The end of last week saw the start of the nationwide University and College Union (UCU) strikes, affecting 61 universities across the country. As you probably know by now, this action was forced by massive changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) by Universities UK which will result in a 40% reduction of retirement income and on average, staff will lose around £10,000 per year on receiving their pensions. Universities UK allege that this change is necessary because of a £6bn deficit, but an independent analysis has confirmed this to be an absolute fiction. The USS is not about to go bankrupt; in fact, it is in an even better financial position than it was a few years ago. The distortion in the valuation was the result of a number of wealthy Oxford and Cambridge colleges being given the same weight as large universities in a survey, with 16 colleges taking part independently on top of the votes of the two universities themselves.
So, there’s no deficit, but let’s say for a moment that there was. The pension cuts would still be completely unjustifiable in the face of the Chief Executive of USS, Bill Galvin, receiving an £82,000 pay rise this year and the excessive wages and expenses of most university Vice-Chancellors; our own VC Stuart Corbridge has a salary of around £230,000 and Sir Keith Burnett, VC of the University of Sheffield, spent £24,433 on hotels alone in 2015-16.
University staff are overworked and underpaid. It’s not just lecturers that are affected, but researchers, including early career researchers who already receive low pay and little job security, academic librarians, and support staff pivotal to universities. The addition of an insecure retirement only adds to academia becoming a less desirable profession. Most of the striking staff will not be receiving their pensions for decades, but they are sacrificing their current pay in order to fight for the security of higher education as a viable career option for others. If academia becomes less secure, we will lose our world class university education and the lecturers that genuinely care about us.
The strikes also confront the marketisation of higher education, which has become increasingly commodified and students have been trained to see ourselves as passive consumers of a service rather than active participants in education. It’s no surprise, then, that the immediate response of a lot of people was outrage at the fact that we pay £9250 a year to have classes cancelled, rather than outrage that we pay £9250 a year for our lecturers to have their pensions cut. It is true that we are facing the impacts of the strikes in the short-term, but we cannot make this about us. We must understand that there is a bigger picture and that it warrants our support; we have an obligation to stand with our university staff in solidarity.
The first two days of the strikes did see a lot of student support and positive coverage. Across the country, students joined staff on picket lines – including in Durham and Newcastle, culminating in a mass rally in Newcastle on the Thursday which saw hundreds of people in attendance. Despite the failure of our Students’ Union to mobilise the student body in support of our university staff, a collection of students have set up the Durham Student-Staff Solidarity group to encourage people to take action.
If you’re still on the fence about the strikes, they have already started to have an impact. Since the strikes began, 17 Vice-Chancellors have broken rank with Universities UK to express their support of striking staff and call for further negotiations. This includes both the VCs of Newcastle and Durham, but the strong statement of Chris Day saying “I absolutely support staff’s decision to strike” sits in stark contrast with the reluctant comment by Stuart Corbridge that he is “of the view that a further independent valuation of the Scheme’s assets is now required” which is hardly a rallying cry. Talks have been scheduled for Tuesday, but as UUK have refused to enter meaningful negotiations with imposing any pre-conditions, the strikes next week are still to go ahead. The strikes must continue until there is a fair resolution, and student support adds to their effectiveness; the more effective the strikes, the sooner the dispute will be over.
What You Can Do:
- Read this Medium piece written by an anonymous lecturer on why staff don’t want to go on strike, but they have to do so anyway.
- Don’t cross the picket line: on strike days (which are Monday-Wednesday next week), don’t go to your lectures. Make a cool sign and join one of the picket lines to show your support, go to some of the Teach In seminars by Newcastle UCU, or you can even just stay in bed.
- Join Durham Student-Staff Solidarity and attend Monday’s open meeting at Redhills.
- Contact our Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge using this UCU tool.
- Email the lecturers that you know are striking to express solidarity.
- Contact Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for Durham City (firstname.lastname@example.org) and your home MP to ask them to use their influence to support striking staff and resolve the situation, and ask them to sign Early Days Motion 619 if they haven’t already.
- Don’t sign petitions asking for compensation; there are so many more constructive ways to express your annoyance at the disruptions.