War has broken out on campuses. The biggest strike in Britain since the junior doctors’ walkouts in 2016 is set to hit universities this week.
Around 40,000 UCU union members are fighting an attack on their USS pension scheme that will snatch tens of thousands of pounds from workers in retirement.
They have voted overwhelmingly for strikes to stop the assault—and their union called 14 days of escalating walkouts. The first is a two-day strike starting on Thursday. But the anger isn’t just about pensions.
Kristina Hedges is UCU branch secretary at Cardiff University. “The pensions attack is bloody appalling,” she told Socialist Worker. “But it’s the thin end of the wedge. People are angry about everything.
“Workload is a massive issue. Casualisation is a big issue. There are lots of people on shit contracts and low wages. People have basically had enough.”
Abdullah Yusuf, a politics lecturer and UCU assistant secretary at Dundee university, said the attacks are part of a broader assault.
“It’s capitalism basically—trying to make everything about the individual,” he told Socialist Worker. “The message is, you have to look after yourself because no one else cares. There’s no collective responsibility.
“The pension attack is part of the package of marketisation.”
This anger has led to a strong mood to fight—and high levels of recruitment to the union.
Abdullah said, “Everyone is keen to do something about this. There’s a lot of grassroots activism. Students are organising events on the strike days and we’re working together.”
Julie Hearn is branch chair of the UCU at Lancaster university. “Lots of people are joining, particularly casualised staff,” she told Socialist Worker.
“The mood is fantastic and resolute. And students support us. An informal survey of students showed that, out of 460 students, 400 are in favour of the strikes.”
Bruce Baker, UCU president at Newcastle university, added, “We’ve gained a lot of members since the dispute started. This is a really big attack and it’s fired up a lot of people.”
He said that students have been “more solid than I expected”. “A group of students got in touch two weeks ago and they had already organised a group to support the strike,” he said.
Full time student officials at Cardiff students’ union released a statement opposing the strike. But Kristina said this provoked a “backlash”.
“Students have set up a petition supporting the strikes,” she said. “Labour students have said they will be at the picket line. And there’s a student strike committee.”
Bosses want to switch workers’ defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution one. It will leave pensions at the mercy of the stock market and give no guaranteed income in retirement.
For many, it’s estimated that the shift would slash their pensions by half or more. “It’s such a disgraceful deal that you can’t not take action,” said Kristina. “And you need to take action that will have an effect—more than just a one-day strike.”
It’s not the first attack. In 2012 the scheme shifted from a final salary to a career average one. This followed a series of strikes by UCU members, but union leaders failed to lead a fight that could win.
Julie said, “It’s salami tactics. Every few years they come and nibble at our pension scheme, but this time it’s a big bite.”
The bosses will try and paint lecturers as a privileged, well-off bunch who don’t deserve any support. It’s a bit rich coming from them—vice chancellors (VCs) have seen their salaries rise by over 50 percent in a ten-year period.
But many lecturers are far from the comfortable image VCs would like us to believe. Kristina said, “According to management there are no zero hours contracts at Cardiff, but I’m on one.”
Kristina is paid half an hour preparation for every hour of teaching—but says the time put in goes beyond that. She works at a different job outside the university to get by.
And she isn’t the only one. As Julie said, “The system relies on insecure, poorly-paid graduate teaching assistants. Their pay, once all the work is taken into account, is often below the minimum wage.”
Some UCU members are eligible for benefits because their pay is so low. Kristina said, “I spoke to one woman recently who is on 30 percent of a full time contract.
“But she’s been doing 60 percent and half her hours are deemed as ‘extra’. She doesn’t get paid for them until the end of the academic year.
“She’s on housing benefit—and every July she gets a bigger pay packet that pushes her over the edge for being eligible.”
The low pay for some means there is some “concern about losing money” during the strikes. “But nobody’s saying we’re doing too many strike days,” said Kristina.
Strikers fear what will happen to conditions in education and elsewhere if the pension attack goes through.
Bruce said that the attacks would transform universities for the worse. “Without good pensions, fewer people will see higher education as a viable career,” he said.
“The whole sector will turn into something like Deliveroo or Uber. It will finalise the transition of universities, which operate as charities, into large corporations that don’t pay tax.”
Abdullah warned, “There will be a domino effect. If we lose, management can go for other things.
