The Real Disruptors

This is a post for students.

Many of you will recently have learned that the UCU – the union representing university staff – has called strike action starting in just a couple of weeks, in December 2021. I know some of you already support and understand the union position (in fact, a survey from the NUS suggests 73% of students support the strikes).

But I want to say something to those of you who feel angry, or betrayed, or disappointed that your studies are going to be disrupted by the strikes. Staff going on strike know that students immediately suffer when we stop teaching, marking, running support services, libraries, and the many complicated systems behind the scenes of the modern university.

I hope you realize that striking costs staff, too.

I’m not just talking about the pay we sacrifice for the time we are on strike, although let’s not pretend that isn’t important. The dispute that the union calls the ‘Four Fights‘ is about pay, working conditions, contracts, and inequality. Many of the staff you see on the picket lines will be sacrificing money that they can barely afford. They are not paid enough or in secure enough employment to cover their costs of living. Many of them are already – as you will be in the future – saddled with huge debts from their own education.

But the costs to us are not just financial. It is an incredibly had choice to make to withdraw our labour, knowing that the national media, the general public, and some students will blame us for this temporary disruption. And you know who won’t be blamed? The real disruptors.

You know who I mean.

I mean the policy makers and higher education ‘leaders’ who have progressively ‘overhauled’ the ‘education sector, especially since the introduction of the higher student fees in 2010. Show me 10 members of staff at a university who thought fees were a good idea before they came in, or still think they are a good idea today, and I will show you the university senior management team.

I’ve said the disruption of industrial action is temporary. But what the long-term disruptors of higher education are working towards is a continuing degradation of the conditions of your education.

Since 2009, across UK universities, pay has fallen by around 20% in real terms. A third of the staff working in universities are on fixed-term contracts. 41% of staff who are employed solely to teach (and not to do any research) are paid by the hour. Universities as communities of learning are not sustainable when such a large proportion of staff have no job security. The dedication of teaching staff who will often end up working well beyond the hours they are actually paid for is keeping our universities above water. That is exploitation, and its consequences are staff who are exhausted, demoralised, and don’t have the time or resources to devote to helping you with your learning. Half of university staff show signs of depression. All of these issues reinforce inequalities: women, ethnic minorities, and disabled staff are hit hardest by these unfair working conditions and contracts.

University bosses like to respond to these complaints by pointing out that universities are financially stretched, and already spend more than ever before on staff. But what about the proportion of expenditure that universities make on staff? Would it shock you to learn that in the latest period that figures are available (up to March 2019), universities spent the lowest ever proportion of their expenditure on staff (see p.9)?

This proportion tells us everything we need to know about the priorities of the disruptors.

University ‘leaders’ like to be able to put big building projects and expansions of the university on their CV. They only care about spend on staff when university league tables include it as a measure of ‘value’ for students.

I could make similar points about the long-running pensions dispute.

It’s technical, it’s complicated, and the story has its twists and turns. But the union has always been clear that we, like other workers, want to contribute to a pension that will provide a reasonable retirement. UUK, the group representing university employers has flip-flopped from flat out refusal in 2017… to recognising the legitimacy of the union’s commitment to a ‘defined benefit’ scheme, and accepting an arbitration process after the strikes of 2018.

And what then happened to this arbitration process?

The trustees of the pension scheme, with the support of employers, have refused to implement its recommendations, and simply changed tack. Where before they drew the line over ‘defined benefits’ – and lost – now they have drawn a new line over ‘prudence’, arguing that the scheme is sitting on a financial black hole, and needs to adopt a strategy that can weather… well, nuclear war.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the economist Martin Wolf explaining the issues in the Financial Times.

Why would the trustees do this, given that they are after all meant to act in the scheme members’ interests? Depending on who you ask, the answer might be about ideology, or proving a certain vision of what pensions are and will be…

But from the point of view of employers let’s notice something ‘interesting’. If the catastrophic predictions are wrong, and the scheme turns out to be in better financial health in a few years time, what would happen?

Well, at that point – if the trustees and employers get their way – the benefits for most members would have been dramatically reduced – someone in my situation stands to lose a third of the value of their pension. So would employers then increase benefits? Is this fight pointless? Or is it more likely that they would reduce contributions? If they did that, I would end up paying lower contributions for my (now rubbish) pension.

But crucially, so would they.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the Vice Principal of one university happily reporting that the financial outlook for the institutions is much better now that they know they won’t have to increase pension contributions… because the USS trustees agreed to cut benefits instead. Given the choice in the future, employers will consistently opt to cut contributions wherever possible, benefits be damned.

Unless we stop them now.

So yes, it is a complex dispute, but the takeaway point is the same as with the dispute over the ‘Four Fights’.

The choice we are facing is between short-term disruption or long-term decline.

Do you want UK universities to be places that the most talented researchers, teachers, technicians, and librarians want to work? Do you want to be taught by the same people next year as you have been this year? Do you want them to have time to respond to your questions, write your references, and just talk to you?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, I would encourage you to support the strikes. Not just because you respect and value university staff, but because you already know what the consequences of this ongoing degradation have been to UK universities as places of learning and research. And because you, like us, care about the generations of students and staff to come.

We’d like to leave them something at least resembling a university, just as we are concerned with making sure that we leave them something representing a habitable planet.

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