As unprecedented strike action hits UK universities, pensions are only the tip of the iceberg

As unprecedented strike action hits UK universities, pensions are only the tip of the iceberg

Students at University College London support striking lecturers on the first day of strikes over pension reforms on 22 February 2018.

(Fanny Malinen)

For 14 days over four weeks in February and March, many of the UK’s top universities are coming to a standstill as lecturers strike over a proposed pension scheme that would reduce their retirement income by £10,000 (US$13,900) a year.

"The proposal would remove all guaranteed income in retirement and move it all to a ’defined contributions scheme’ which would be at the whim of the stock markets," a spokesperson from the University and College Union (UCU) told Equal Times on the eve of the strike.

"The strike action is unprecedented because of the level of the cuts, but also because we have tried hard to avert the action by trying to get Universities UK, who represents the employers, back to the negotiating table.’’

Despite what UCU called Universities UK’s earlier "hardline position", during the third week of strikes in early March, UCU issued a statement saying: "There has been constructive engagement on the challenging issues in the dispute. Further talks are scheduled for the next two days." However, the strikes remain on.

Sixty-four universities are participating in the strike, while a handful failed to reach the required 50 per cent participation threshold for the strike ballot. In addition, many newer institutions are covered by a different pension scheme.

Jamie Matthews is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "If I’m fortunate enough to establish a career in the university, then it will make me poorer when I’m old," he says about the proposed pension reform.

Up to half of academic workers are on precarious contracts, be they fixed-term or hourly, and Matthews is one of them. He sees it as vital that an academic career brings pension security.

"Other professions have terrible post-retirement conditions, and this is undoubtedly a relatively privileged profession. But this cannot be a race to the bottom. Future assaults on pensions over my working life seem likely, so it is all the more important to draw red lines and seek to hold them."

What about the students?

The unprecented number of strike days comes at a time of the year when students are encountering essay deadlines and starting to prepare for their exams.

"The nature of the university as a workplace means that action of this sort must affect the students, and everyone I know is really distressed that we have been forced into this position by the employer," Matthews explains. He says that despite the annoyance and anxiety, most students are broadly supportive, but "some are probably quietly cursing us.

"Students are getting hugely indebted to get this education, and they are encouraged to think of this as a consumer relationship, and by this logic they are ’not getting what they paid for.’"

“Some students are using the commodification of education to show solidarity with their striking lecturers. At King’s College, also University of London, some students are petitioning the university for a full refund of tuition fees for the days of strike action.

"That we are being forced to pay for our education is an injustice, and this puts financial pressure on students to cross picket lines. If universities insist on making us pay, we will demand our money back in solidarity with our striking lecturers and to fight against our exploitation by universities," explains Robert Liow, who studies law at King’s College and is behind the campaign.

Across the country,126,000 students have signed similar petitions, and King’s College has agreed to set aside salary savings from the strike and use them for the benefit of the students.

In 2012, tuition fees at English and Welsh universities (Scotland operates a different system and has maintained free undergraduate degrees) rose to a maximum of £9,000 (US$12,580) a year. Fees replaced much of the government’s funding to universities, but increased the average debt at graduation to over £50,000 (US$69,378). As the repayment system is income contingent, three-quarters of graduates are expected to never earn enough money to pay their debts back in full.

Only six years after the overhaul, the unsustainability of the debt-based funding regime is becoming widely acknowledged. On 19 February 2018, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced a review of the funding system - but ruled out scrapping fees.

UCU does not believe the review sufficiently addresses the problems with the funding system. "The unsustainability of the current funding system is a hugely pressing issue and will continue to put pressure on the system as a whole," the spokesperson says, adding that changes to freedom of movement brought about by Britain’s exit from the European Union will also bring challenges for universities.

The marketisation of education

The disputed pension reform is in line with the ’marketisation’ of the university sector, according to Matthews. "At the heart of the reform is a dismantling of collective risk - currently distributed across all workers in the scheme - and an individualisation of that risk. We see the related processes of financialisation, increased competition, and the undermining of forms of collectivity that have underpinned similar reforms in the neoliberal era," he says.

As a lecturer, he sees first-hand the changes in the way students relate to their studies "with a much more pronounced sense that this is an investment in the project of self-creation which we are all called to as neoliberal subjects.

"It can make students more demanding and undoubtedly more stressed. The mental health cost of these changes is clear to anyone who has witnessed them."

Last year, the UK government passed a new Higher Education and Research Act. It introduced the Teaching Excellence Framework, a complex metric that aims to better inform students’ choices and recognise and promote excellent teaching.

However, there are fears that the indicators it measures - student satisfaction, retention and graduate outcomes - have little to do with teaching. UCU has voiced concerns that universities might instead focus on targetting these indicators, for example by moving away from offering courses in arts and humanities that do not produce high-earning graduates; or by shying away from widening participation, as graduate incomes become more affected by family background, gender or where students live than the quality of teaching.

The UK is not alone in introducing market-oriented education reforms. Last year, Denmark - where university is free - passed a reform that ties university funding to degree completion time and graduate employment levels. It also limits the number of bachelor degrees a student can take, in order to push students to graduate faster.

In Finland, staged a day of strike action in early March over their say in salaries. The unions representing academic staff have also voiced concerns over the conditions of research work and the reliance of universities on temporary contracts.

And in February, student unions in France protested over plans to reform the pre-university qualification, the high school baccalaureate. The government wants students to specialise earlier, choosing a few subjects, but the national student union is criticising this as a selective measure, fearing it would disadvantage those from schools where less options are available or those from family backgrounds that will not guide them through the process.

Higher education reform is also underway in Australia, where the government’s plans to cut funding and decrease the student loan repayment threshold have been met with opposition.

Turning tide?

But there are examples that have bucked this trend. Last year, the incoming government in New Zealand promised to phase-in free education, starting from this year. In Britain, the opposition Labour party has made a similar pledge.

"Making education completely free would remove the debt burden from graduates, and funding this through taxing the rich and businesses who benefit from university graduates would shift the burden off the shoulders of the average British taxpayer," says Liow.

Matthews believes the pensions strike shows that there is a different vision for university. "Of course, it is about an immediate material threat, but insofar as the proposed reform embodies all these deeper attacks on the value and values of education, it catalyses the possibility of a more profound critique, and more persistent activism," he says.

The signs are already visible. On the first strike day on 22 February, Goldsmiths saw hundreds of students rally outside the university, with thousands-strong marches, occupations and student solidarity repeated in many other universities across the UK.