These strikes will unfairly hurt students’ learning”

Natalya Evans

It might be a long way off, but when you retire, how would you like a pension linked to your salary, that increases with inflation each year, and provides generous medical coverage and family benefits?

Sound great? Well if you’re under 30, dream on. Virtually no major British company offers this type of ‘defined benefit’ scheme to new staff any more. Those days are long gone unless you are lucky enough to be a Durham lecturer in the ‘final salary section’ of the snappily entitled ‘Universities Superannuation Scheme’ (‘USS’).

Students will have to bear the financial burden if nothing changes

But why are pension plans changing now? Well it boils down to the unsustainable costs of the current form, the cost of which will significantly increase next year to be an extra 37% on top of a lecturer’s salary. To put this in context, a pension cost of 37% would be the equivalent to the annual fees of around six thousand home students. Of course, the lecturers contribute to that 37% as well and you might think that they will contribute more to meet rising costs.

But it doesn’t seem so. Looking at the proposals, they’ll still only pay around 8% of their salary. The difference will need to come from the University’s income, of which students provide about a half.

So, what if the lecturers get their way? Who will bear this financial burden? The answer: current and future students. As life expectancy increases, the burden on the ever-diminishing working age population also grows. Ultimately, you and I will pay for the current largesse either through increased university fees or general taxation, with no prospect of securing similar benefits for ourselves or our offspring.

Something needs to be done. The status quo is not an option.

To be fair, lecturers have already suffered. In 2016, USS reduced benefits and introduced some capping. Still, suffice to say that the 2016 changes and the proposed ones will still result in a comfortable retirement for most Union members. Pensions may not be as generous as they were before, but lecturers will be infinitely better off than the 1.1 million pensioners who rely on the measly state pension.

This is the way of the world – why should one group be unduly shielded?

To be clear, the benefits lecturers have already built are not under threat – they just won’t build up a pension as quickly going forward, although their pension will still include all the lovely ancillary benefits. In order to secure the same benefits that the USS scheme provides today, you’d have to pay at least 60% of your salary. Lecturers could always contribute more of their salary to a personal pension if they wanted to make up any shortfall.

USS is jointly backed by 350 educational institutions which benefit from significant levels of state funding. All 350 would need to go bust before the pension scheme ends up in the PPF, the Government’s lifeboat protection scheme. That’s very, very unlikely. Just ask the pensioners of BHS or Carillion about the importance of the backing of these 350 institutions.

Where do the students come in all this? Firstly, the lecturers’ dispute is with the University, not students. By affecting us, they are merely aping selfish striking train drivers who leave millions of commuters stranded, causing them to lose their jobs, incur extra costs, and endure disruption to their family lives. Whatever happened to the nobility of public service?

It will be hard to make up for lost contact hours

Secondly, existing contact hours are minimal for many Durham students, particularly in the humanities. Reducing these further is totally unjustified. This lost time will be difficult to make up.

When you look objectively, yes, lecturers are taking a hit to their pensions. But that’s just the way of the world these days. It’s difficult to see why one group in particular should be unduly shielded.

As for the University itself, its position is not to pay striking lecturers for their strike days. By the same token, I expect that the University will refund the students for services not provided by those striking lecturers. Provisions offered by lesserqualified replacement staff will not be tolerated. Perhaps I shall ask my law lecturers for an opinion. If they are available, of course.

Illustrations: Katie Butler

One Response

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  1. CM Draycott
    Feb 22, 2018 - 11:36 AM

    Students are not the bargaining chip. Our expertise and labour is. This highly specialised labour comes at a cost of years of training, making it through very fierce job competition and 15+ hour days balancing teaching prep, admin and research, all required for the job, but not squeezable into a ‘normal’ work frame. We shouldn’t be asked to just suck it up and go along with a trend of merely paying lip service to value of the staff in unis.


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