Lecturers in around half of Britain’s universities started eight days of strike action on Monday 24 November. UCU (University and Colleges Union) members are taking action in fifty-six institutions over pay and working conditions and in forty-six about pensions (the two groups overlap to a large extent but not completely). The disputes are important both in themselves but also as part of a long process of struggle against neo-liberalism and marketisation in higher education.
The pensions dispute follows on from a previous set of strikes which took place in early 2018, in response to proposals to dramatically change the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). These were a spectacular success for UCU, with 20,000 new members joining the union and mass support for the action from students. The fourteen days of strikes led to significant initial concessions from the employers and referral of the discussion of USS changes to an independent panel. The panel’s report largely supported the union case and the employers have to some extent drawn back from the most far-reaching proposals to change the scheme. But they are demanding a significant increase in contributions from members at a time when real pay for staff in higher education has fallen year on year for decades.
The pay and conditions dispute covers four issues – pay, casualisation of contracts, gender equality and workloads. The strikes reflect not just anger about pay levels but also the dramatic shift within universities towards increased reliance on precarious work, including widespread use of temporary contracts. Many universities employ a large number of staff on zero hour contracts. The impact of these developments and the changing character of the sector have created unprecedented levels of stress and have had a particular impact on women workers. All of this lies behind the willingness of UCU members to take action.
Who is involved?
The strikes don’t cover all universities. Only universities where the majority of staff are in the USS were balloted on pensions – essentially the older `pre-92’ institutions, as opposed to the `post-92’ universities (the former polytechnics and those universities created since 1992) where lecturers are generally in the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) and other staff are in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). Because of the successful previous USS dispute and the impact of this on branch membership and activism and because USS institutions were balloted together on pay, conditions and pensions the turnout at pre-92 universities was much higher than at post-92 universities in the strike ballot. Consequently, most pre-92 universities reached the 50% turnout threshold for taking action and are involved in both disputes. Only a relatively small number of post-92 universities reached this threshold for the pay and conditions ballot and are currently on strike. The remaining institutions are likely to reballot soon and hopefully will join in a second wave of action if the dispute is not resolved by the current strikes.
At a time when national strikes have become relatively rare here, a strike of eight continuous working days after fourteen days of action the previous year is significant. It indicates the scale of the transformation of higher education over the last two decades (particularly the last few years) and the impact of this on workers in the sector.
The central development, of course, was the introduction of a £9,000 fee for students by the coalition government in 2010. But almost as significant as this was the removal of caps on student numbers for individual universities in 2014. This further ramped up the marketisation of the sector and led to ferocious competition for students and the rapid expansion of some universities while others struggle to attract enough applicants.
The consequence has been an explosion of expenditure on both residential accommodation and teaching buildings, often in partnership with private developers, funded by a massive increase in the debt taken on by institutions. The administration of this process has led to substantial recruitment of management staff, often on large salaries, and a rapidly widening pay divide within universities. Top management and `star’ academics have reaped significant rewards from the competition between institutions while teaching, research and support activities are largely carried out by low paid workers on precarious contracts. Universities have thus become emblematic of the neo-liberal workplace.
But this neo-liberal model has become increasingly fragile in recent years owing to the breakdown in the political consensus around ever-increasing student fees. The last three years of capped fees (and the possibility of their abolition by an incoming Labour government) have led the employers to attack pay and conditions even more and to become ever more reluctant to divert funds from their preferred objectives towards areas such as pension contributions.
Competition between institutions is becoming ever more intense, partly as a result of falling numbers of 18 year olds and also because a number of prospective students are opting out of university study altogether as a result of spiralling debt. The threat of cuts to research funding as a result of Brexit has intensified all this.
The only possible way forward to a university sector which ensures a good education for students and decent working conditions for staff lies in rejection of the neo-liberal, marketised model of the university which has grown up since the initial introduction of student fees and has become dominant over the last decade.
This requires both action from the ground up with staff and students campaigning together and political change at a national level. That is why both the current strikes and the Labour pledge to abolish student fees are so important. At present the strikes have a mainly defensive character; reacting to the recent attacks on pensions and working conditions.
But as we saw in 2018, they can also provide part of the basis for renewed discussion of what universities should be for, especially in conjunction with the wave of student support for staff taking action and the inspiring anti-racist and environmental campaigns which students have initiated in many institutions. Drawing those links and also connecting strike activity with broader possibilities of political change at a national level will be crucial for ensuring a successful outcome to the current disputes.
Andy Kilmister, branch secretary of Oxford Brookes University UCU. He writes here in a personal capacity.