Higher education or debt collection? A look at the government’s proposal for postgrad funding

By Jess Patterson, Free Education Manchester

  • Half-baked proposals to paper over cracks in a system of debt and marketization
  • £10,000 Masters loans not enough
  • Over-30s pushed out by financial calculation
  • “Crowd-funding” proposals for postgrad research are a vacuous gimmick
  • Government seeks to trade number of research studentships against stipend levels
  • Private funding will increase business control of education and research
  • We need free education and living stipends for all – tax the rich!

Graduate Teaching Assistants demonstrating at Manchester UniThis March the government launched a two-month consultation on a set of proposals designed to tackle declining post-graduate study. You can find the documents here.

In summary, these documents detail the government’s proposal for a taught-Masters loan (originally announced in December), as well as some suggestions on how to bolster existing platforms for funding postgraduate research (as mentioned in the Budget).

Under the current system there is a real need for this kind of funding, and not all of the proposals are terrible, but there is a dangerous lack of transparency about why this intervention is needed at all. As the HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) data shows, the number of students undertaking Masters reached its peak in 2007/08 (prior to fee-hikes) and has, tellingly, since then only declined. These proposals are essentially, therefore, a panicked response to the emerging consequences of the damage inflicted on higher education by both the Blairite and Coalition governments: a situation that has gone from bad to worse following the regime of fee rises, funding cuts and marketisation that this government has systematically pursued.

That the government is turning its attention to this crisis is in part a response to pressure from postgrads organising through groups like NCAFC, and in part a response to the demand from universities who experiencing financially disquieting drops in applications for postgraduate taught (PGT) degrees. NCAFC will work to insure that the conversation is answerable to us and not just this neoliberal model of university finance. What follows is a detailed summary of the proposals and my response to them. The problem determined is that these proposals are an attempt to disguise the damaging consequences of marketisation under the heading of widening access, but with no real concern for it.

This crisis is a consequence of the neo-liberal university

The consultation document itself begins with the damning evidence that the number of PGT entrants grew by only 7% between 2008/9 and 2010/11 and then fell by a staggering 17% over the next three years. Later, it also adds that HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) analysis in 2013-15 identified that disadvantaged students are far less likely to progress to postgraduate taught Master’s and/or postgraduate research study. That is, in comparing students with exactly the same degree classifications, those from lower-income households are disproportionally disadvantaged because of the lack of financial opportunities. Likewise women and people from minority ethnic groups also demonstrate significantly lower progression rates. This is, of course, merely confirmation of countless academic studies of the barriers to social mobility in the higher education sector. In the consultation document this evidence is cited correctly as evidence of the need to provide post-graduate funding. Yet, the proposals actually outlined don’t match this evidence. There is a complete absence from the discussion that this is very likely a direct effect of the barriers placed on such students from the outset by the already financially crippling system of student debt. Instead, it simply suggests that yet more debt is the answer: a ‘solution’ which simply ignores that fact that all the statistics used in this consultation document could be turned on their head to be presented as poignant evidence of the failure of the neo-liberal university.

More debt is not the answer

The central proposal is the introduction of a £10,000 loan for taught Master programmes. The reason that a Masters degree is so key is that it is increasingly an entry requirement for doctoral degrees. Consequently it has been identified as the point at which many people with aspirations to partake in further study are permanently turned away, placing an alarming constraint on the future diversity of researchers. While this is fundamental for those concerned with all aspects of free education there are more alarming consequences from the government’s perspective, such as the lack of domestic students crossing this bridge and a resulting drop in skills. That the government is prioritising the latter concern becomes very quickly evident in the limitations they place on the proposed solutions. For example, the rationale that this should be a partial loan, rather than a higher figure covering all expenses, is argued according to the principle that cost should remain a deterrent to studying: “this balances the incentives to ensure students will continue to make considered and informed decisions about pursuing education at this level”.

