Chris Beedham explains what the current University Strike in the United Kingdom has come about, what the university employees are demanding, and why.
Chris Beedham is a Lecturer at the Department of German, School of Modern Languages, University of St Andrews
Cross-posted from The Saint
The Saint published an article online in which they reproduced an e-mail I had sent to Tom Jones, President of the St Andrews branch of the UCU, on 13 March 2018 (cc my UCU colleagues in the School of Modern Languages (SoML)). The article said that the language of my e-mail was ‘militant and unsympathetic’. I apologise if that is how it came across to students, but if I had known the e-mail was going to be read by students I would, of course, have taken that into account and formulated it accordingly. I will not reformulate the whole e-mail here, it is too late for that, but what I will do is give some additional background, explanations and clarifications which I hope will put the e-mail and its language in a more sympathetic light and make it more understandable. In the e-mail I was summarising my UCU colleagues’ in the SoML views on the UUK’s first offer (prematurely called an ‘agreement’). In this article I will give my own views on the strike, which may or may not be shared by my UCU colleagues in the SoML.
Why are the university lecturers across the UK on strike? As you know, it is about our pensions. A lecturer’s salary is good though not amazing, but the pension is very good indeed, at the moment. An occupational pension is a deferred salary. Our pension scheme is the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme). Every month of every year for 40 years the employer pays 18% of our salary and the employee pays 8% of their salary into a USS pension pot. That makes 26% of our salary. This is our pension ‘contribution’. It is a lot of money to temporarily forgo, but it is worth it, because if you work a full 40 years, at the end of it you get a pension which is worth approx. half the salary you retired on.
In theory we could not bother with a pension, we could say to the universities: forget the pension, just give us our pension contributions now, in our salary, and we will have a bigger salary and no pension; we prefer it that way. But we do not say that, we want a good pension when we retire, so we sacrifice a quarter of our salary now to get a good pension later. It is in this sense that our pension contributions are our money. It is not the USS’s money, nor the UUK’s money (the ‘Universities UK’ (UUK) is the employers’ national body for the UK universities), it is our money.
All the USS has to do is to keep that money safe, e.g. make sure that nobody steals it. 68 universities across the UK are in the USS. It is a tricky balancing act to ensure that they have enough money to cover the existing pension claims at any one time, but they manage it, there are elements which can be tweaked if needed (some of which form part of the current talks between the UCU and the UUK). As long as all 68 universities stay open the USS has enough money. Technically it is a private pension scheme, but because most of the money the 68 universities receive is from the government it is effectively a public sector pension scheme. The government is not going to go bankrupt, and no government is going to close down a university, not least because it would be electorally damaging for them to do so. So the USS pension money that they hold in safekeeping for us is real money, it is not funny money. The USS pension scheme is rock solid, as safe as houses. At the moment. This type of pension scheme is known as a ‘defined benefit’ pension plan. For those people deciding whether to become an academic and apply for university lectureships the attractiveness of the pension scheme is an important part of that decision.
We come now to the reason for the dispute. The USS claims that the fund is in financial straits, heading for a deficit, and action needs to be taken. As things stand the USS buys financial assets with our contributions and invests them in stocks. The USS now wants to move to a de-risking strategy, which involves moving the assets from stocks (higher return) to bonds (lower return). The change increases the deficit. The UCU has tried to oppose that move. The main change to the scheme is to move from a model in which employers and employees share the risks involved in providing a pension to a model in which employees bear all the risk. The new model is called a ‘defined contribution’ pension plan.
The UCU asked us in a ballot if we wanted to take industrial action against the proposed change to our pension scheme. 88% of those taking part in the ballot said yes to a strike, and 93% said yes to ASOS (action short of a strike). This is a massive and unprecedented majority, never before seen in the history of the UCU and its predecessor, the AUT (Association of University Teachers). Since the strike began the UCU has seen a huge increase in membership, with e.g. an increase here at St Andrews from 420 members to 680 members now. Furthermore, the UCU has obtained from us a mandate for 28 strike days. By UCU/AUT standards this number is massive, again unprecedented. The most we have ever done before is one strike day, for a given campaign. 28 strike days is incredible.
