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As Solidarity goes to press, staff at 64 universities are on the fourth day of strikes over pensions which began on Thursday 22 February. Seven more universities are due to join in coming weeks.
There has been a strength of feeling on the picket lines unprecedented in recent university disputes. A thousand people joined a protest at Bristol, and at many other campuses numbers have been in the hundreds.
The University and College Union (UCU) has already processed 3,000 new membership applications, with an estimated 2,000 more in the queue. At Reading University membership is up 30%.
The strike — which involves student support staff, librarians and IT workers as well as academics — is over the employers’ plan to end ″defined benefit″ (DB) pensions and instead impose a ″defined contribution″ (DC) scheme. While DB guarantees a certain level of income in retirement, DC pensions are dependent on stock market performance and could leave many staff £200,000 worse off. The bosses claim this is necessary to address a deficit in the pension fund, but their numbers assume a substantial rise in life expectancy (which is currently falling) and that they’ll be paying 4.4% annual pay rises for the foreseeable future. The last annual pay rises were in fact 1.7%, 1.1% and 1%: this is a clear case of fixing the figures to get the result management wants. And had the employers not cut their own contributions from 18.55% to 14% in 1997, the deficit (even defined on their terms) would not exist today.
The situation has been made worse by the Government’s marketisation of universities: the less the universities look like a part of the public sector, the more risky the Government’s own Pensions Regulator will judge their financial situation. Although the USS pension fund in fact has enough contributions coming in to cover all its pension outgoings for the next 40 years, the Regulator insists that risk must be calculated on a scenario of the entire university sector collapsing. This did not happen when England actually had a Civil War, nor during either World War, and in the event of nuclear annihilation a pensions collapse would be the least of anyone’s worries. It’s a transparent excuse to shift risk onto workers.
Many members are now looking at pensions of around £10,000 a year when they might have expected double that in the current system and even more in the old final salary scheme (closed in 2016). For a long time a reasonable pension has been one of the few compensations for declining pay and rising workloads in the sector. The level of anger perhaps shouldn’t be surprising.
In the face of solid strikes, almost a third of vice-chancellors at striking universities have called for talks, which will go ahead on Tuesday 27 February. But they’ve insisted they can’t discuss the substantial issue of the switch to DC. Even the Tory universities minister Sam Gyimah has called for talks without preconditions! UCU has agreed to talk but has rightly said that the strikes stay on.
The dispute is also proving an opportunity for staff to express their anger at the wider way higher education is run. At Birmingham and Warwick Universities over two-thirds of teaching is delivered by staff on short-term or casual contracts. Across the sector 53% of academic staff are employed on insecure, non-permanent contracts. Many of them have spent (or will spend) seven years or more studying through undergraduate, Masters and PhD for these jobs, incurring massive debts along the way.
The decision on DC pensions itself seems to have involved undue influence by Oxbridge colleges, which were all allowed individual votes (on the University Challenge principle) while much larger universities with many more pension scheme members got only one vote each. A Channel 4 investigation has revealed scandalous expense claims by vice-chancellors, including one who got £1600 for the cost of relocating his pet dog to the UK from Australia. Right-wing commentators have used this as an excuse to say universities are getting too much public subsidy. But the real comparison ought to be with rank-and-file university migrant staff who have pay thousands for their own visa costs from their own pockets: it’s quite something when the VC’s dog gets a better deal than the workers.
It’s now clear that the deficit is a lie, and that the threat of poverty in retirement is real. Employers promised in 2011 and 2016 that cuts to pensions then would be the last: no-one is going to believe them a third time. The pay lost through sustained strikes now will be difficult, especially for the lowest paid staff, but there are both national and local strike funds to support them. It is these precarious staff, saddled with huge student debt and priced out of the housing market, who — if they stay in university jobs — have the most to lose from the pension cuts.
Support from Labour MPs, who’ve visited picket lines and posted solidarity messages on social media, has been excellent, and a far cry from attitudes in the party a decade ago, although public statements have tended to focus on calling for meaningful negotiations rather than saying what they might do in power. The LibDems, typically opportunistic, have called on the Government to underwrite the pension scheme, a promise that Labour could and should better with a guarantee to match the Teachers’ Pension Scheme provision for staff in post-92 universities.
The biggest danger facing the dispute now is that UCU calls off the strikes on a promise of talks
but no firm commitment. In the junior doctors’ dispute the bosses tried this and managed to scupper the momentum of the action. That’s a big risk in universities, with limited times in the academic year when action can be truly effective.
Branches need to stay firm and make clear that the dispute will continue until the employers make an offer that doesn’t mean poverty in old age.