From next Thursday, academic staff organised in the University and College Union (UCU) will engage in 14 days of strike action over a period of 4 weeks at 61 universities across the UK. The strikes come in response to an attempt by Universities UK (UUK), the federation of managers of British universities, to push through sweeping reforms to employees’ pensions, potentially cutting lecturers’ eventual pensions by as much as £10,000 per year.
Here, rs21 interviews Owen M, a UCU member who will be taking part in the strike.
The immediate cause of the strike action is the attempt by Universities UK to end guaranteed pension benefits, making employees’ final pension pay-outs conditional on how their pension funds perform as investments. But this obviously isn’t the first attack on lecturers and teaching staff in recent years. What have the last few years been like for Higher Education (HE) workers?
The last few years have seen the marketisation and privatisation of HE that began in earnest under Labour really picking up pace. We all knew that the introduction of £9,000 fees and the ending of the teaching grant would have profound effects on HE in the UK, but now those effects are really beginning to make themselves felt.
We’ve also seen the lifting of caps on student numbers, which I think has had just as profound an effect, with universities now locked into all-out competition with one another for students. While many universities are raking in more money than ever and paying their vice-chancellors ever-increasing salaries, other universities are much more vulnerable and could find themselves in serious financial trouble over the next few years. The logic of the market is also working its way down through institutions to department level and even individual staff level. Essentially we are moving towards the stage where every lecturer will have to prove that they are making money for the institution either through research income or by bringing in students. This process is being accelerated by the current government’s Teaching Excellence Framework, which is like a cut-price version of Ofsted, designed to enforce market discipline on universities and sort the ‘weak’ institutions from the ‘strong’.
Obviously in this context HE workers have seen their pay and conditions worsen. We have had years of below-inflation pay rises, leading to a significant fall in incomes overall. We’ve also seen the large-scale casualisation of the workforce as increasing numbers of students are taught not by full-time permanent lecturers but by graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) and teaching fellows who go from one fixed-term contract to another. On top of all this we have undoubtedly seen an incredible intensification of academic work over recent years with everyone expected to do more on every front: teaching, research, administration, grant seeking, public engagement etc. This has given rise to increasing problems of mental health among workers in HE, which is mirrored in the epidemic of mental health problems among our students. HE is becoming a very unhealthy place to work!
Support for a strike action has been deeper than expected in the recent ballots – sometimes much so. Why might that be?
Actually the level of support has come as a surprise to pretty much everyone, including myself. For me the (pleasant) surprise of this result was particularly strong because I had assumed that the defeats, half-defeats and betrayals of the last few years, over pay and pensions, would have made members extremely cynical and untrusting of the UCU leadership. They have certainly had that effect on me. But, thinking about it, there are some clear causes behind this big result. The most obvious one is that the scale of the attack on pensions is so large. If you are planning to cut our retirement income by an average of 30%-40% that is really going to make people sit up and think, we have to fight this, we have no choice! Another factor is clearly the Tory anti-union law which forced the UCU leadership to run an extremely active get-the-vote out campaign. When it got to the stage where I was being regularly targeted in my Facebook and Instagram feeds by UCU voting ads I knew they’d really thrown everything into it. I think the leading bodies of the UCU have also shifted a bit and become more positive about serious industrial action and that had a positive effect on the vote and the campaign to get the vote out.
Yes, I would never rule that out with the UCU. In my mind this dispute could play out something like this: after the ballot result the UUK comes back with a slightly better offer on pensions, the UCU then temporarily calls off the strikes, losing any momentum, negotiations resume and eventually a couple of months down the line we are sold a rubbish deal that is only slightly better than the initial UUK/USS position. However, it doesn’t look as though it’s playing out that way. This is partly because the employers seem to have dug in and are not showing signs of shifting. Also – this going against my more cynical instincts – the UCU leadership seem to be very serious about this dispute, especially when you consider what they have invested in it so far and the fact that they’ve immediately opted for the most serious national strike action we’ve probably ever seen in HE.
One issue for labour organisers in Higher Education has been the steep gap between many younger and newer employees, who endure more flexible and precarious working conditions, and their more established co-workers. Is that division making itself felt in the run-up to the strike days? And what efforts can be made to overcome it?
I can only go on what I’ve seen in my institution, which is not necessarily typical. We have a very active workforce of GTAs and teaching fellows (TFs) who have won significant victories in recent years. They are also deeply involved in the running of our branch and we know that casualised teachers will be crucial to our strike action, forming part of the backbone of pickets and so on. But of course there are also differences in how the dispute will affect those precarious lecturers compared to permanent staff. This is particularly true because casualised lecturers do so much of the frontline teaching on large courses and may well have to spend a lot more time actually talking to students and explaining to them why the strike is happening. They are also more acutely affected by the loss of pay, which could mean the difference between being able to pay the rent and not. It’s therefore a very welcome development that the UCU is offering national strike pay. I believe many local branches will also set up hardship funds for precarious staff. Another aspect is: how does the pensions issue play for young, precarious HE workers who are thinking about surviving day to day rather than retiring in 30-40 years’ time? In our branch reps for GTAs and TFs have made the excellent point that a Defined Benefit pension is one of the only bits of security and stability that precarious HE workers have to hold on to. They may move around from institution to institution for a large chunk of their career but they can always take this pension with them and it offers a guaranteed income at retirement.
In recent wins on campuses for support staff, such as cleaners, solidarity from students, and campaigns to tarnish the public reputations of the universities as employers, have been critical. How feasible is it for academic staff, likewise, to build that kind of support and bring public pressure to bear on management?
I suppose academic staff in some places will be able to rely on the support of other staff, because of that recent history of solidarity between students, lecturers and support staff. Although that is probably limited to a fairly small number of institutions. As for gaining wider support I’m not sure. I think we will get a lot of support from students who know that we work hard and will be shocked when they hear the extent to which our pensions are being attacked. Although that student support will no doubt be variable too. I don’t think the wider public has much of an understanding of what has been going on in HE, in the way that they probably do for the NHS, for example. So I’m not expecting a huge amount of wider public support. It will be interesting to see what happens once the dispute is in full swing and if the mainstream press and media go after us. That will be a test to see if we do have wider support and understanding among the public.
Last question – what can students do if they do want to support the campaign?
The two main things that students can do are to send messages of support and solidarity to their lecturers and to complain to university vice-chancellors and senior managements. The ideal situation is that they show their support for us while at the same time complaining vociferously to university managements about how their expensive education is being jeopardised by universities short-sightedly trying to cut the future pay of their hard-working staff. These 14 days of strikes really do have the potential to adversely affect the education of many students, which, while unfortunate, is the only way to put serious pressure on the employers.