This is further justified on the basis that a full-loan would result in fee-inflation, something against which they ambiguously propose that they will “establish safeguards” – while completely ruling out the only mechanism by which this could truly be affected: the regulation of fees. In addition, loan-repayment would be income contingent, operating on a similar system to undergraduate loans. Interest would be at RPI + 3%, i.e. equal to the maximum interest rate on the post-2012 undergrad loan system, with repayments set at 9% on earnings over £21k. This is, of course, all on top of the 9% that most of these students will already be paying on their undergraduate loans. All of this fundamentally misses the source of the problem that they have created: increasing barriers to the access of higher education from undergraduate to postgraduate level as a result of an untenable system of student debt.

Age limits: targeting the most in need or the logic of debt as an asset?

Another interesting aspect of the proposal is a suggestion that eligibility for the loan be restricted to persons under the age of thirty. The justification for this is that younger students are statistically more in need of financial aid. To support this they produce an interesting document, the first method of which is to compare the financial needs of post-grad taught students who are under 30 with those who over 30, based on a survey of 4,000 UK domiciled PGT Masters. What this completely fails to account for is that all of the data has therefore been collected from people who have already made the decision to take on the financial burden of post-grad education. There are many people over thirty for whom this has simply not been an option. As the proposal itself sates “A 2014 survey of Universities UK members investigated the extent to which students applied for a Master’s course, tried and failed to secure funding and then went onto decline their place as a result. The study suggests that the costs of postgraduate study as being the main reason for why some students do not take up their place on a Master’s course.”

What is more likely, and what fits more snugly with the principle that “the proposed loan has been designed to ensure the majority of borrowers repay in full, while recognising the personal benefits that most will accrue”, is that this group of potential borrowers are more likely to pay back their loans in full. That is, according to predictions by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills, total repayments will be lower for those starting study later, because mature students are more likely to retire before their debt is repaid. In addition, although this is not part of the official conversation, it seems likely that a further aspect of this consideration is that women in the post-thirty category are more likely to do part-time or more low-paid work and will therefore pay off the loan at a much slower rate.

It is this kind of mercantile reasoning that lay behind David Willetts’ discredited suggestion that universities invest in the debt of their graduates, following his over-estimation of loan-repayment rates. Instead of recognising the failures of the system, Willetts proposed a solution that was inherently detrimental to students and the independence of universities as centres for education and research. Though his proposals were rejected, the implications behind these proposals are distressingly similar. The fear that Willetts’ model would lead to university admissions being determined by economic incentives to the exclusion of poorer students and women (who statistically have lower life time earnings) does not go away with post-grad loans. The idea that those worthy of investment are those who are likely to provide a better rate of return will affect the composition of the postgraduate student body to a similar extent, with the only difference being that this will be more indirect consequence of partial loans rather than the investment decisions of universities.

This is why we can totally disregard the given rationale that “The Government is intervening to stimulate the market and remove barriers to progression… It is targeted at providing support to those who face the greatest barriers to accessing finance.” The reasoning behind this is not to target provision at those most in need, but rather those who are most likely to provide a hasty return on their debt. While this goes someway to improving access to postgraduate education for some and therefore ‘stimulate the market’, it does very little to address the problem of inaccessibility for those really in need of financial support. All this does is perpetuate the problem of social exclusivity in all the professions which require post-graduate qualifications. This also means that academic staff will remain as white, male and middle class as usual.

Post-grad Research – “innovative” funding proposals or a bad joke?

The proposals for dealing with Postgrad research degrees are even more bizarre in their reasoning. These suggestions are far less concrete and come ahead of a review on how the government ‘can both broaden and strengthen support for postgraduate research students and excellent postgraduate research’.

