|Volume 50 Number 5, February 8, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Since 2018, staff at an increasing number of universities, now standing at 74 out of 130 across the country, have been striking over pensions, pay, conditions and other issues faced by those working in the higher education sector. Most recently, following eight days of strike action in November and December last year involving over 40,000 staff at 60 institutions, which ended without resolution, ballots have been held for fresh strikes early this year.
The latest ballots, which met the punitive 50% turnout legal threshold, have added 14 to that number of universities, increasing the number of University and College Union (UCU) members able to engage in these actions by about 6,000. According to the UCU, 80% supported strikes over pensions, and 76% were in favour of such action over pay and conditions. Although employers made a move on January 27 to set what they called "expectations" over workload, casual contracts, and pay gaps in gender and ethnicity, they refused to address the rejected and below-inflation 1.8% pay offer, a key point of dispute.
"We have been clear from the outset that we are prepared to take serious and sustained action to defend pay and conditions, as well as our pensions," said UCU general secretary Jo Grady, "and these latest ballot results show that members are just as determined as ever."
The UCU announced 14 days of strikes starting on February 20. They are planned to escalate each week and culminate with a week-long strike from March 9-13, said the union. In addition, staff will be taking various forms of action short of a strike.
Simply on grounds of scale, these strikes have been significant. The first wave of action in March 2018 was called "the worst industrial action at universities in modern times" by The Times, affecting over a million students. Student support was nevertheless strong, with students occupying university facilities on a number of campuses.
They are also significant for their scope, bringing together a set of distinct but related issues. One has been the dispute over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). At the same time, disputes have been developing over what the UCU calls the "four fights": pay inequality, job insecurity, rising workloads, and pay deflation.
The USS has been in place for over 45 years. It is a defined-benefit pension scheme open to all academic staff, typically available in universities established before 1992. It is one of the largest private defined-benefit schemes in the country, though it is, in fact, a hybrid scheme and has a defined-contribution component. The current disputes centre on the sustainability of the scheme and rising costs for members, coming on top of major changes in 2014-15 that left members worse off.
In the context of an increasingly capital-centric higher education system and corporatised form of management and organisation, pay and conditions have also come under attack. While senior management pay has risen markedly, that of the majority of staff has fallen in real terms in recent years. Further, UCU figures show that the numbers of academic staff on short-term or zero-hours contracts have been increasing, and are in fact the majority, standing at 54% already by 2016.
It is not only academic staff who have been affected: the pensions, pay and conditions of non-academic staff have also been under attack over the same period. For example, during the 2018 UCU strikes, cleaners, porters and receptionists at the University of London struck work from April 25-26 that year over casualisation, demanding their work get insourced.
This bringing together of all of these strands into one concerted action has given rise to a significant quality to the struggle of the workers in higher education. These economic issues are intimately connected with the nature of the university system itself and what higher education is for, and for this reason has generated support amongst students.
This is a relation that the government has sought to destroy through the creation of the Office for Students (OfS) on January 1, 2018, immediately preceding these actions. The OfS is described as a "non-departmental public body of the Department for Education", and asserts that it is "the independent regulator of higher education in England". Almost on the eve of the strikes, it said in February that year that "universities that fail to mitigate the impact of the strikes would open themselves up to regulatory intervention".
The method of imposition and refusal to negotiate, combined with the threat of police powers, is to disrupt the formation of an outlook that recognises education workers, whether academic or not, as adding huge value to the economy. The work done by university staff produces highly skilled graduates and postgraduates with a massive productive capacity, and in a more general sense contributes to the cultural level of society; the universities themselves give rise to scientific and technological advances.
It is important that this value is recognised. Not only is it not recognised, it is not realised; that is, its value is not paid for by those that utilise it. Enterprises, particularly big business, benefit directly through their highly-educated workforce and the science and technology they employ, a benefit that takes the form of greater productivity and for which they do not pay. Instead, the issue is obscured as one of tax versus spending, cuts are instituted under the signboard of "austerity", private interests are introduced, and concessions are forced from staff, whose claims in terms of pay and pensions are denigrated as costs. They are not costs, but claims on the vast value that their work produces.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "We have seen more members back strikes since the winter walkouts and this next wave of action will affect even more universities and students. If universities want to avoid further disruption, they need to deal with rising pension costs, and address the problems over pay and conditions.
"We have been clear from the outset that we would take serious and sustained industrial action if that was what was needed. As well as the strikes next month, we are going to ballot members to ensure that we have a fresh mandate for further action to cover the rest of the academic year if these disputes are not resolved."
Workers' Weekly fully supports the university staff and wishes them every success in their actions.
1. For a full list of universities affected,
For further background of the struggle and the actions in 2018, see: http://www.rcpbml.org.uk/wwie-18/ww18-09/ww18-09-01.htm
On the importance of the struggle to defend pension rights, see: http://www.rcpbml.org.uk/wwie-18/ww18-07/ww18-07-03.htm