Starting Thursday February 22, members of the University College Union (UCU) at 61 universities will be taking strike action against proposed changes to their pension scheme, writes Nathan Roberts. Eighty eight per cent of UCU members balloted so far backed taking this historic strike action, with 6 more universities still being balloted. The action will occur on 14 days over 4 weeks –unless a deal is reached in the meantime, making it one of the longest higher education strikes in living memory.
Workers are taking strike action over the proposal by Universities UK – the organisation that represents Vice-chancellors and Principals across Britain to change the current pension scheme that academic staff at the affected institutions are part of, the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Currently, these people receive a defined amount over the course of their retirement, but UUK are proposing to change the system to one where worker’s pensions are tied to the value of investments. Under the new arrangement, academics could lose up to £10,000 a year of their pension, meaning total losses per person could be up to £200,000. More details about the strike can be found here.
The strike marks a ‘make or break’ moment for working conditions in the higher education sector. A defeat for the UCU on a matter as significant as this would give university managers the green light to ride roughshod over other rights and benefits university workers enjoy, pushing the HE sector further down the road of marketisation. A victory, on the other hand, could be the beginning of a wider fightback against the neoliberal university.
Student solidarity with striking staff is going to be key to helping maintain the strike. University staff’s working conditions are student’s learning conditions, and we have a common interest in defeating these reforms. We encourage all students to stand on picket lines, send messages of support to the striking staff and put pressure on their universities to drop the proposed changes to pensions.
At several universities, some students have begun petitioning to have their fees refunded for the period of the strike. While annoyance at missing a substantial portion of teaching time is understandable, this line of action fundamentally misses the point. It reinforces the idea that education being a commodity to be bought and sold, and has the potential to break solidarity between students and staff, implying that student support for the strike is conditional on fees being refunded.
Students should support striking staff unconditionally, with the understanding that this strike is inextricably linked to the ongoing marketisation of HE, a process which leaves jobs and courses cuts in its wake, lowing the overall quality of education.
With Labour’s unexpected surge last year being fuelled largely by students, the Conservatives are beginning to have second thoughts about their Higher Education policy, with May even hinting that tuition fees could be lowered in the near future. The blocking of the pension reform could be another nail in the coffin of the neoliberal reforms in universities.
Victory to the UCU!