Britain: Universities on Strike

Britain: Universities on Strike

British university lecturers are in their fourth week of a militant, historic strike—taking a stand not just against austerity, but for a more humane, democratic higher education system.

A lecturer on the picket line, February 27 (Bristol UCU / Facebook)

An unexpected, historic victory appears to be on the horizon for British university lecturers—the equivalent of professors in the United States—and other key staff, including technicians and librarians, who together have been waging a sustained and implacable strike action of a kind never before seen in the U.K. higher-education sector.

The gates of universities are graced daily by dozens of placard-holding staff. It might be mistaken for a holiday atmosphere if the underlying issues were not so serious. Neither subfreezing temperatures with ice and snow nor soggy downpours have dampened turnouts on the picket lines or the ebullient spirits evident at demonstrations and marches.

The goad for this stunningly resolute strike was deep cuts to retirement pensions, but as in all such vast, spontaneous outpourings from below, the issue is not the issue. The issue, rather, is the deteriorating quality of work life and morale in the higher-education sector. The Great University Strike of 2018 is a powerful statement on behalf of intellectual and humane values, new university priorities, and organizational structures and norms that better embody the principles of dignity, transparency, respect, and democracy.

Immediately at stake are the drastic proposed pension cuts sought by Universities UK (UUK), the consortium of employers, to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension plan of Britain’s oldest universities. Based upon a valuation that others have since subjected to vigorous contestation and denunciation, UUK has claimed a looming £6-billion systemic deficit. That scary prospect was used to push a drastic change that would scrap USS’s guaranteed, defined-benefit pension plan in favor of a defined-contribution plan compelling members to shoulder all investment risk in individual accounts invested in financial markets. Not only would this create the risk that retirees would outlast their pensions in old age, but starting lecturers would be £200,000 worse off and lecturers in general would suffer a 40 to 50 percent cut in pension payouts.

Given that academics’ salaries have flatlined, given that many start their careers by spending years in precarious casualized positions, and given the high cost of housing and other expenses for academics in London, Oxford, and Cambridge, among other places, this is a massive cut that no university employee can afford.

The move follows a series of prior cuts to pensions, justified by promises that they would set things on a stable footing. In 2011, USS increased its members’ retirement age, required increased member contributions, and replaced a very generous retirement benefit calculation based on final salary with a more sober one based upon career average. In 2016, USS again increased contribution rates and restricted the defined-benefit portion of the scheme to those making up to £55,000, with incomes above that level handled by a defined-contribution scheme.

Each of those changes sparked union walkouts, but only token strikes lasting a few days, with no effect on outcomes. No wonder, then, that UUK did not anticipate the scale of this explosion. The current strike’s scale and velocity are all the more impressive given that it had to surmount the Trade Union Act of 2016, a blatantly anti-union measure passed by a Conservative government that sets an extremely high bar for strike ballots. At more than sixty institutions, members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelmingly to strike, and so far the walkout has unfolded in fourteen days across four consecutive weeks, this being the week of greatest disruptive effect.

The strike has stimulated considerable sector-wide scrutiny of UUK and its dubious internal decision-making processes, including the opacity of that body’s structures, the confusing nature of its internal polling, and the overweighting of Oxford and Cambridge colleges in the decision. It has also led to examination of inflated pay scales at USS, where the top earner brings home more than £900,000. Summoning their inner finance geeks, academics now expound happily upon such hitherto obscure topics as accrual rates, salary thresholds, and actuarial valuation models.

These subjects are not arcane. Mastery of them means that the ongoing struggle is not informed by self-interest alone but by acute awareness of the technical issues. If low interest rates, the Brexit vote, and longer life spans present undoubted challenges for pension sustainability, academics are now quite aware that UCU-commissioned actuarial valuations found no USS deficit and that the valuation UUK used to project its worst-case scenario assumes in its liabilities that all U.K. universities would fail simultaneously, an impossibility. Many strikers are indignant that employers took a 4.55 percent annual pension holiday from 1997 to 2009, when asset prices were high and the future looked bright, amounting to some £5 billion in contributions withheld. That the pension cuts will hit women hardest has been contrasted with the all-male leadership of USS, and researcher excavations of paper trails have shed light on eye-opening hidden histories behind the decision.

This state of informed outrage helps explain why thousands of new members have flocked to join the union—despite the innate reluctance of any good teacher to miss seminar, despite households’ desire not to sacrifice the pay docked, and despite the nasty hardball tactics employed by some universities to bully staff into compliance. The number of participating institutions has only grown. Picket lines are sites of animated banter as academics and staff professionals who might otherwise never communicate share perspectives from their respective disciplines and institutional niches, all while holding up signs with creative slogans. (A favorite: “What the FUUK are you doing to our pensions?”)

Students might well have turned against their lecturers—especially, perhaps, final-year students, who in the U.K. have most of their mark riding on their academic performance in their last academic year—but instead they have on the whole shown broad sympathy, joining picket lines, marching and demonstrating, issuing student-union statements of solidarity, and on several campuses mounting occupations of the offices of vicechancellors, VCs being the equivalent of American university presidents.

