The university strikes​ reached the end of their fourth week just before the start of the Easter break. More than a million students at 65 universities had been affected and, according to the University and College Union (UCU), the body to which the strikers belong, more than half a million teaching hours lost. The casus belli is a proposed change to the operation of the pension fund held by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which covers those (not just academics, but librarians and administrators too) who work at institutions founded before 1992, the year polytechnics became ‘new universities’. Estimates of how much worse off UCU members will be in retirement under the new provisions have settled memorably at £10,000 a year. But this is an average: some academics in their early forties are set to lose between £12,000 and £16,000 a year. Modest public sector pay has traditionally been offset by generous pensions. Not anymore. Like so many other quaint customs, this one has been trampled by the irresistible march of market forces.

Soon after the strike began, my wife overheard an academic on the Cambridge to London train. ‘Well, we’re striking about pensions,’ she said, ‘but really it’s everything, isn’t it?’ Pay growth in the sector has been stuck at 1 per cent for nearly a decade – a 17 per cent fall in real terms. Then there’s the proliferating bureaucracy and the drift of power from teachers to administrators. For most of my career, lecturers’ relative autonomy was underwritten by trust in their experience and diligence and judgment; but this has been badly eroded. Other concerns include the exploitation of junior teaching staff on short-term contracts, and the creeping commodification of degrees ushered in by tuition fees. Few students want to be called a ‘customer’, but when you’re obliged to pay for a service or product it’s hard not to feel like one. And the prospect of a fifty grand debt has a way of raising expectations. Times have changed in UK universities and are changing still. There’s never been a strike like this one, certainly not in my 25 years in academia.

At one level, this is a row about maths. The USS’s Board of Trustees believes there is a hole in the pension fund of £6.1 billion, which Universities UK (UUK), the organisation which represents universities as employers, argues must be dealt with. To maintain current levels of income in retirement, UUK says, would require rises in contributions from both employees and employers, which whatever the long-term benefits for the former, would be substantial enough to prevent the latter from building, hiring and generally expanding. Universities, the strikers argue, have become businesses that would rather spend money on capital projects than on ventures that look like losses on a spreadsheet (like pension schemes). Specifically, UUK wants to replace ‘defined benefit’ pensions, which yield a guaranteed income, with ‘defined contributions’, which put pensions at the mercy of the stock market. The proposals are unacceptable and, in any case, UCU thinks the sums are wrong, and that the pension pot is performing well. (Several academics, inevitably, have offered to check the figures.) Meanwhile, a group of academics has crowdfunded more than £30,000 to instruct a QC to determine whether, if the USS is indeed £6.1 billion short, its trustees are guilty of ‘a breach of trust and breach of fiduciary duties’. They note that in 2014 the highest paid USS executive received a 50 per cent pay rise to £900,000.

In January UCU balloted 68 universities, all but four of which voted to strike, supported by 88 per cent of members. Armed with this mandate, the union’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, announced that 14 days of industrial action would be held over four weeks. On 22 February picket lines sprang up at the entrances to campuses. Colleagues around the country began sharing stories about punitive measures against staff, including the threat to hold them personally liable for any damages awarded to students who sued for disruption to their studies. The story that stuck, however, was that universities would consider refusal to reschedule teaching as ‘action short of strike’ and would consequently levy penalties on top of the income strikers had already been docked.

So far most students have been supportive. Last month, a Times Higher Education poll found that just over half of them backed the strike and just under a third actively opposed it. Students on both sides have been working out what refunds they are owed. The Daily Telegraph quoted a second-year undergraduate at St Andrews who maintained that 14 days of stoppages had cost her £768, although such calculations usually overlook running costs for things like stocking libraries and cleaning toilets. But the fact remains: if students are paying universities that aren’t paying their lecturers, where is the money going? The vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, where I work, assures us that it will be used ‘specifically for the benefit of students’.

This is my first strike and my first time as a union member. My membership of UCU – ‘the largest post-school education union in the world’ – brings letters, emails, a membership card and a new sense of belonging. I felt a twinge of guilt for leaving it so long, but I’m not alone. Of UCU’s fifty thousand members, 8300 joined in the past three months, 1800 in a single week. I was one of more than seventy UEA lecturers who joined in February. No one enjoys losing half a month’s salary or letting down students, but some strikers are more energised than others by declarations of solidarity, more susceptible to that kind of inclusiveness. I’m committed to the strike, and a sucker for fellow feeling, but the whole thing makes me queasy, ill at ease. I wake up with the feeling of having gone to bed on an argument. Inevitably the counterpart of strikers’ esprit de corps is a heightened awareness of difference – them and us – between bosses and workers, strikers and non-strikers, even picketing and non-picketing strikers. It’s hard to stand in the snow and not resent the absence of those colleagues whose futures you’re defending. A friend at another university told me of a mild-mannered lecturer in her department who, flushed with righteous picketing fury, tweeted: ‘now I know who my real colleagues are.’