One of the suggestions is that they seek out ways to support ‘innovative finance platforms’ such as crowd-funding. This seems like a bad joke. We’re talking about years of commitment to research, not a gap year tour. We’re talking about living costs, not ‘start-ups’. In the cases of some this will simply be a different way for those from a finically privileged background to siphon off the money they were going to get anyway so that their extended family can avoid inheritance tax. In other, cases such ideas represent a horrible move towards the interests and agendas of private business and away from public funding. This passing suggestion is ambiguous but it leaves a distinctly bitter taste in the mouth with hints of all the nonsense surrounding Cameron’s ‘Big society’.

Such gimmicky suggestions are a completely inadequate response to problems that have been created by the pursuit of marketisation. In a letter to HE institutions last year, Madeleine Atkins HEFCE chief executive, revealed that most teaching budgets would drop by 5.85 per cent in 2014-15 as a result of the unforeseen costs of student loans. So ironically, while students are paying more, teachers are getting paid less. Even more ironically as far as these proposals here are concerned, such cuts have attacked one of the most important options for post-grad financial support, postgraduate teaching contracts. Post-grad teachers in my own institution have calculated that in some cases, particularly where marking is unaccounted for, they are working for below minimum wage.

Another is the idea introducing income contingent loans of up to £25,000, with the caveat that there be a trade-off with public subsidy levels. This is an alarming notion that threatens the idea that students should be funded with non-repayable stipends rather than yet more debt. How anyone could go through a system of 9k fees, £10,000 PGT loans and then an additional debt of £25,000 and pay it back is unfathomable (unless they went on to become a Russell Group University VC, that is). In terms of immediate demands, if there are going to be post-graduate loans they should accessible to all, regardless of age, and without a pay-off in public funding. But really, if we address the problem at its root we need to interrupt this system of debt and demand free-education from the outset. We want living grants for postgraduates who need them, not more debt.

As in the case with the rationale for PGT loans, the proposals given in this document form part of a wider concern with market stimulation, rather than increasing access or reducing student poverty. One needs to only look back to the 2015 Budget (point 1.179), which proposes “to examine the balance between number and level of research stipends to ensure that the UK’s offer remains internationally competitive”, for evidence of this preoccupation. While this is not discussed in the consultation document, it forms part of one of the questions: “What is the impact of the availability and level of individual stipends?” (p.29). Specifically, the question of ‘availability’ versus ‘level’ seems to imply that in order to remain competitive there will necessarily be a trade-off between the number of studentships available and how much money they offer. Here the market trumps the nominal ‘concerns’ of the rationale for providing funding. If you want to improve access and welfare you provide more studentships at a level that provides for reasonable living costs, not support the appearance of numerous stipends that will in reality put your postgrads into poverty. Particularly when other policy decisions mean that they are also being used as a cheap labour force to teach those entering into the first stages of this seemingly never-ending cycle of debt.

Stop ignoring the problem. We need free education.

Obviously there are more dimensions to this to be considered, such as how this kind of thinking will have a knock-on effect for research funding and department specific grants. What is clear, though, is that the current terms of the discussion represent a patent attempt to tackle the emergent effects of the various assaults on higher education wrought by neo-liberal ‘reforms’, without acknowledging this as the cause and in a way that only appeases concerns with social mobility in a very restricted and liberal sense. It is our task, as free education activists, to see through this tactic and point to the real issue- that fees and debt result in a stagnating system that is beholden to private interests and in no way responsive to notions of public good. Rather than removing the barriers to education brought on by financial need, extending the scaffolding of student debt simply reinforces them.

UCL student tenants organising for action on poor conditions and high rents

halls assemblyBy Angus O’Brien, UCL Defend Education

On Thursday, 30th October, students at the Ifor Evans Site (the UCL Halls in Camden), held the inaugural Halls Assembly to discuss the state of their living conditions (for a flavour of this, you can read this report from the London Tab) and what they are going to do about it. It is likely to have been the first of such a meeting, at least in current student memory at UCL.