Students have rallied around their lecturers on the understanding that “their working conditions are our learning conditions,” as many banners proclaim, a slogan notably similar to that of West Virginia’s simultaneous teachers strike. Students don’t need to be told that the pension cuts are transpiring, inexplicably, at the very moment their own costs have risen to more than £9,000 annually (a result of a tripling of fees introduced in 2010). Tens of thousands of students have demanded money back for every class day lost to the strike, a tactical demand not at all incompatible with something more elemental that is emerging in student consciousness: a rejection of the model of students as consumers by fee-greedy institutions, in favor of a restoration of the humane conception of students as creators and seekers of knowledge.

The strike has, indeed, sparked a widespread, mounting, and ultimately very radical criticism of university priorities. Senior management and policymakers, whose tone-deafness brought on this epic strike, would do well to listen carefully. The criticisms include a widespread resentment of the national-bureaucratic Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and their resulting internal institutional pressures via performance reviews and administrative edicts. That squeeze demoralizes staff by contributing to anxiety, stress, depression, and even suicide. The criticisms also include objection to university pay structures that have seen most salaries stagnate while senior management salaries balloon, with the average vice-chancellor’s pay package exceeding £280,000. And they include scorn for new vanity building projects at huge costs without clear need, especially when measured against simultaneous constrictions of staff incomes and pensions.

Even more deeply, it extends to a criticism of “marketization,” “commodification,” and “privatization” as trends in the whole education sector, many of whose other unions have endorsed this strike. Those phrases are somewhat analogous to American opposition to the “corporatization” of education, though with a distinctive emphasis suggesting that a social and democratic university must supplant the neoliberal capitalist model that wants every academic to become an income-producing, output-maximizing, entrepreneurial self.

The sign of this reconsideration is not limited to avowed radicals. Even some vice-chancellors and politicians in the present crisis have proposed a nationalization of the pension system as a way forward. It is no accident that this conversation unfolds against broad concerns about economic inequality and a sea change in British politics as a left-wing leadership assumes control of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, or that its most powerful drivers have been junior academics.

The restoration of education as a public good rather than a commodity is not, of course, achievable by a mere pension strike. That such visions are in the air, though, accounts for the strike’s dramatic turn of events. UUK may have broken off negotiations with the union and pushed through its defined-contribution pension plan at USS in January, but the decisiveness of strike action has brought about a weakening and dissipation of employer resolve as one vice-chancellor after another began to signal a willingness to retain defined benefit.

University managements clearly did not expect so broad a strike, or one of such lasting duration, carried out with such force of expression, rocking almost every one of their institutions. They also did not anticipate the drubbing they took in the press, especially from those newspapers most likely to understand the threat to British universities’ global competitiveness if its pension system were damaged. (The Financial Times deserves a special tribute for its sheer magnificence.) Faced with employee rebellion, student criticism, and blistering press coverage, one university after another signaled a change of heart, the watershed being Oxford University’s about-face.

Negotiations then resumed even as the strike continued. UUK met the UCU in a formally mediated process, producing an agreement earlier this week. To union negotiators locked in a room with UUK’s representatives, the deal must have looked sufficient. It promised to keep defined benefit (if only for at least three years), offered a plan for independent valuation review, and modestly increased employer contributions, all key union demands.

After three weeks of striking to retain their pensions, however, the UCU rank and file and their branch leaderships had absolutely no interest in permitting the deep cuts to pensions that the agreement also contained, for it would have increased member contributions yet again, reduced the salary threshold to a much lower maximum of £42,000, reduced the accrual rate, and capped the inflation index at 2.5 percent, although inflation may well outpace that. Members were indignant, moreover, that the agreement committed lecturers to reschedule classes, an impractical idea that would have doubled workloads and was unaccompanied by any promise to restore deducted pay. Following a burst of Twitter fury, every branch to take a vote on the agreement, more than forty, emphatically rejected it, as did, within a day, the union’s higher-education committee meeting in London.

In that awe-inspiring moment of angry rejection, few gave serious consideration to the fact that there was some risk in this approach, namely that employers might decide to revert to their original policy. The default option at USS, after all, remains to go to exclusively defined-contribution, and time is running out. If that decision is to be reversed, a new agreement must occur prior to a June deadline set by the government pensions regulator.

What has changed decisively is that UUK, in complete disarray, seemingly lacks the will any longer to force through its original change. If the situation is not resolved soon, furthermore, the UCU has authorized another fourteen days of strike action that will disrupt the exams period in April and May, causing immense sector-wide chaos. The staunchness of the UCU membership leaves no doubt that it is prepared to carry through on that.

Unsurprisingly, then, UUK stated its willingness yesterday to return to the bargaining table. It knows full well that it must allow the retention of a meaningful defined-benefit pension if it is to satisfy its academic and professional staff and restore harmony. Failing that, exams season will be a roiling disaster, and a stew of rancorous bitterness will poison campus relations for years to come.

If, as for the moment seems more likely, a new agreement preserves the defined-benefit pension and makes minimal concessions to bolster sustainability rather than the deep cuts first proposed, then the strike will have achieved a magnitude of victory almost unimaginable at the beginning of this dispute, one with countless ramifications for future university life—and for workers more broadly.


Christopher Phelps is senior lecturer and associate professor of American history in the department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham.


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