Why We Strike
Next Thursday, staff at UK universities will begin a wave of strike action in defence of our pensions. Fourteen days of strikes will roll across 61 of the ‘pre-92’ universities; the other seven are being reballoted by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) as they didn’t meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act. On days not covered by the strike, we will work to contract.
The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) has more than 400,000 members. According to Universities UK (UUK), the employers’ association, USS faces a deficit that requires its transformation from a defined benefit scheme, providing staff with a guaranteed retirement income, into a defined contribution scheme, made up of individual pension funds subject to the vagaries of the stock market. These changes, imposed in the teeth of opposition from union negotiators, will leave everyone who currently pays into USS worse off.
What is proposed is a textbook case of the dismantling of a shared good through financialisation. If our pensions are dependent on investment performance, risks that were once shared will be borne by individual USS members. All estimates (including employers’) are of a reduction in retirement income of between 10 and 40 per cent, with a typical staff member losing between £60,000 and £200,000 over the course of their retirement. Defined benefit pensions are deferred wages, and the proposed reforms are a wage grab – following a real-term decline in staff salaries of 15 to 20 per cent since 2009.
The rationale for the changes is dubious. There is no crisis in USS: the alleged deficit of £7.5 billion is largely fictional, produced by a remarkably opaque and pessimistic valuation – driven by the leadership of Oxford and Cambridge – that is optimistic in only one respect: how much longer staff will live to burden the scheme. The valuation assumes an increase in average life expectancy of 1.5 per cent per year (in practice, increases in longevity are proving lower than expected). The hawkish valuation also relies on an imagined shift in investment strategy away from growth and towards a ‘de-risking’ so radical that it endangers the health of the scheme; union negotiators have described it as ‘reckless prudence’.
All this at a time when UK universities are richer than ever, thanks to fee income. To afford the expensive capital investment they believe is required to attract students – from vanity building projects to overseas campuses – universities are looking to reduce employment costs, whether through wages, staff numbers or pension liabilities. Cambridge’s wage bill has decreased as a percentage of total expenditure by 4.3 per cent since 2009.
The planned offloading of pension liabilities onto staff represents a shift in the nature of universities, from a common educational enterprise to a scheme of profit maximisation directed by senior management (whose own pay is soaring). It is a political choice, not a financial necessity. UK universities are a microcosm of the most inequitable developments in the wider economy. Wealth accumulates at the top, while low pay, insecurity and exploitation is endemic elsewhere. Figures from 2016 showed that 75,000 UK university staff were on highly casualised contracts, and 21,000 on zero hours.
With the pensions dispute, however, the chain of influence may spread outwards from universities. Exchanges between UCU branches and MPs show that the government is taking an interest in the future of all defined benefit schemes. What happens to USS, the second largest pension fund in the UK, is of national importance. At stake are the principles that workers should be paid fairly and that risk should be pooled.
Since winning a major victory on pay in 2006, university staff have increasingly questioned the value of taking industrial action. Academics in particular have preferred to place their hopes in traditional modes of self-governance. Given the deep distaste lecturers have for disrupting their students’ education, this was to be expected. But it seems that many have realised once again that concerted industrial action, despite its hardships and moral dilemmas, may be the only way to prevent the decline of the sector, in the interests of staff and students alike. On a turnout of 58 per cent, 88 per cent of UCU members who voted backed strike action.
The success of the strike will depend to a large extent on how students respond. Jeremiads about the future of the universities depict the students as consumerist monads. But a survey carried out earlier this week reveals that, though students are split on the strike, most of them blame the government, their university or their vice chancellor. Only one in twenty blames the union. Students have expressed solidarity with striking staff while at the same time demanding refunds for their disrupted education. Staff as well as students may have much to learn in figuring out how to make common cause with each other.