“But we are powerful. If we win, they will be scared for some years.”
The attack affects other university workers, too. Many Unison union members are also in the USS scheme, and have begun a consultative ballot over whether to take action.
Sandy Nicoll is branch secretary of Unison at Soas in London. “Even if Unison members weren’t in the USS scheme this would still be an issue for us,” he told Socialist Worker.
“If they get away with attacking pensions for academics, they will come for support staff. This is about the future of pensions across the sector.”
Bruce said the dispute mattered for everyone. “USS is one of the last good pension schemes,” he said. “If we can defend this, then everybody has a better chance of turning the tide against worse pensions and more precarious working.”
This is about much more than a single pension scheme. It’s a battle that every trade unionist and campaigner should get behind.
That’s why UCU members at 16 further education colleges, fighting attacks on their pay, were set to join lecturers on strike on Wednesday 28 February.
As Kristina put it, “This fight is for the future of education.”
Who’s really ‘privileged’?
Bosses will try to undermine support for the UCU strikes by painting strikers as rich, pampered and privileged. But the vice chancellors (VCs) are the real fat cats.
In 2005-06 their average salary was £165,105, not including pensions. By 2015-16 it had shot up by 56 percent to £257,904.
Perhaps that’s no surprise, since the vast majority have a hand in setting their own salaries. A UCU Freedom of Information request found that 95 percent of VCs are either members of their remuneration committee or can attend meetings.
Earlier this month the new VC at Edinburgh University grabbed a “golden hello” welcome package worth £410,000.
Peter Mathieson took a 33 percent salary rise as part of the package. His basic salary will be £342,000—£85,000 more than his predecessor.
If that isn’t enough to get by on, Mathieson also gets £42,000 in lieu of pension contributions and “relocation costs” of £26,000. Oh, and a five-bedroom grace-and-favour house.
Dame Glynis Breakwell at Bath university was Britain’s highest paid VC in 2015-16, grabbing £451,000 a year in salary and benefits. On top of her massive salary, Breakwell had claimed £2 for biscuits. The claim was part of a £20,000 annual expense bill.
The university paid her council tax and utility bills.
The university court, which scrutinises VC pay, last month voted for her to go after protests over her pay. But it seems leaving your job doesn’t have to get in the way of raking in money.
Breakwell is due to take a “sabbatical” on full pay before formally retiring in February next year. Until then she can stay living in a listed Georgian townhouse provided by the university. And she’ll keep her retirement package.
New figures from the UCU showed that the University of Southampton spent nearly £700,000 in the last academic year on VC pay. That included a “golden goodbye” of £252,000 to outgoing VC Donald Nutbeam.
The university had advertised for a chauffeur for current VC Sir Christopher Snowden—while slashing jobs.
Pensions crisis manufactured
The excuses used to rob workers of their pensions are completely phony. The crisis in USS isn’t real—it’s manufactured. And political decisions made by the Tories lie behind it.
The USS pension scheme is a collective defined benefit scheme with some 350 member organisations. Many workers in older “pre-92” universities are part of the scheme. As Bruce explained, “All institutions share the liability. But some, such as Oxford and Cambridge, want out.
“They want to get rid of the pension liabilities so it’s easier to borrow money.”
Since the government raised the cap on tuition fees, universities are competing for students—and the money that comes with them. This means many are looking to expand and buy more buildings, land and student accommodation.
But the USS scheme poses a problem.
Carlo Morelli from the UCU’s national executive committee explained, “As charitable bodies universities face constraints on how to raise funds. Some have started issuing bonds to raise capital.
“But pension liabilities limit how much they can borrow.”
Bosses want to get rid of the liabilities by shifting to a defined contribution scheme. This would put any risk with workers, not bosses, and break the collectivity of the scheme.
To get away with this, bosses have claimed the scheme is unaffordable. They have used valuations based on scenarios that won’t happen.
University College London UCU vice president Sean Wallis explained how this works. “They have used a model of what would happen if the employers ceased to operate—if all institutions went bankrupt simultaneously,” he said. “This is an extraordinary assumption, one that in political terms can be said to have zero probability.”
No pre-92 university has gone bankrupt since USS was established. And if the scheme continues as it is, it will remain in surplus.
Carlo said, “The government created this crisis through the marketisation of higher education. We need a return to a publicly accountable, coordinated and sustainable higher education system.”