You may have noticed that staff at about 60 universities in the UK are on strike. I’m not. Why are they striking? And why aren’t I?
There have been rumblings over the past year or so that one of the pensions that many university staff belong to, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), is running at a deficit. That is, that there’s not enough money in the fund to pay pensions in the long run. They therefore want to change the current agreement to have staff a) pay more of their salaries in and b) not be guaranteed a certain income when they retire. I’m assuming that by the time I retire, there won’t be much of a state pension, if anything, so whatever my USS pays out will be more or less what we have to live on, unless I want my kids to look after us (I don’t). This is worrying stuff.
There’s always a trade-off in pensions, in that you ‘lend’ a portion of your wage packet and they invest it to try and ensure that the pot doesn’t lose value. But it’s important to remember that it’s not primarily an investment fund, but a bank account that holds the money you’ve paid in. Therefore the idea is that they go for steady investments, not big risky ones. Has this been misinvested – have they been losing our money? Where this becomes very murky is that all is not what it seems on the numbers front – and this always is a risk when you take on the most highly educated workforce in the country. Academics’ job is to dig into the complex details of life as we know it and see what’s going on. It seems that the claims of the deficit have been enormously exaggerated, and are based on an assumption that, if a lot of UK universities were to go bust at the same time, the pension fund would be in trouble. This, though, is essentially impossible. Admittedly it’s the biggest university by far, but Cambridge alone sits on its own assets of £4.5bn. Across the sector, not one university has gone to the wall in the last 1000 years, and the loss of even one of the smaller ones is unlikely in practice; even if it did happen, the shock to the USS would be negligible. Hmm.
Why aren’t I striking?
In short, I can’t. The strikes are being coordinated by one of the largest unions, the Universities and College Union (UCU). I’m a member of the UCU (and pay into the USS), and when it balloted its members, I said I’d not be willing to strike on this – the vast majority, though, said they would. In my defence, I was less savvy about the murkiness and dodgy numbers, I was trusting in the USS pronouncements, perhaps many people were – and that was probably the point. Now, I’d feel duty-bound to strike. However, most of the staff at my university (and most of the newer universities) are on a different pension, the TPS, the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, and so the union says that we’re therefore not expected to strike. If I did, I’d be out of a job. For those at the universities which are striking, they can’t be sacked as it’s within their employment rights to do so.
On a practical level, I’m glad I’m not on strike because I can’t afford to be. I’m between that proverbial rock and a hard place, as in the long run, I couldn’t afford not to strike if I had the option to. I’ve finally got my financial head above water for the first time in ten years, and you get deducted pay for every day you’re not at work. If my pay cheque went down, we – as in me and my family – would be struggling again. It’s worth remembering that striking staff are losing money. If the strike has its intended effect and the suggested changes don’t go through, and it’ll be worth it as academics won’t be starving to death in their retirement, but it also creates a real financial pain for them now. Also, and this is crucial, a lot of professors who are on strike aren’t affected by these changes because they have a different pension arrangement. Their salaries are high enough that losing a few weeks of pay shouldn’t be excessively painful, too. However, they’re showing solidarity on principle that this pensions fudge is wrong, and are standing up for the interests of their junior colleagues and the system as a whole. Having said that, other academics who are in weaker financial and employment positions than me are having the guts to strike, which is amazing. In short, others are fighting my (collective) corner for me, which is humbling.
But what about the students?
Whenever teachers strike, the government invariably comes out with a line about them letting the pupils down. The thing is, striking is the absolute last resort, nobody wants to do this, and it breaks people’s hearts – and, of course, finances – to be forced into this position. If staff felt supported, wanted, and suitably remunerated, we wouldn’t be where we are. Students seem to know this and appear to be largely on our side, which puts the universities in a trickier position than they may have expected. Things might look quite different if it was academics (and support staff) ‘versus’ students. Also, the pensions dispute comes on top of a lot of changes in universities and the public sector in general that people don’t like – I’ve blogged about the moral panics in the media around universities, on tuition fees, student employability, early academic careers, rankings, and so on at length. Why haven’t there been strikes on these? Is this academics only thinking about themselves? I doubt it – we’re all in this together. Some of this is about the unions – they ballot, and strikes only go ahead if the collective will is there, but maybe the pensions issue is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The sector certainly is under the cosh. Higher education is not all bad (in spite of what some may think), although it does have its faults, and there are signs that the strike and conversations on the picket lines are reminding people why they love working in universities
Of course, while staff are on strike, the students aren’t being taught. This is, interestingly, is one place where (high) tuition fees are potentially coming to bite the government and universities in the bum. Because students in England pay the full cost (and then some) of their degrees, there’s a perception that they’re being short-changed, aren’t able to study as well. There have been moves to seek compensation, or money back, which is not something that the university finances want to deal with. It’s not really happened before, not for these kinds of reasons. Also, in practice, while some classes are being cancelled, at the same time a lot of university study is the students working things out for themselves, so the overall disruption is minimal. (For a look at the legal situation here, the brilliant Smita Jamdar has written this.) There are also ‘teach-outs’, where public lectures on a range of subjects are being held by staff. The strikes, though, make the timing of the National Student Survey tricky, as university reputations and external ratings are in part calculated on this. There’s a sense, though, that the NSS is of less interest to the highest status universities as their reputations are strong enough to survive student dissatisfaction – they’ll never be short of applicants.
So, I’m not striking, but I should be. I’m glad I’m not, but I also wish I was. If it really does go down to the wire and I have the option to, then I must.
P.S. If you’re not striking/can’t strike, but want to show solidarity, what can you do?
- For colleagues/staff on strike, don’t email them. Their inboxes will be overflowing with the usual detritus of university life anyway, so give them a break;
- Take to social media: tweet, retweet, like, and comment on tweets and posts with the #USSStrikes hashtag;
- Honk your horn to show your support when you drive past any pickets;
- Cancel your subscription to alumni funds, particularly if it’s Oxbridge (who seem to have started the whole thing off – see the Michael Otsuka blog, below) or Leeds, and tell them about it;
- Show up to swell numbers;
- Make tea/coffee and biscuits and deliver them to the picket lines;
- If you can, donate to the UCU fighting fund, which helps people who can least afford to strike;
- Brace yourselves. If the changes to the USS pension go ahead, then your pot will be next. Of course, if you worked for BHS, then it’s already been plundered.
For a tiny selection of what is an enormous range of truly excellent blogs out there on the strikes, try these: