|Volume 52 Number 6, March 26, 2022||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Higher education staff have been engaged in strike action as part of their long-running combined struggle over pensions, pay and conditions, in the general context of safeguarding the future of higher education. They have been taking repeated action since 2018. The University and College Union (UCU) lists sixty-eight universities as impacted, involving over 50,000 staff. The union has labelled the strikes a "fight for the future of higher education".
The latest phase began on December 1 last year, staff held a 3-day strike after university management refused to withdraw pension cuts and meet demands over pay and working conditions. UCU members were joined by Unison members at 10 institutions.
A significant feature of the struggle has been the bringing together of strands relating to working conditions and the claims of education workers over the value they create in the form of pay and pensions, which have all come under attack against the background of an increasingly capital-centric higher education system.
As explained by the UCU, there are actually two separate disputes: the devastating cuts to university staff's USS pensions, and the falling pay and the employers' refusal to address pay gaps, precarious employment, and unsafe workloads.
The latter dispute is termed the "Four Fights" by the union, as it combines action over:
University employers consistently fail to address any of these issues, says the union.
Regarding the rising workloads, staff are engaged in a campaign of action short of a strike called "Reclaim Our Time" . The union explains that most higher education contracts specify a nominal working week of 35-38 hours. In the case of many academic staff, there is a further contractual stipulation that staff may be expected work beyond those hours as reasonably requested by their line manager. The purpose of this particular campaign, say the union, is to expose how much of staff well-being and free time is regularly sacrificed just to keep the system afloat, by simply asking all members to work to contract.
On the issue of the claims of university staff, the UCU say that, since 2009, pay has effectively been cut by nearly 20% in real terms. Furthermore, the employers' own analysis highlights that women, black and minority ethnic, and disabled staff experience significant pay discrimination, the union points out. The union also highlights that some 3,000 staff were made redundant during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the USS pension has effectively been cut by £240,000, say the UCU, and, in the latest cycle of the dispute, employers are proposing further cuts of 35% to the guaranteed pension .
The current strikes began on February 14, starting with action on the university pension for the first week. Then two days of join action were held at the beginning of the following week, covering both disputes. Then, starting on February 28, were three days of strikes over pay and conditions. Rolling strike action was planned from March 7, along with an escalation of action short of strike.
It is significant that the final day of the strike action is timed to coincide with a student strike on March 2, organised by the NUS, to be held in solidarity with the staff disputes and which is calling for higher and further education to be free at the point of use.
Support for action has been solid. In the November 5 ballot, 70.1% UCU members backed strike action and 84.9% voted for action short of strike. In what UCU General Secretary Jo Grady called a "nationally-orchestrated move by employers to bully and intimidate UCU members", the management of certain universities had threatened 100% pay reductions for staff taking even action short of a strike.
As Workers' Weekly pointed out in 2020 at an earlier phase of this struggle: "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."
Economic issues are intimately connected with the nature of the university system itself and what higher education is for. Education is a right and should serve the people. Academics and higher education workers in struggle for their rights and conditions are fighting for the rights of all. It is an issue of control over the direction society is headed, as an educated population is key to a new direction of the economy and democracy. In this sense the workers and academics are forming the new outlook where people can think and act in their own name. This is the pathway opening for the workers to take control over their lives and destiny and constituting themselves as the authority.
Workers' Weekly continues to fully support the university staff and wishes them every success in their actions.
1. Action short of a strike consists of working to contract and not undertaking any voluntary activities. It also means not counteracting the effects of the strike action such as covering for absences, sharing material from or rescheduling cancelled classes, and so on.
2. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) has been in place for over 45 years. It is a defined-benefit pension scheme open to all academic staff, generally available in universities established before 1992. Major changes were imposed in 2014-15 to the detriment of members of the scheme.