NUS and UCU: Unite and Fight Better than This!

By Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

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As covered in a previous article, members of the University and College Union (UCU) overwhelmingly voted for strike action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the primary pensions scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. These changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively ending guaranteed pension benefits, with the typical lecturer set to lose as much as £200,000 in retirement. Following the end of talks between UCU and the employers’ consortium Universities UK (UUK) without agreement, UCU has announced 14 strike dates at 61 universities, beginning 22 February.

On 30 January, Sally Hunt, General Secretary of UCU, and Shakira Martin, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) released a joint statement on the USS action. In this statement, NUS expresses its concerns that ‘the imposition of these cuts in the face of sector wide opposition will lead to a demotivated and unhappy workforce and consequent recruitment and retention problems as staff vote with their feet and move elsewhere’. Accordingly, in ‘full solidarity’ with UCU, NUS has asked its members to:

  • continue to call for the university employers to recognise the seriousness of the situation and agree to meaningful negotiations either directly with the union or via ACAS
  • write to their institution head to complain about the impact the strike will have on their learning
  • participate in local demonstrative solidarity action during the strikes in support of UCU members.

Whilst we in NCAFC welcome staff-student solidarity action around the strike, the overall response from NUS has been thoroughly unimpressive. First, although the UCU industrial action ballot results came out on 22 January, we did not hear any official statement of support from NUS until 30 January. For the union tasked with fighting for the collective interests of students in this country to take over a week to give public backing to a vital and visible struggle of workers organised in the national union for academic staff is nothing short of disgraceful.

Second, the actions that NUS has finally requested from its members range from tepid at best to misguided at worst. Especially objectionable is the call for students to ‘write to their institution head to complain about the impact the strike will have on their learning’. This risks shifting blame onto the education workers standing up for their rights. Make no mistake: complaining to management about the disruptions caused by a strike is tantamount to complaining about the strikers themselves, and management will capitalise on this. Moreover, even if one were to frame such complaints in a manner that more squarely blames the employers’ consortium for imposing the pensions cuts, focussing on the strike’s impact on students obscures how the most hazardous financial costs are those borne by the workers themselves because they are not receiving wages on their strike days. This is especially true of staff on hourly-paid or similarly insecure contracts of employment.

Whilst all this would be cause for disapproval in isolation, it becomes utterly damning in light of the policy passed on 6 December by NUS’ own National Executive Council (NEC) when the UCU industrial action ballot was ongoing. Amongst other things, NUS NEC resolved to ‘produce materials including posters and leaflets that SUs can use to help explain to students what is happening and why our staff need support’. No such concrete support from NUS is anywhere in sight. Furthermore, in the space of time between the passing of that policy and the release of the ballot result, Shakira Martin never publicly wrote to UCU pledging support for their campaign or to the employers’ consortium urging them to reverse the attacks on staff pensions, despite these being clear NUS NEC commitments.

This brings me to the overarching problem with NUS’ lacklustre showing. The pensions cuts at the heart of UCU’s dispute are only one aspect of the bigger picture: marketization. In other words, the hardships facing academic staff, such as the casualisation of employment and the attacks on pensions, and the hardships facing students, such as tuition fees and extortionate rents, all stem from the systematic effort to transform education into a commodity and the education sector into a free market. What should be at the forefront of staff-student solidarity actions around the strike is the message that this fight is every bit as much the students’ as it is the staff’s.

This is why, in addition to avoiding classes on strike days, I urge all those students who rightly refuse to see education as something to be bought and sold to do as follows.

  • Join UCU strikers on picket lines.
  • Find ways to provide financial support for strikers. This could be through UCU’s general ‘fighting fund’ or, better yet, a student-supported strike fund for your local branch.
  • Explain to your fellow students why, no matter the short-term pains of the strike disruptions, the long-term devastation to our conditions of learning, teaching, and research is too great for us to focus on how the strike might inconvenience us as individuals now.
  • Link the defence of staff pensions to other collective actions against the marketization of education at both the national and the local level, such as the NSS Boycott and campaigns against course closures.
  • Pass motions in your Students’ Unions (like our model motion here) in support of UCU’s action.
  • Lobby your Vice-Chancellor to come out against the pensions cuts and to use their voice in the employers’ consortium to press for conceding to UCU’s demands.
  • Use your student and local media to keep solidarity with staff visible.
  • Organise sit-ins, rallies, and other highly noticeable demonstrations of support for the strike.

Students and workers have begun to unite and fight against the pensions cuts, but we can and should go much further than NUS has gone so far. We are not only battling for education workers to enjoy some security in their retirement: we are battling for the future of education itself.

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