Discontented with the poor conditions and the cost to live on the Ifor Evans Site (the majority of students paying either £132 in Max Rayne or £167.70 in Ifor Evans per week), the assembly has created a plan to take action. In the next few weeks, a demand for information and transparency as to where the students’ money is actually going is to be made, alongside the signing of a petition containing 5 demands to be sent to the UCL Accommodations Department.

The unhappiness with living conditions has been exacerbated by two facts in particular: one, that rents have risen since last year, seemingly without evidence of any corresponding investment by the university and above the rate at which student loans and grants are rising. This has caused a loss in real terms for all student tenants in comparison to previous years. Secondly, UCL is running its accommodation with an excess of £10 million a year. The proliferation of this fact has caused disgust on the site as UCL is essentially making a profit from its own students, a notion reflected in the fact that they refer to their student tenants as ‘customers’.

But more tangible factors have also played a part within this student movement: broken fridges, toilets and showers, extortionate fines, inequality of conditions between floors and rooms only seem to scratch the surface. Cockroaches, believed to be living in the walls, are being found throughout Max Rayne, showing that nothing has been done about this an issue that has affected students for numerous years. Walking around the site, it is hard to find any evidence of investment since the residence opened in 1979. Coupling this with increasing rents and the wholesale lack of willingness to deal with the greater problems, it’s no wonder students are disillusioned.

It must be said at this point that the writer of this report is personally tied to this movement, but, nevertheless, would like to make a prediction. These students are being ripped off by their own university, but by holding assemblies, creating action groups and working together, the tide may just turn back into their favour. The Camden Halls could well turn out to be the catalyst for a wider student fightback against the extortion they are being subjected to by their universities.

The demands to be made by the students at the Camden Halls are, in brief:

  • reverse the rent hike
  • equal standards across the site
  • accountability and direct student influence
  • transparency in spending
  • sustainable investment for students, not profit

Are you organising for your rights as student tenants? Or do you want advice on getting started? Let us know by emailing [email protected]!

FAQ: Everything you need to know about the campaign to defend staff pensions

Save our Pensions!We hope this FAQ guide will be useful for activists and student union officers to understand the ins and outs of the current USS pensions dispute. Please feel free to copy and adapt it for your activist group or student union website.


What’s happening?

What’s an assessment boycott?

What about strikes?

What is the threat to staff pensions?

Are the cuts necessary?

So the boycott could be called off?

What does this mean for the future?

Why should students support the campaign?

Won’t we just have to pay for better pensions with higher fees?

Don’t lecturers have really good pay and pensions anyway?

What can students do?

Model motion for student unions

I’m a postgraduate teaching assistant as well as a student, what can I do?

Check here to see if your University is involved


What’s happening?

University bosses are proposing an attack on the USS (University Superannuation Scheme) pension scheme. If they get away with it, the proposals will harm the pensions of every single scheme member – academic and related staff in the pre-1992 universities.

Their trade union, the UCU, has attempted to negotiate, but the employers refused to withdraw these proposals. UCU members therefore voted overwhelmingly to authorise industrial action, potentially including an assessment boycott and strikes. The employers were then given another chance to back down, but refused again. UCU was therefore forced to announce that an assessment boycott would begin on 6 November.  Have a look at the bottom of this page to see if your University is affected.

What’s an assessment boycott?

From 6 November, staff participating in the boycott will not set or mark assessments until an improved deal protects their pensions. This will affect coursework, assignments and exams. Trade union members will continue to teach seminars and lectures.

What about strikes?

If the employers continue stubbornly refusing to make a better deal, strikes may be added to the campaign of action. If any institution chooses to victimise staff for taking part in the boycott (for instance, by making disproportionate pay deductions), UCU is likely to call national action in solidarity with members in that institution, which could include striking.

What is the threat to staff pensions?

The employers are proposing that pension scheme members should have their pay-outs in retirement cut – by as much as 27% in some cases. They are also proposing that defined guarantees on part of the pay-outs be removed, so that instead of a scheme where you know what you put in and what you get out, our staff’s financial security in retirement will depend entirely on stock market gambling by fund managers.

