It’s Friday 22nd February, and the University and College Union (UCU) is well into its second day of a planned 14-day strike, purportedly the largest the UK Higher Education sector has ever seen. University staff at 64 pre-92 institutions nationwide – librarians, researchers, teaching fellows, casualised tutors – are at the beginning of a 14 day loss in pay, fighting against Universities UK’s (the higher education employer) proposed reforms of the USS pension scheme from a defined benefit to a "defined contribution" model. The rationale for this is a disputed pension deficit. If UUK succeeds, the average staff member will lose £200,000 in retirement, or up to 40% of their pension.
Despite UUK’s statements to the contrary, it seems by all accounts that the employers are refusing to come back to the negotiating table.
On one level, this strike is about resisting changes to the USS pension scheme which will leave pensions at the mercy of stock market performance, and staff in financial insecurity in retirement. But this is also about increasing marketisation and precarity in Higher Education, and conditions in other sectors. If the second biggest pension scheme in the public sector falls, what protections will be lost next?
Conditions of university staff are already pretty bad. Take, for example, one of your lecturers - potentially you in the next few years, or maybe even you now. You’ve got 7+ years in Higher Education, accumulating debt which stays with you for 30 years, and periods during your time as a Postgrad Researcher as an unpaid tutor. Following that, you have a career characterised by precarious labour, 60+ hour weeks… and then, if the USS pension changes go ahead, little-to-no financial security in retirement. Sadly, this isn’t an unusual situation - however, it ought to be resisted, not normalised (rhetoric such as, “University staff will have pensions lower than schoolteachers” isn’t helpful – this isn’t a race to the bottom).
Hourly-paid tutors aren’t currently in receipt of the USS pension, so they’re essentially forced to strike now to protect their own futures. Casualised workers and Postdocs have so much to lose during the strikes: they forfeit their pay, of course, but there also have understandable concerns about job security following the action. Earlier this week, universities seemed to be vying for the position of “worst employer”. At Sheffield, PGRs were offered 2 hours' pay to spend the day crossing picket lines and telling students their classes were cancelled. Warwick initially stated – and then semi-retracted – that 25% of pay would be docked for workers taking action short of a strike (ASOS), essentially penalising them for working to contract. At Kent, students were asked to report lecturers who didn’t attend classes on strike days.
This is the time to talk about casualised labour across the Higher Education sector and beyond. This is the time to talk about Warwick’s hourly-paid tutors. This is the time to demand to know why the University hasn’t made progress on moving tutors from STP to real employment contracts, and associated protections.
Thursday’s YouGov poll of 750 undergraduates found that 3/5 students surveyed support the strike, with 66% of students from striking universities also in support. Warwick has a proud history of student-staff solidarity, including UCU strikes in 2015 and Statute 24 reforms last year. Now, students and staff around the country have come together to create a varied programme of activities during the afternoons of strike days – including the Free University of Warwick here on campus – and the recent SU policy referendum saw an overwhelming support for the strike action. This is in addition to the cookies baked, incredible flyers and social media shareables produced, banners dropped and chants chanted.
There have also been calls nationally for students to be refunded for missed contact hours, with petitions popping up at several institutions. The University shouldn’t profit from the strike by any means – forfeited wages ought to be donated to a student hardship fund which is accessible to all students. However, the suggestion that students should request fee refunds is a contentious one: aside from the practical difficulties, the idea of demanding a fee refund as staff face potentially devastating insecurity in retirement illustrates the troubling extent to which students have internalised the idea of themselves as consumers.
To that end, the action currently taking place allows us to rethink the University and our place within it. We can reimagine a Higher Education system outside of fees, metrics, PREVENT and “value for money”. A system which values quality teaching and research, with strong protections of academic freedom, where staff members are treated fairly as employees. A system where students and staff stand together, rather than being forced into opposition through think-pieces and comments from our own Universities Minister. Outside of education, even, we can use this time to think about the world we want to live in, and the conditions we expect workers to receive. The strike can and will resolve earlier, if we stand together.
So, a few ways that you can show your support:
Attend Free University of Warwick events during strike days;
Write to the Vice Chancellor, Stuart Croft, and encourage him to do more to push UUK back to the negotiating table;
Write to Universities UK, demanding that they abolish their proposed changes to USS;
Let your tutors and other University staff know you support them;
Don’t cross picket lines;
Persuade your peers to direct their frustrations to University management;
Wear a purple square in solidarity;
Bring tasty treats to the picket lines;
If you're a PGR teacher, join Warwick Anti-Casualisation, and the UCU;
Donate, or ask someone else to donate, to the local strike fund.
Now more than ever, it's important that students and staff (many of whom are students themselves!) fight for the sort of future we want for ourselves – both during our time at university and beyond.