Why the strong feeling against the proposed change? Firstly, the UCU estimates that if the UUK’s ‘defined contribution’ scheme goes ahead the value of our pensions will decline by an average of £10,000 per person per year. Nobody in their right mind is going to accept that. Of course we are protesting against it and striking, in unprecedented numbers to an unprecedented extent. How is the UUK’s proposal a solution? It is not a solution, it creates a huge problem which was not there before, a massive drop in the value of our pensions. Where does that £10,000 p.a. per staff member go? It must go somewhere, it does not just disappear. The answer is it goes into the pockets of the stock market speculators. The theft of our pensions – because theft is what it is – becomes just another part of ‘the greatest transfer of wealth in human history’ under austerity from ordinary working people to the super-rich (Andrew Fisher, The Failed Experiment: And how to build an economy that works, West Wickham: Comerford and Miller, 2014, p. 12).
Secondly, the UCU does not agree that the current pension scheme is in financial straits. There is no serious financial problem that needs fixing. This controversy and disagreement is known as the ‘valuation’ of the USS fund. The UCU believes that although the scheme may need tweaking to cope with the usual fluctuations there are plenty of elements within the ‘defined benefits’ scheme which can be used to make necessary adjustments. The UCU has said it is happy to discuss such adjustments in the current talks with the UUK.
At this point you must be thinking, has the world gone mad? Why on earth are the university principals and vice-chancellors suggesting a radical change which will have such disastrous consequences? What is their reason, what is their logic? The answer is, it is the logic of austerity (formerly known as neo-liberalism/neo-conservatism, before that known as corporate capitalism). Since the dispute began there has been widespread criticism in the newspapers of the huge salaries paid to university principals and vice-chancellors. Therein lies the answer. Their huge salaries are a bribe, to engage in a wide range of nefarious activities, including stealing our pensions and giving them to the stock market speculators. (Others include intimidating and threatening us into pursuing money instead of truth in our research, and to treat students as customers instead of as students). The UUK’s position defies normal human logic, but it does have its own logic, it is the cruel and destructive logic of austerity.
This is why we are on strike. We are defending not just our own pensions but those of generations to come of university lecturers. Some of you, the students of St Andrews, will go on to do postgraduate research and become academics yourselves, you will be amongst the future beneficiaries of our struggle today, if we win this dispute. Furthermore, if the UUK proposals go ahead and lecturers’ pensions sink to such a low level the universities will find it difficult to recruit staff, without that important attractive feature of a good pension. The quality of universities will decline. So we are fighting as well for the viability of the very concept of the high-quality universities that we have today.
This, then, the strike, is the background to my e-mail which The Saint published. No teacher likes to go on strike. You, the students, are the reason we entered the lecturing profession in the first place. At the same time you are fundamental to our research, not just PhD students but undergraduate students on a day to day basis as well. You are perhaps not aware of it, but every time we give a class we go away with ideas arising from our discussions with you for the article or book we are working on. Teaching and research are our passion, it is what we love to do. Not to teach hurts us as much as it hurts you. But this strike is not of our making. It is caused by the intention of the principals and vice-chancellors to emaciate our pensions, to reduce us to poverty in our retirement, and to jeopardise the very institution of university as we know it today.
The Saint article says that the Students’ Association is thinking of withdrawing their support for our strike. Students of St Andrews – please do not abandon us now. We cannot do this without your help. You have been magnificent. The highlight of every picket line, especially during the meteorological beast from the east with temperatures of minus 3 degrees, snow, and gales of 40 mph, has been the arrival of the students every single morning without fail – no hat or gloves, just about managed to put a jumper on – with hot tea and home baking. We need your support, we are doing it for your University, as it is now and as it will be in the future. At the end of the hullabaloo of the strike, when it is all over and one side – or both sides – has won you will sit your exams, your exams will be marked, and you will graduate. Bear with us, be patient, help us, be strong, and together we can save lecturers’ pensions and the very concept of a high-quality university as we know it today.