This comes on top of the attacks made in 2011. The scheme was split, forcing worse pension conditions onto new entrants to the career, and onto existing staff who take career breaks (disproportionately affecting women who are more likely to pause their careers for childcare). At the time, we said it was just a matter of time before the employers came for the more senior members too and forced them into a worse scheme, which is now happening.

However, it’s not just them but all members of the scheme, new and old, who stand to lose out under the latest proposals. Benefits are being “revalued” downwards – significantly. The result will be that staff in these institutions will be substantially worse-off in retirement than those who worked in the post-1992 universities, even though the older universities are not worse off financially. Presumably though, we can expect the bosses of the newer universities to make similar attacks if these ones succeed.

Are the cuts necessary?

The pre-1992 universities have enough money to support decent pensions for their staff (as well as marketing gimmicks and exorbitant six-figure salaries for senior managers). So why are they imposing these changes?

They say there is a massive deficit in the pension scheme. However, much more money is going into the scheme than coming out, the fund’s investments are growing (by £8bn since 2011), and returns have exceeded inflation and average earnings. They even gave the fund’s most highly paid manager a 50% raise last year to reward their “sustained outperformance”!

So what do they mean? They are talking about a “notional deficit” – forecasting their ability to pay out into the future. So far, so sensible. However, in order to manufacture the massive notional deficit they are using to justify the attacks, the employers have to make some incredibly dodgy assumptions:

  • They use what Leeds UCU’s President called a “zombie apocalypse” scenario – imagining that all pre-1992 universities were going to shut, simultaneously, tomorrow, leaving the scheme to pay out all their former staff’s future pensions with no income.
  • They misused statistics to falsely claim that staff life expectancy had increased massively.
  • They pick and choose the economic assumptions they make in order to make each factor maximise the estimated deficit. So when estimating future salaries, they assume the economy will do well. But in order to say that their investments will do badly and so yield lower pay-outs, in the same analysis they assume the economy will do badly! Statisticians have called them out for this.

The proposals are so bad that even a few employers are speaking out against them! The University of Warwick’s senior managers have said they believe the proposals use “unnecessarily pessimistic assumptions” and are “forcing much starker reductions in benefits than may prove necessary”. They have also been criticised by the University of Oxford for using dodgy statistics to try and cloud the extent of the cuts to benefits.

Finally, even if there really was a massive deficit, education workers shouldn’t be asked to foot the bill. That money should come from university senior managers six-figure salaries, from marketing gimmicks, from the profits of companies running outsourced services, and if necessary from taxing the rich to increase university funding. There is enough money in universities, and in our society more broadly, to provide much better pensions than currently, ensuring a secure retirement for every worker.

So the boycott could be called off?

Yes! If universities simply withdrew their threatened attacks and negotiated a fair and beneficial pension scheme for our staff, the boycott could be called off tomorrow! The action is only being taken because our staff have been left with no choice.

What does this mean for the future?

We can see there are at least three potential goals for the employers and the government.

First, there is the removal of defined guarantees on part of the retirement pay-outs. This is likely the first step – a ‘foot in the door’ – towards further reductions in the proportion of pay-outs that are guaranteed: eventually the so-called “defined benefits” portion of the pension could be reduced to zero! Removing guarantees on payouts is about shifting financial risk away from the collective onto the individual, and away from the employers to the workers – a trend we’ve seen in the handling of pensions across the economy under neoliberalism. About guaranteeing constrained spending on education, at the expense of financial insecurity pursuing retired workers to the grave.

Another “benefit” of this shift is that de-collectivising pension commitments makes it easier to package up groups of workers, lift them out, and outsource them to private companies! The kind of outsourcing we’ve seen universities use to wash their hands of the conditions of cleaners, caterers, security guards and even postgrad teaching assistants, while making tidy profits for private companies, could be coming next for academic staff.

