The long read: the UCU strikes, one year on

Abby Ridsdill-Smith explores the new and continuing priorities of the UCU

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February 22nd 2019 will mark one year since the start of the university strikes against pension cuts. The strikes were the biggest in UK higher education history, bringing 42,000 staff onto the streets in protest. Nearly 575,000 teaching hours were lost, and more than a million students were affected. The UCU (University and Colleges Union) brought 61 universities to a complete standstill.

Among students, the strikes were often reduced to an inconvenience, with lecture schedules in disarray, labs cancelled, and streets blocked. One Oxfess labelled the strikes “pointless”; another begged that those striking “kindly [f**ked] off”. The motivations behind the strike seemed complex and inaccessible, the results unclear and non-specific.

But for staff, the strikes were necessary, an essential response to the new pension plan, set by the USS (University Superannuation Scheme Trustee) and decided by the JNC (Joint Negotiating Committee between the UCU and the USS). The plan, proposed in late 2017, would have changed the pensions of the vast majority of those working in higher education, demanding higher contributions and forcing an end to defined benefits (among other changes, including the removal of the 1% match on the USS Investment Builder). In short, the new plan offered a lower pension at a higher cost. The UCU predicted that pensions could be cut by £10,000 a year during retirement.

“The pension issue created this great fury and strike and dispute,” Peter Hill, the former Oxford UCU president, explained. “What was proposed at the start by the USS was a big cut to pensions in one go. This was not just an incremental year-on-year gradual erosion of benefits.”

In Oxford, the experience of those striking was unique. Their impact was both assisted, and inhibited, by the way in which the university functions. They were assisted because the University’s Council Secretariat (also known as Congregation, a kind of parliament for university staff) met during the action, and voted to maintain current pension standards, regardless of the USS decision. On the other hand, none of the colleges “recognise” the UCU, meaning staff could not strike against the college parts of their contract. College teaching had to continue. Hill’s frustration was clear: “It’s a problem, it’s something we have tried to raise many, many times, but the colleges are a law unto themselves.”

Oxford’s UCU, and its members, still feel the impact of the strikes. Hill talks of the growth of the branch (“over 50% in terms of numbers”), while Svenja Kunze, the Vice President, refers to a “renewed energy”, with people “becoming more engaged with the union and taking part in all kinds of working groups and campaigns.” “During the strikes themselves,” Hill adds, “you had lots of academics coming together and talking to each other in ways that hadn’t really happened before and a collective spirit of getting together and discussing common problems.”

The energy and passion stirred up by the strikes enabled the branch to strengthen their representative structure (whereby their members can choose to become a point of contact for specific groups or departments in the university). It is now the biggest in the UK. The branch is also using its energy to involve itself with the creation and development of national policy; to this end, Jaya John, the current president, explained, the branch has “been calling twice as many general meetings as usual.”

Work by groups such as Oxford’s UCU has meant that national policy has experienced rapid development in the past year. Following the strikes, the USS and UCU organised a Joint Expert Panel (JEP) which reassessed the valuation of pension schemes and looked for the best way forward. The JEP considered the two opposing positions. The USS had argued that the pension fund would cost more to maintain in future, because it wanted to invest in low-risk (more expensive) ventures, after a consultation with universities. This meant it would require higher contributions from staff (and from employers). However, the UCU urged the USS to keep its funds in high risk (less expensive) ventures, so that their level of contribution would not need to change. The JEP supported the UCU position.

In a statement on the JEP’s decision, the USS commented: “There may well be areas where our opinion and understanding differs from that of the panel but we will want to reflect on the report in due course. The views of stakeholders will also be required before we can derive any conclusions.” They added: “Ultimately, its proposed solutions reflect the panel’s terms of reference, but would require employers to take on higher levels of risk – and to pay higher contributions – than has been expressed to us to date, through the valuation process… Unless and until an alternative has been agreed, consulted upon, and implemented, cost sharing remains the default process for addressing the regulatory and legal obligations of the 2017 valuation.” The full statement can be read on the USS website.

