The industrial action that took place last month was unprecedented, and it will set a precedent going forwards. Not only did tens of thousands of staff walk out across 65 universities, but as the most large-scale walkout by university staff ever in the UK, its outcome will undoubtedly set the tone for the direction of future policy.
After quite a bit of thought, I decided to support the strikes. It may seem a bit late in the day, but I came to this conclusion by agreeing with both the cause that the action was pursuing, and the course of action being taken to achieve those ends. Admittedly, striking was not a practical option, nor was it one that intimated or naturally inspired a great deal of support outside of the groups being affected. In this context, it put students under increased pressure. With fees increasing incrementally and exams looming, it was perhaps a natural response to bite back at the immediate cause of lost teaching time – the walk-out by staff. When discussing the industrial action, some of my peers argued that negotiations, petitions and protests would have been preferable, yet were unable to do more than canter around the reality that these means had already been exhausted and that the situation had escalated to a point where backing down would be fatal for either camp. Both sides were at loggerheads, with the government and relevant parties facing both fiscal pressure and the need to face off subliminal question-marks surrounding strength of leadership. In opposition, unions, staff and students fought not only to protect lecturers’ pensions, but on a larger scale, to push back against a growing trend of cuts against education, which was and will increasingly come to jeopardise the quality of academia in the UK.
Ultimately, I think we could not afford to do anything less than strike. A harsh reality anyone seeking to oppose government legislation will face, is learning that aside from having extreme lobbying power or exercising direct democracy, the only effective form of leverage a group can exercise is practical opposition. In this instance, that practical opposition was being effectively delivered via widespread strikes, picketing and occupations of university facilities, built upon cooperation between staff and students. This cooperation was widespread, with University College Union members supporting students in the occupation by supplying essentials and hot food when possible. Students were also involved in communications with the National Union of Journalists, National Union of Teachers and being an integral part of organising protests and online campaigns. Whilst sceptics have reminded me of the disruptive nature of the strikes, I would say this is indicative of their success. They have not yet achieved their goal by any means, but the fact that the UCU had rejected the first deal offered by Universities UK shows that they not only had confidence in the scale of their support, but also intended to go the distance. This was not a protest, it was a concrete rejection of injustice.
I say ‘we’ in regard to strikes because despite the best efforts and divisive rhetoric of individuals such as the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah, the interaction between university staff and students is naturally built upon cooperation. Lecturers, among other staff, have an almost quasi-parental role in the lives of their students, offering not only support but teaching skills and providing the next generation with the necessary tools for academic and professional life. As such, the responsibility of fighting the corner of the UCU and its members should fall upon all of those involved in academia. In the same way that university staff help us gain the skills and qualifications necessary to pursue our ambitions in later life, should we not try and help them protect their basic needs? In an effort not to sound quixotic, I urged readers to look at the implications beyond the short-term inconvenience they were being caused. Morally, the motion of abandoning the Defined Benefits Scheme for pensions is reprehensible. It is not as if these cuts were a new phenomenon – of course cuts have occurred across different sectors in recent years. But what some may not know is that two cuts to lecturers’ pensions and a real-term pay cut of 20% have already occurred since 2009. In short, the Defined Contribution Scheme that was being contested, will see some staff lose over 60% of the pension they were led to expect when they began working. To put this in more tangible terms, your average Queen Mary lecturer will be £10,000 a year worse-off with these changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme – the largest private pensions scheme for UK universities. That roughly equates to the same loss as going on strike for five years straight, without pay. This new scheme is designed to be more financially viable on the basis that it is subject to changes in the stock market, which is ironic considering lecturers’ wages have always fallen short of being in line with other market forces, such as inflation. The irony goes beyond prophetic and almost into the realm of the ridiculous when one learns that at the same time as pension and pay cuts, the executive of the USS has received a pay rise of 17%, and two of his co-workers are now on over one million pounds per year. While much of what I have said thus far is either my own unchecked rhetoric or hypothetical statistics, what I hope a reader can take away is the solidarity behind a cause on one side, and a lack of evidence demonstrating a concern for the quality of academia on the other side.
In practice, one must remember that university staff are here to help us as students but are also here to work. As with any form of employment, one seeks an appropriate income and a pension that will sustain them in their old age. What one must also remember is that academics often choose this occupation, not out of necessity, but out of a genuine interest in sharing their expertise in a field, often alongside another occupation that allows them to exercise this expertise. It should be impermissible that a situation arises in which such talented individuals are put off of entering into academia in this country. It is little surprise that the UK welcomes swathes of students from around the world, into a sphere with access to such high-quality teaching. But this will not continue if talented individuals are greeted with the prospect of cuts, long hours and impoverished retirement. The idea that these cuts are occurring under a guise of good business and financial feasibility is beyond laughable. One need only take a few moments to realise that the UK economy is built upon tertiary and quaternary sector employment and ultimately, highly skilled business, research and service labour. Such an economy is only viable with a population that is well-educated by the best individuals in their respective fields. This will not be possible with current measures of short-sighted and ham-fisted fiscal retrenchment.
In a poor attempt at paraphrasing one of these skilled individuals I have discussed, a university is a community of scholars and students, not a ruthless business. Learning and the sharing of ideas should be at the forefront and defended at any cost.