Finally, the changes will help them to make spending cuts in education later. Because the alleged deficit has been massively exaggerated, reducing future pension pay-outs actually means that the fund won’t need as much income to sustain retirees. That extra slack could be used to cut the employers’ cash contributions to pensions (a leak in 2011 revealed that, in the long-term, the employers are aiming to do just that). Or, they could cut future staff numbers by downsizing departments, or cut future staff pay, since they won’t need so many contributions from those future workers to sustain future retirees’ pay-outs.

Why should students support the campaign?

The people who make our education happen are under attack. That affects the quality of our education too! When staff are treated badly, subjected to financial security, and overstretched trying to make ends meet, education suffers. Moreover, talented staff could be forced to consider leaving for jobs where they are treated better.

Moreover, as explained above, the changes will make it easier to outsource teaching to private companies that will prioritise their profits over our education, and to make education spending cuts in the future.

Finally, we all have a long-term interest in our society providing decent jobs that we can go into, with good pay and good pensions, in academia and beyond. Fighting for decent pensions in universities is part of fighting for decent pensions for all workers.

The stronger our support for our staff, the stronger their campaign will be and the sooner we can force the university bosses to give in – and so the sooner the marking boycott can end with a positive resolution, benefitting both students and workers.

Won’t we just have to pay for better pensions with higher fees?

We shouldn’t have to. As explained above, the cuts aren’t really necessary. And the universities certainly haven’t been linking pensions to fees – this isn’t the first attack on staff pensions in the last few years, but at the same time, undergrad, postgrad, UK and international student fees have all been going up massively.

Like us, the UCU oppose tuition fees and support free, funded education. Students and workers should fight together for a decently-resourced, democratic education system where everyone is treated well and nobody has to scrape by in financial hardship.

Don’t lecturers have really good pay and pensions anyway?

Some senior academics certainly get comparatively good salaries (after decades of precarious work). But a huge number of staff are in increasingly insecure work, under pressure from successive years of pay cuts. Academia is now one of the most casualised industries in our society! Women workers are particularly badly treated, on the sharp end of a 17.3% median gender pay gap which translates into lower pension pay-outs in retirement too.

Yes, the pension scheme they are defending is better than the ones many other workers have – but that’s only because similar attacks have already taken away other workers’ pensions! If these workers lose their pensions too, other ordinary workers won’t benefit – the only people who benefit are the ones at the top. The solution is not to drag everyone down, but to come together to defend what we still have, and fight for better for everyone – because every worker deserves a decent pension.

What can students do?

  • Make contact with your local UCU branch and activists in it, if you haven’t already, to discuss how you can help.
  • Propose the model motion below to your student union’s general meeting, council or executive, and try to spark debate about the issues.
  • Produce material (online, plus leaflets and posters) that let students know what’s happening and why they should support their staff. You could adapt this FAQ and post it on the website of your student union or activist group, including information about activities students can do locally. Organise leafleting sessions and lecture shout-outs to spread the word.
  • Organise a student petition to your Vice-Chancellor, demanding that they publicly come out against the attack on pensions, and that they lobby within the employers’ forum to stop the changes so that the industrial action can end.
  • Consider protests, stunts and direct actions in your university to draw attention and to place pressure on your Vice Chancellor.
  • If there are strikes, join the picket lines and help workers to shut down your university.
  • Emphasise mutual solidarity in the campaign: try to link the fight for pensions to the fight for free education. Both students and workers are under attack from the same people, and we stand a better chance of winning both battles as a joint force, supporting one another.