The JEP’s findings are currently under consultation. If accepted, employees and employers could avoid any increase in contribution, and any loss in benefits (the UCU’s ideal, and official, position, known as ‘no detriment’). The University was unwilling to comment on the consultation but did release their response: an uncontroversial and ultimately meaningless statement that it hopes to avoid “the significant contribution increases currently expected” and welcome the USS actuarial valuation in March.

This year, however, the focus has shifted onto pay. Many staff have lost “pay due to sub inflation and pay rises over the last ten years”, John explains. Hill added, “Workload is rising while pay in real terms goes down. It shows you how university managements tend to undervalue the labour that university employees are putting in. Redressing that balance is the main agenda the national pay dispute at the moment.” John also suggested that the “increased marketisation of the sector,” had led “vice chancellors to build more buildings and facilities” rather than investing in staff and teaching for university students. “People make the university,” Kunze said, “they should be valued for the work they do.”

The national pay dispute also aims to address pay inequalities and the casualization of university contracts. A previous Cherwell report highlighted the problem of casualization (when university staff are moved onto casual or short term contracts); 76.9% of academics were in precarious jobs as of 2016, as opposed to the national average of 50.9%. The gender pay gap is a similarly significant problem: in 2016, Oxford’s male academics earned an average of £7,626 more than women (well above the national average of £5,983).

The gender pay gap also varies between colleges; at New, it is reported to be as high as 24.3%, while at Magdalen, female staff could expect to receive just 2% less than their male counterparts. But there are other disparities to be addressed: as Kunze noted, “once we have all the methodology and all the data, we are extending that to look at other pay inequalities [such as] the ethnicity pay gap.”

The dispute itself follows a series of meetings with the University and College Employers Association (UCEA), with whom the UCU negotiates pay. In such meetings, John claimed that “the employers negotiate[d] in bad faith” and described the pay offers as “very low, much lower than inflation” (a view strongly rejected by the UCEA, who instead described the meetings as ‘constructive’, and the pay offer as ‘very good’).

This isn’t the first time that negotiations between the UCU and the UCEA have gone sour. The UCU went on strike against their employers in 2011; they also called for a marking boycott, following a failure to provide a “proper pay offer for 2013-14.” The tensions are historic, the implications significant. But if the UCEA will only negotiate fairly when, as Hill says, they are “conscious of the possibility of strikes on the other side of the negotiating table”, then what choice do the UCU have? As John explained, “we don’t want to harm people’s teaching and learning. But at the end of the day to make the sector sustainable in the long run, we are regrettably arriving at this through the intransigence of the employers.”

We are all invested in an effective and sustainable higher education system, Hill agrees, “it’s not like we have any malicious wish to damage people’s education, but I think some university managements and governance in the past have been fairly successful in driving a wedge between student bodies and staff on that kind of issue, and I think it’s important to see the common interest in a fair and sustainable higher education sector between staff and students.”

If the ballot calls for it (with more than half the votes in favour), there could be further higher education strikes in March or April following the end of the ballot on 22nd February. But industrial action would only be possible as long as the strike ballot was open, meaning that it could occur any time up to six months in the future. As John comments, there would have to be a “national conversation about the best time to strikes.”

The risk with such strikes is that student opinion moves against university staff, particularly following the long strikes last year. Strikes, necessary to the achievement of change, become vilified. John emphasised the significance of student support, saying: “I’d like to take the opportunity to say thanks so much to everyone for your support during the USS strikes, it made such an important difference to us to know that we enjoyed your support. It takes quite a vision of not just “what’s happening to me and my degree and this time?”, but to take a step back and say that that’s important for the whole sector, that’s a vision you can’t always count on, so it’s very much appreciated.”

Heading into February, we are on the verge of great change. The strike ballot is open, the pensions consultation is in process. The pay gap, pensions and the casualisation of contracts: the situation could be completely different by the end of the month. There is the opportunity to enact a huge shift in the way in which university employers treat their staff, academic or otherwise. All that there’s left to do is wait, see and support.

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