Georgina Bartlett investigates what’s really motivating students and lecturers amidst impending strike action at UCL
Beginning Thursday 22nd February, lecturers and tutors at UCL and 61 other institutions plan to strike in response to changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Under the new reforms, the pensions of university teaching staff will no longer be calculated according to what sum is put in as defined contributions, but will instead be determined by the performance of the stock market. This effectively puts an end to guaranteed retirement benefits, which will prove most harmful for younger and financially insecure academics. As a result of the changes, the average lecturer is predicted to lose £10,000 of income each year after leaving their post, the UCU claims.
With the aim of pressuring UCL to agree to negotiations for pension funds, strikers will cease all teaching and office hours. Activities affected will include marking, meetings and responding to emails. Others will choose to take Action Short Of a Strike, (ASOS) which involves refusing to cover for absent colleagues or reschedule lectures and classes cancelled due to the strike. The strike is planned to take place on 14 days across the span of four weeks, ending on Friday 16th March, if national negotiations over the pension fund do not go ahead.
The vote to undertake direct strike action passed in January with a decisive 88% in support. At UCL specifically, the ballot received a 56.3% turnout of union members, with 89% in favour. This figure is presumably not proportional to the number of staff members at UCL who will choose to strike, however – some who voted in favour of the action will likely opt out of it. It is also important to note that not all staff are union members, and others have joined the UCU since the vote.
The cuts have prompted outrage towards increasingly stark economic inequality at UK universities. This has wide reaching implications for staff, now facing heightened insecurity in their jobs, as well as students who pay extortionate tuition fees. The central question the pension cuts draw attention to is that of who the university values. If not its students, and if not its staff, then who? For members of the UCU, the answer lies at the door of universities’ senior management, who rake in considerable profits in the form of six-figure salaries, and investments in expansion projects.
The decision to strike has major implications for staff and students alike. For the former, the impact is obvious; those UCL staff who do choose to strike will receive pro rata salary deductions. Strike pay, according to the university, will be redirected to the building of UCL East, a new campus under development on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
One tutor who has chosen to remain anonymous said, “There is no financial need for the pension changes at all: we have a huge surplus, largely generated by student fees, and the new scheme is concocted purely to free up even more money to spend on whatever the management fancies. In UCL’s case, this is ‘UCL East’, which is going to cost hundreds of millions of pounds, but is not designed – despite what you may have been led to believe – to create the extra teaching and library space that we need so very badly. Other universities have their own little schemes.” For evidence of institutions financing expansion over supporting their staff, we can look to developments such as the building of Bush House at King’s College London (KCL). It is also worth noting that KCL’s President and Principle Ed Byrne earns £458k a year.
The tutor continued, “Even if we were willing to give up our pensions, we should go on strike to take a stand against the broader trend away from teaching and research towards universities as nothing but sources of revenue for an oligarchy of bureaucrats.” A view of many UCU members is that higher education is increasingly being devalued to merely a product on an ever-competitive market. The pension cuts conform to a pattern of privatisation, the consequences of which are funnelling money away from supporting staff and students. Hiking tuition fees, a move Provost Michael Arthur supported, also corresponds to the trend, as does abolishing maintenance grants, real-term pay cuts for academics, hiring staff on short-term contracts, and directing inadequate funding towards mental health services.
Dr. Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite also considers the pension cuts a part of the “bigger package of marketisation”, and emphasised that striking was a last resort: “There’s no way we would do this if we didn’t think this attack on our pensions was going to be hugely damaging for us and for everyone who enters academia in the future.” Indeed, the attack on pensions may discourage people from low-income backgrounds from entering the field – not only have we witnessed the increase of financial pressure on students over the last decade, but also now barriers to the option of academia as a potential career path. On UCL’s marketisation, she further comments, “I think this is bad for students, staff, and society in general. Personally, I think there are individual and social goods that come from education that can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to money.”
American PhD student and tutor Morgan Baker, who similarly views the pension cuts as part of a much wider problem of public UK universities being “run as businesses”, stated, “All of this happened in my own country decades ago, and it can certainly happen here, unless people (students included) start countering this push with an equal or greater amount of significant activism. I guess my question to my fellow UCL students is, do the people here want a system where students pay £20,000-30,000+ per year and university workers make minimum wage with no pension and no benefits?”
Consensus on the strike amongst students has yet to be reached. Recognition of the strike’s necessity is marred by concerns about how the loss of contact hours will impact academic progress. Many students have also expressed frustration that staff are not obligated to declare whether they plan to strike, and so entirely depend on individual teachers to inform them of changes made to class schedules. Lines of division run particularly strong between departments – and the range in contact hours offered – as well as between students paying vastly different sums for their education.
A first-year student from the United States commented, “As someone who pays about £18,000 just this year and who is expecting to see that rise about £2,000 next year, it’s really frustrating to see the strike go on, especially as the professors here get paid pretty well.” She added, “I do think the real ones to blame are the heads of the schools, but at the same time it’s disappointing that the professors and lecturers who expect us to show up and do our work are going to be jeopardising our investment here.”
While the pressure to ‘get value for money’ is considerable, some remain optimistic that the strike, if successful in its goal, will eventually prove beneficial for students. One international student from Russia, who pays £17,710 a year, feels that industrial action will ultimately improve the state of higher education: “For me, even though in the short term I may lose some of my money due to disruptions, I would be far more content in the long-term if my lecturers are happy and have the full financial security for their retirement. This will make the lecturers and teachers more engaged in the work they love, as they would not have to worry about their financial security. In the long-term, this would further increase the overall standard of teaching.”
Indeed, the short-term effects of the strike has not strained the relationship between students and staff across the board. For some students with fewer contact hours, supporting the strike is a straightforward decision. For Kajol, a first-year history student, a reliance on independent study means that lost contact hours can be rectified relatively easily. She remarked on her broad disillusionment with higher education.: “Considering we have barely any contact hours and are mostly meant to teach ourselves anyway, I don’t care that they’re striking. I feel like what I’m paying isn’t teaching me anyway – I’m just paying for the label of a UCL degree.”
Concerns remain about the added pressure for those students undertaking degrees which require tutorials in person, however. A number of medicine students have emphasised the teachers’ right to protest by pointing to recent precedent of the 2016 junior doctors’ strikes. A clinical medicine student further argued, “Previously when we’ve had strikes we’ve been well provided for with the previous years’ lectures put online – so we haven’t been affected, but the administration has. I think we’re all in general very supportive of the strikes. The lecturers work long hours, especially for us, and they deserve to have decent negotiations for their work.”
In some cases, solidarity between students and staff is clear to see. Justine Canady, UCL’s Women’s Officer, is an active supporter of the strike. Expanding to the wider picture of the strike, she commented that the UCU’s decision marks “a move away from a more market-based, for-profit uni system, towards one that functions for the public good. I believe more actions like this from the UCU is apart of what will eventually lead to a free education system”. She has submitted a motion to the Union’s General Assembly to back the strike and the involvement of students in direct action. As well as this, first year student representatives on the English department’s Staff-Student Staff Consultative Committee have written a letter of support to teachers, to then be signed by students and sent on to the Provost.
The UCU has called on students to engage in this type of activism as well as joining the picket lines. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts will be hosting a student bloc at the UCU’s march to Parliament Square, scheduled for the 28th February.
Featured image: UCU strikes at Edinburgh University in 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)