by Jim Taylor
If one were to follow only certain outlets of the mainstream media, one would be led to believe that the university staff currently striking over proposed reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) are petulantly overreacting to a perfectly sensible restructuring of their pension scheme. The USS is unsustainable in its current form, they say, parroting the claims of Universities UK (UUK), the advocacy group for university employers who voted for the reforms several months ago. Current projections, these outlets cry, show that there’s not enough funding to sustain the scheme into the next generation of university staff, and depriving students of the classes for which they’ve paid exorbitant fees isn’t going to solve anything.
As is usually the nature of these things, there’s another side to the story.
Such reports, for example, make no mention of the brutal nature of the proposed cuts (up to 50% of people’s pensions in some cases), the outrageously conservative economic projections which underpin the reforms, or the disproportionate amount of influence given to Oxbridge in the UUK survey (with individual colleges being given votes, and casting them in favour of the cuts).
Perhaps the most egregious misrepresentation in this lopsided coverage, however, is that of the professional lives of university staff. The luxurious salaries often quoted are an average of income across institutions, not a median figure, and this is tremendously skewed by those chancellors and vice-chancellors at the top receiving massive pay packages. Many lecturers, researchers and administrative staff (particularly those in the early stages of their career) are poorly compensated for the actual amount of work they do, which frequently involves working beyond their contracted hours into evenings and weekends. Many also live contract-to-contract, their livelihoods precariously ordered into brief installments, which bring with them extreme amounts of uncertainty. One major attraction that makes up for these drawbacks is the pension USS members can look forward to, and this is precisely what is being attacked.
No worker wants to have to strike; apart from anything else it results in a loss of earnings and potential further degradation of workplace relations.
No member of the University and College Union (UCU) feels good about depriving students of classes, but the fact that they voted overwhelmingly in favour of the current industrial action tells you how serious the situation has become, especially since their employers have refused to extend negotiations any further. Striking is a last resort, but sometimes a necessary one.
Despite the widespread apathy towards the idea of industrial action in today’s Britain, we forget at our own risk that trade unions helped bring about weekends off, sick pay, the minimum wage, and the ability to better tackle discrimination in the workplace. In short, a whole host of things we now take for granted. Striking (or the threat thereof) is an essential part of their arsenal in the battle to win and protect workers’ rights. In post-Thatcher Britain the profile of unions has steadily been eroded till many of their hard-fought victories are recast in the popular imagination as gifts from a benevolent state.
The UCU strike is the perfect reminder that the fight never ends, and that our rights to decent working conditions and compensation are not inalienable in the eyes of neoliberal politicians.
So why should those of us outwith academia care about this current strike action?
Put simply, universities are not and never have been the ersatz labour-exchanges that successive UK governments have tried to revise them into. The creeping commodification of higher education obscures a notion which is old-fashioned but nonetheless true: universities are centres of learning, and their advancements are the advancements of human knowledge as a whole, in a whole host of disciplines.
If the staff who are the lifeblood of these institutions suffer then we all suffer, even if this connection is not immediately apparent or quantifiable.
We at Lighthouse certainly believe this, and we stand in solidarity with the UCU strikers at the University of Edinburgh. There are many small gestures of support individuals and businesses can make – we are offering free hot drinks and toilet facilities to those on the picket line, as well as hosting a series of ‘teach-out’ lectures over the next couple of weeks (Mondays and Wednesdays from 12:30pm, all listed below for anyone who’s interested). If you would like to help, check the UCU website or shoot them an email to ask what assistance you can offer.
If you live near a university, go down and show your support, and think about ways you can help out those people holding placards in the freezing cold. If you are able, make a contribution to the UCU’s Figthing Fund. Next week will be crucial for the strike, and after days out in freezing conditions and an increasing backlash our solidarity is needed more than ever.
Their fight is your fight, in a small but fundamentally important way.