After ten days of striking, talks resumed, and by Monday, 12 March UCU felt it had a deal to put to its members. It proposed a transitional arrangement where a ‘meaningful level’ of defined benefit would be kept in return for increased contributions, pending an independent valuation of the fund. Discussions ‘to explore risk-sharing alternatives’ would resume in 2020. In return, the strike would be suspended and – the real killer – lectures and classes rescheduled. Most of the UCU rank and file were appalled. As ever, the moment found its hashtag: #NoCapitulation. Emergency meetings were called up and down the country.

I joined the picket at UEA the next morning. In the Student Union photocopied flyers linked student debt, tuition fees, overpaid VCs and pensions – ‘All symptoms of the same disease: MARKETISATION destroys by degrees’; a pound sign replaced the ‘E’ in the UEA logo. Outside, some students turned up to cheer us on. One of my colleagues apologised to a young woman who had come from Brazil to study medieval history, but she shrugged it off: ‘If this was Brazil, we would be burning things by now.’

Something all historians know but fewer experience is that when you’re caught up in an event you lack perspective and context. All information is unreliable. About 8.45 a.m. word got around that the union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC), set to meet in London that afternoon, intended to ratify the deal. We held a meeting in a room in the Student Union, cold and sour-smelling after a gig the night before. Several lecturers turned on UCU. The union was selling members down the river; the HEC should be deselected if the deal was accepted. Someone relayed a suggestion from Leeds that a workers’ council be set up.

In the afternoon, news broke that the proposed deal had been rejected, and another 14 days of strikes, timed for the exam season in May and June, had been announced. Later that day, Sally Hunt, who’d spoken in favour of the deal, reaffirmed that the union’s strength lay in its membership. At the UEA meeting I attended, everyone had been muttering about cancelling their memberships if the deal was accepted.

After the picket dispersed that Tuesday, I sneaked into the department to find my contract. In my ten years at UEA I’d never looked at it, because, like most academics, I understood the need to work beyond contractual terms. Apart from research and writing done in evenings and at weekends, there are consultancies, media interviews, email queries, talks to schools, festivals and, in my case, history societies. Sometimes you get a small fee – I once gave a talk upstairs in a pub where a bucket was passed round – but mostly you don’t. These add-ons have real economic value, however. The higher education consultants Viewforth Consulting estimate that the 40 million hours of ‘pro-bono public engagement and knowledge exchange’ worked by university staff in 2015-16 were worth £3.2 billion to the UK economy. It’s nice to have this impact quantified, but any academic will tell you that the core functions of universities depend on the good will of conscientious staff, who feel taken for granted by managers who fail to appreciate the scope of what they do. To be reminded by UEA’s Executive Team that ‘the university does not withhold salary from staff who work to contract’ seems bizarre. Why should this need to be said? What is a contract if not an instrument to define the connection between obligation and remuneration, so employees don’t do less than they should and employers don’t expect more?

The UCU’s current line is that it is ‘determined to continue the dispute until we achieve justice for our members’. But where does this leave students, many of whom sit finals in a few weeks’ time? Many lecturers fear, and detect, waning student support, and we’re not even into the assessment period yet. It’s already clear that some students are not for one side or another, but are simply concerned to protect their own interests. And who can blame them? At stake are their degrees, their careers, their outlay of time and money. On the other side, striking lecturers are resolved that this moment cannot now be squandered, however dismal the prospect of more industrial action.

I saw someone on Twitter remarking that strikes come to an end, everyone goes back to work and both sides live with the consequences of what they’ve done. Perhaps I’m too deep in the moment, too emotional, but this strike already feels like a cultural watershed. In the longer term there may be fewer new lecturers, deterred by deteriorating conditions and shrinking rewards. This would be bad enough even if student numbers were not predicted to rise dramatically. In 2017 534,000 students were enrolled on degree programmes in England. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, this figure is set to rise to more than 800,000 by 2030. Who will teach them? Would I take this career path if I was 24 again? I doubt it, and I know many others who feel the same. Those who do choose academia, and those already here, will most likely place limits in future on their engagement and generosity. That is what good will is, and when it’s gone you may never get it back.

23 March

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences