Hannah Wilkinson – ‘I should be doing my PhD. Instead, I’m here. Making this sign, and defending a pension I don’t even have yet…’

These ” Thoughts on the UCU pensions strike from staff-student workers” marks the beginning of the fourth week of the University Strike in Britain. We at BRAVE NEW EUROPE see this strike as an extremely important political event in the UK – fighting back against neo-liberalism – especially in this era of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and a political re-awakening of the British Left. Thus we are doing all we can to support the strike. We have always said this website was created to promote just such movements – meaning you. Articles on the topic are welcome. Please send these to info@braveneweurope.com

Hannah Wilkinson is a Teaching Fellow (fixed-term contract) and PhD Student in Criminology at Keele University.  Hannah’s research explores the complex implications of 21st century conflict and war on Criminology, the social world, and more specifically, on those employed by the state to deliver violence on their behalf.

Will McGowan is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Liverpool and works on political violence, survivor activism and mourning and bereavement. He recently took up a fixed-term research position at Liverpool John Moores University.

Samantha Fletcher is a Lecturer in Criminology (fixed-term contract) at The Open University. She recently successfully passed her PhD viva examination in the middle of the current pension dispute (on a non-strike day, of course). Samantha’s main research work is concerning contemporary protest and struggle for addressing inequality and promoting social justice.

Image credit: Hannah Wilkinson @hrwilkinson1


University workers across the UK are entering an unprecedented fourth week of rolling strike action to defend their pension rights. In addition to being the “largest-ever strike called in British higher education”, it has also quickly become the biggest show of collective action and mass solidarity in the modern education sector, uniting people across and beyond the workforce. The support from students has been fantastic from day one and continues to grow. Many have joined university staff on picket lines, demonstrations, and teach-outs, while others have orchestrated peaceful disruptions and occupied offices of senior university management. With students up and down the country rushing to support university staff, a powerful message has been sent to Universities UK (UUK). The marketization, financialization and commodification of higher education is being challenged as never before and the strength of the challenge has given workers the belief and conviction that we can, and will, win this dispute.

As chants of “STUDENTS AND WORKERS, UNITE AND FIGHT!” ring out across university cities and campuses, we wanted to take this opportunity to offer some reflections from the perspective of the student-workers the current system relies on to function. On the 6th day of strikes, in an article for the Huffington Post, Charley Bendall – a Masters student at UCL – suggested that students should think carefully before supporting the UCU strike. This article is partly a response to Bendall’s arguments, but also raises several wider concerns related to both the strike and the student/staff position occupied by many postgraduates across the UK and Europe. As people who are both employed (as teaching and/or research staff) and studying (completing PhD research) at various different Higher Education institutions, we know only too well, through direct personal experience, what blurring the lines between staff and students can mean. While PhD researchers have long been employed as a reserve pool of academic labour, contemporary universities have become much more ruthless in exploiting it, as with ‘adjunct’, contract and casualised staff more generally. This is a situation in which students teach students under low-wage, low-security, low-recognition working conditions. When we situate the UCU industrial action against neoliberal assaults on Higher Education and job insecurity across a much wider range of sectors, the separation of staff and students thus makes little sense. When we recognise that the strike is not about students and workers within the University alone but about the proliferation of these kinds of arrangements and the casualisation they anchor, it becomes clear that industrial action carries implications far beyond the University campus. It is not just a strike for ‘us’ but a strike for all and therefore resonates with wider audiences.

Precarity and the ‘certainty’ of ‘uncertainty’

The sign (above) created by Hannah, and used for the title of this article, was posted on Twitter on the 4th day of industrial action. The sign, which sought to capture the tensions created by working lives spent in the grey area between employee and student, quickly spread across social media. It resonated with so many people because it spoke to the precarious nature of work for what in the UK are called ‘early career academics’, the new generation of young people coming into university professions. For early career academics, temporary, fixed-term contracts, hourly-paid sessional teaching and unpaid work have become the norm. Security in old age is not something this generation can expect. A significant proportion of university staff within striking institutions will not have accrued long-term contributions to the USS pension scheme, meaning they have no real pension to speak of. Others know that their contributions are limited to contract length, offering them all but the most minimal coverage. Precarity today, precarity in the future. Despite often working across several institutions at once, some on strike but others not, many, like ourselves, are striking to ensure that precarity is addressed.

The casualisation of the workforce and the uncertainty this brings has been a prominent issue in the strikes, particularly on social media. While marketization of the sector has gone hand-in-hand with short-term and insecure working conditions, which undoubtedly produce an emotional state of uncertainty for individual workers, on a structural level the pattern seems depressingly persistent. We are perpetually aware of the precarious space our labour operates within, and that ultimately, within the current configuration of our workplaces, we are all expendable. Uncertainty has become something of a certainty. As students who are also workers, this is why we recognise the acute need to stand in solidarity with the rest of university staff across the UK to protect our collective futures.

