When our academics go on strike on 22 February they will not just be walking out to defend their working conditions. They will be taking part in a wider battle to turn our universities into centres of a free education system rather than marketised institutions characterised by spiralling fees and precarious employment. It is in students’ interests to support the strike in every way we can.
The University and College Union has called a nationwide strike to protest changes to the pension schemes of university staff.
The scheme, known as the University Superannuation Scheme, is being retrospectively changed to depend on investments rather than contributions. This means that the amount the pension fund pays out will depend on how its investments are faring.
Workers who have put money into their pensions for years, on the expectation that they would have the security of a guaranteed income in retirement, will now be left at the mercy of the stock market. It is estimated that this change will lead to the average lecturer losing £200,000 from their pension.
On 25 January, Oxford SU released a highly equivocal statement of support for the strike, which focused on concerns over the effects the strike will have on students. Such concerns falsely place the interests of students in opposition to the interests of tutors. We must remember that whenever austerity bites for academics, students also suffer.
The current pension cuts are just one part of a wide-ranging assault on the pay of academics. According to The Guardian 53 per cent of Russell Group academics are currently on insecure contracts. Approaching academic works so casually particularly effects the PhD students who frequently take our tutorials and mark our work.
This further demonstrates how misleading Oxford SU’s division between students and staff is. Our SU exists to support PhD students, as well as undergraduates, and it should be actively encouraging us to join the strike.
Alongside the changes to their contracts, academics have also been subject to the hugely damaging public sector pay cap, meaning that their real wages have been cut by 10 per cent over the last eight years. The image many of us still have of the overpaid and underworked Oxford professor luxuriating in his office could not be further from the truth.
Taken together, these measures have left academia an unattractive profession to enter and an incredibly stressful one to be in. Academics must be properly paid, have decent pensions and job security for them to be effective teachers. Yet, our interests lie with the academics not just because we need them to be motivated for us to benefit from their expertise. We must understand the current dispute as being part of a wider struggle.
For the last eight years, both students and academics have been in the government’s crosshairs. While academics have seen their pay and conditions slowly eroded, the government has driven through the trebling of tuition fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants.
On all of these issues, the UCU has stood with us. What is at stake here is two contrasting visions for education.
The government wants education to be marketised. In a market, students are consumers to be squeezed for as much cash as possible and public-sector workers and their unions are little more than nuisances.
If these pension cuts are forced through the most powerful union of university workers across the country will have been decisively defeated and academics will be poorly treated workers delivering a commodity rather than an education. In other words, if this strike fails, we will all be a huge step closer towards the government’s vision of a marketised, extortionately priced education system.
The alternative, for which we must strive, is a fully funded free university system accessible to all in which students and academics are partners, partaking in the public good of education.
In fighting for such a system, students and academics are allies. Every positive reform for which Oxford students are currently campaigning hinges on this conception of the university.
Such changes require the government to see us as active participants in our education, rather than simply passive consumers. Inaction is no longer acceptable – opposing marketisation is a prerequisite for any progressive change at Oxford. Our position will be irreparably weakened if our academic allies are defeated in their upcoming strike.
We saw the power of industrial action when the threat of public sector strikes forced a partial u-turn over the pay cap for police and prison other officers. Students must join their tutors on the picket lines.