Sophie Berry argues that anger from the student body over planned strikes by university staff is misdirected
Calls this week came for members of the Universities and College Union (UCU) to take part in 14 days of strike action. The proposed strikes will take place across a four-week period, beginning with a five-day walkout between Thursday 22nd February and Wednesday 28th February, followed in the next two weeks by a further four-day and five-day walkout, respectively.
The strikes, which will be implemented by staff and academics across 61 institutions – including UCL – have been organised in response to plans to cut Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions by up to £10,000 a year. These pensions are part of a national scheme and such cuts could see individuals lose up to £200,000 across the duration of their retirement. These plans have been announced since it was revealed that the USS faces a deficit of £17.9bn.
The USS, which is not backed by the government, is the main pension scheme for UK universities with over 390,000 members – 184,000 of which currently contribute towards a pension. For them, concern over the increasing deficit is not something new; in 2014, it was revealed that the USS’ deficit had reached £5.3bn. At that time, it was agreed that institutions with employees who were members would collectively pay 2.1 per cent of their payroll over 17 years to solve the problem.
Yet, despite seemingly finding a solution to the problem, the deficit managed to increase by £9bn last year alone. Interesting, during 2016-2017 it was also reported that the USS’ executive committee – which consists of eight members, none of whom are women – were paid £3.9m: an average of £488,000 each.
There is no doubt that the strikes will be highly disruptive, yet, suggestion that academic staff are to blame for the disruption is completely misguided. Some have called the UCU’s decision to spread the strikes over a four-week period irresponsible and excessive. However, industrial strike action within higher education is considered a last resort, and the decision to strike over a four-week period is not something which is supported by all academic staff. Rather, this is a decision made by union leadership.
The decision to strike comes after two earlier rounds of cuts (which have left members’ pensions less than school teachers), as well as extended talks in an attempt to reach a solution to the seven-year pension dispute. Anything less than a highly disruptive strike will once again be ignored and overlooked.
Some students have already begun to express anger over the proposed strikes, many feel neglected by such action. Yet, it is arguably students should empathise the most with academics taking part in industrial action. An alternative ‘solution’ to help close the gap between the USS’ liabilities and its assets, was a further increase of student’s tuition fees. This proposal was rejected by the union alongside the refusal to allow funds to be diverted from teaching, to make up for the scheme’s short fallings.
Proposed strike action also works to protect the interests of students who intend to pursue post graduate study or full time academic research/teaching in the future. It will be the youngest and upcoming generation of academics that will suffer the most from planned cuts, and the additional cuts that will undoubtable follow, unless serious reform takes place now.
A final set talks will be conducted on Tuesday in an attempt to reach a settlement before the walkouts are due to take place. The UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, admits that strike action of this scale ‘has not been seen before on UK campuses’, but emphasises the reality of much greater disruption if change does not take place.
Despite disruption that will no doubt occur, anger and disappointment should not be directed at tutors or other academic staff. Rather, it should be aimed at the private institutions that have attacked academic’s pension schemes without sufficient justification for their financial mismanagement.