By Sam Betley
After four weeks of disruptive strike action, it is important to remember that the majority of USS pension scheme members remain in work. Yet we still find ourselves impacted by a politically-motivated minority, who are prepared to turn students into collateral damage to protect a pensions model that is almost certainly unsustainable.
The biggest losers from the strike action are students. Given the presence of a vocal minority of student activists on the picket line, one might assume that we all support the ongoing withdrawal of labour. But this assumption ignores the silent majority who have either ignored the strike or actively opposed it. For every student hoping for a bumped-up grade by joining their lecturers on the picket line, there are dozens more spending the lost contact hours doing research for assignments for which they are receiving no additional guidance.
The exam season will soon be upon us. For many students, the mere prospect of exams is enough to cause anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues. It is therefore unacceptable that the University and College Union (UCU) has given university branches the freedom to set their own strike days, as a means of causing the maximum possible disruption.
When lecturers cross the picket line, they betray students
At this point, it is worth making a brief point about individual responsibility. UCU members enjoy blaming Universities U.K. (UUK) for the strike and its consequences. But those on the picket lines must accept that they still exercise a choice in deciding whether or not to walk-out. Therefore, if students suffer, those on strike are culpable. I would go further. Any lecturers who knowingly disrupt exams are betraying students. We may not have been the intended targets of the strike action. But students have become the real victims.
Some might counter by arguing that by striking, the lecturers are forfeiting their salaries. But the publicity they have gained by painting themselves as righteous moral crusaders means that they must surrender any pretensions of victimhood. Whether protesting the deportation of colleagues or congratulating each other with barely disguised left-wing buzzwords like “solidarity” or “marketisation”, proceedings at the New Inn crossroads have resembled a political rally more than a picket line.
Here is a fact about so-called marketisation that lecturers never like to hear. Higher education is an economic transaction. Those on strike can dress it up in as much intellectual language as they can muster. But it does not change the fact that we all pay at least £9, 000 per year for a service. That service is tuition, and it is not being delivered. In a market system, it is only fair to expect subsequent compensation. Sam Gyimah, the Universities Minister, is therefore right to argue that all expenditure saved from lecturers’ salaries should be redirected towards refunding students.
Why should lecturers be shielded from economic reality?
The strikes have already had an overwhelmingly negative impact on students. Is it worth it? Do the lecturers even have a sound economic basis for their stance? Cushy defined-benefit pension schemes are hardly suitable for the constrained financial times in which we find ourselves. In fact, academia is one of the few professions in which it is still the norm. There is no good reason for academics to be shielded from economic reality.
UUK tried to compromise with UCU following the hostile reaction of their members. Representatives of both organisations reached a compromise agreement last week, which included, crucially, an independent panel to review the deficit valuation methodology that is the root of the disagreement. In addition, the employer contribution to the pension scheme was set to rise from 18% – double the private sector average – to 19.3%, which would allow most members to retain their full defined-benefit pension.
However, this proposal was rejected by lecturers in rowdy, intimidating meetings at universities nationwide. Younger members do not seem to realise the irony that they are effectively striking against themselves: if older staff retain full benefits then there will be nothing left in the pot for those retiring in future decades. The popularity of #NoCapitulation among the intellectual Twitterati shows that lecturers are refusing to budge from their entrenched position. For them, it is now a case of absolute victory or nothing.
The strikes are now about making a political statement
I do have some sympathy with those who voted for strike action. It may be the case that the valuation methodology was faulty, and consequently that the proposed changes are unnecessarily radical. But I suspect not.
Alistair Jarvis, UUK’s Chief Executive, claims that the status quo requires a frankly unaffordable funding increase of £1 billion per annum. When this figure is combined with the huge impact of strike action on student welfare and academic performance, it becomes clear that lecturers are now making a political statement.
If it continues into the exam period, potentially affecting final degree marks and graduation dates, it will lead to hostility between students and staff never witnessed in U.K. Higher Education.
Photograph: Chris Bertram via Flickr and Creative Commons