There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the contestation of the neoliberal assault on Higher Education

Bendall’s article cynically and mistakenly sets up an ‘us and them’ dynamic, in which the interests of fee-paying students are opposed to those of university staff who are somehow attempting to hoodwink students into supporting the industrial action through ‘ingenious branding’. ‘To put it clearly’, Bendall states, ‘the moment that pension changes are halted, or more favourable conditions are promised, lecturers will pack up their signs, dismantle the pickets and head home, leaving behind a residue of disillusioned students championing abandoned causes, now devoid of their usefulness.’ But Bendall misses the fact that the dispute affects a wide-range of non-teaching university staff who are also defending their pensions. They also fail to recognise that many workers in contemporary universities are both staff and student, and exploited on that basis. More importantly, this misunderstands the purpose and effect of collective action in purely instrumental and self-interested terms, rather than recognising it as a thoroughly social activity carrying inherent value and politicising a generation of students.

Previous calls for greater coordination between early career academics, including PhD students and Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), permanent staff, and unions, have been answered in the current dispute, with permanent staff highlighting the systemic problem of casualisation for their less secure colleagues, union branches playing an active role in recruiting and involving GTAs, and students at all levels joining the pickets.

We recognise that not all postgraduates occupy the grey space that we do. Nor do the vast majority of undergraduate students go on to work within academia. However, pension security across all sectors has been steadily eroded for decades, with the UK now boasting the second-lowest net pension replacement rate of all OECD countries at just 29% – the percentage of pre-pension earnings that pension income replaces. For comparison, Germany and France’s net pension replacement rates have been calculated at 51% and 75% respectively. While caution should be exercised around the OECD data, it certainly challenges the view held by Bendall that ‘campaigning students should be aware of the one dimensional nature of the strike before pushing others to make similar sacrifices’. Such statements are as perplexing as they are inaccurate. The attacks on university pensions reflect a wider pattern that all graduates, regardless of whether they go on to work within academia, face across all sectors, and not just in the UK. The move by UUK to shift away from a defined benefit scheme (DB), to a defined contribution scheme (DC), due to highly disputable ‘justifications’, is part of the much wider attack on pension entitlements. In fighting on this issue, we are seeking to challenge the wider erosion of employment rights that the UUK proposals reflect.

My strike is your strike: Solidarity on and beyond the picket lines

The hardening of divisions between ‘us’, staff, and ‘them’, students, is exactly what UUK wanted to see. But the divide is not real and students, to their great credit, have refused to treat it as if it was. Not only does it fail to capture the arrangements that characterise academic labour for us and many others in similar positions, it also stands in contrast to the reality on the ground. Throughout our active participation in the strikes and presence on the pickets we have seen, and perhaps more importantly, have felt, solidarity. Every single extra body (including the many pets!) on the picket lines and in marches, captured in pictures, has strengthened the visual and physical impact of collective action and driven the momentum for change. Being part of that feels good.

As a recent blog post states: ‘With the state placing ever more pressure on universities to become more like businesses […], UUK and its members (or at least those who haven’t publicly dissented) have set themselves up as the mere axe-wielders of government. […] But this means that the real divide has now become between the genuine guardians of the spirit of the university – the staff and the students – and the state and its ‘academic’ acolytes in the shape of university vice-chancellors.’ Another university is possible, one in which collective solidarity can win out and offer an alternative to the farcical configuration of higher education management currently propping up an elite of corporate oligarchs. Change is possible, and it feels like change is coming.

Neoliberal trends, from attacks on pensions to the increasingly precarious nature of employment must be recognised for what they are – reflections of what is happening to the workforce throughout the UK and Europe. Those currently engaged in university study are the next generation of workers, whether they enter a university career or not. As Michael Mair recently commented, ‘this [strike] is not just about universities: universities reflect the contemporary British workplace all too well and change is coming there too. University staff, in taking this action in defence of their pension rights, are thus contributing to something broader’. Mair further commented that by striking, we are also ‘standing up for employment rights under austerity and challenging the idea workers should be sacrificed in the pursuit of profit’.

It is, however, this something broader that we wish to draw attention to, as part of our final thoughts regarding the significance of this particular strike. This is not just some narrow interest group’s strike, but everyone’s strike, as we seek to join forces to address the increasing inequalities and injustices brought about by neoliberalism in its many different guises. This is evident through solidarity at the local level between unions across different employment sectors, through to messages of support and unity from much further afield, including York University in Toronto, Canada whose workers are also engaged in industrial action as well as City University New York and the University of Helsinki – with many other disputes looming across Europe. While an increasing number of influential Vice-Chancellors, including at the University of Oxford, have reversed their positions and backed staff, and UUK are under increasing pressure to capitulate, a further 14 days of strike action during exam periods has been timetabled if the dispute is not resolved. It is crucial that we all continue to build the union and collective solidarity across the education sector and far beyond whenever we have the opportunity to do so. Whether staff or student, inside or outside the university, we say come and join us in any way that you can, because these strikes are about our common interests. Plus, we think you’ll like it – after all, no matter the weather ‘it’s morally warm out here’.

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