Model motion for student unions

“Support our staff – stop the pensions raid”

This union notes:

  1. Academics and related staff at this and other pre-1992 universities currently face a raid on their pensions in the USS scheme.
  2. University managers claim there is a black hole in the scheme – however, their estimate is based on dodgy statistics, as well as the ridiculous assumption that every university in the country will close immediately and simultaneously; in fact the scheme is sustainable.
  3. To address this alleged black hole, university managers are demanding that pay-outs to staff once they retire should be massively decreased.
  4. Some staff will have up to 27% of their pension stolen if the changes go through.
  5. Staff have tried to negotiate through their union, the UCU, but their employers’ persistent refusal to listen has forced them to vote for an assessment boycott.

This union believes:

  1. When there is so much wealth in our universities and in our societies, it is wrong that people’s right to a decent retirement is undermined in this way.
  2. When the people who make our education possible are over-stretched and under-paid, or pushed to leave for better opportunities elsewhere, the quality of our education suffers.
  3. These changes to the way pensions work would open the door to privatisation and cuts in education funding later on.
  4. Education workers lose pay when they take industrial action, and they do it as a last resort. Senior managers are to blame for leaving them with no choice. The short-term disruption is more than worth the long-term benefits to education, so we should support them.
  5. Students and campus workers are strongest together. The UCU trade union has supported our campaigns against fees, we should back them on this.
  6. The stronger the support for our staff, the more likely we are to see a fast, positive resolution to disruption.

This union resolves:

  1. To write a letter from the sabbatical officers to the Vice-Chancellor, demanding that they intervene in the employers’ forum to halt the attack on pensions and so prevent the industrial action affecting students.
  2. To support our staff if they are forced to take industrial action.
  3. To inform students as widely as possible about the reasons for the dispute and why it is in our interests to support staff.
  4. To endorse, support and pro-actively organise student petitioning, protest and direct action in support of our staff’s right to a decent pension.

I’m a postgraduate teaching assistant as well as a student, what can I do?

You should not only support the action, but if possible take part yourself! If you fill in for other workers who are boycotting marking, you are actively undermining the campaign. You will need to join the UCU if you aren’t already a member. Workers in certain types of more casualised employment situation may need specific advice about participating in the boycott – just ask your local trade union reps what to do. You can also find guidance about participating here.

Check here to see if your University is involved

  • Aberdeen, The University of
  • Aberystwyth University
  • Aston University
  • Bangor University
  • Bath, University of
  • Belfast, Queen’s University of
  • Birkbeck College, University of London
  • Birmingham, University of
  • Bradford, University of
  • Bristol, University of
  • Brunel University
  • Cambridge, University of
  • Cardiff, University of
  • City University
  • Courtauld Institute
  • Cranfield University
  • Dundee, The University of
  • Durham University
  • East Anglia, University of
  • Edinburgh, University of
  • Essex, University of
  • Exeter, University of
  • Glasgow, The University of
  • Goldsmiths College, University of London
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Hull, The University of
  • Imperial College London
  • Institute of Education, University of London
  • Keele University
  • Kent, The University of
  • King’s College London
  • Lancaster, University of
  • Leeds, The University of
  • Leicester, University of
  • Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
  • Liverpool, University of
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • London School of Economics
  • Loughborough University
  • Manchester, The University of
  • Newcastle University
  • Nottingham, The University of
  • Open University
  • Oxford, University of
  • Queen Mary, University of London
  • Reading, University of
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Royal Veterinary College
  • Ruskin College
  • Salford, The University of
  • School of Pharmacy, University of London
  • Scottish Association of Marine Science
  • Senate House, University of London
  • Sheffield, The University of
  • SOAS, University of London
  • Southampton, University of
  • St Andrews, University of
  • St George’s, University of London
  • Stirling, The University of
  • Strathclyde, University of
  • Surrey, University of
  • Sussex, University of
  • Swansea University
  • Ulster, University of
  • University Campus Suffolk
  • University College London
  • University of Wales, Trinity St David
  • Warwick, University of
  • York, University of

Staff vote for action to defend pensions: solidarity from students!

Save our Pensions!

Yesterday, UCU members in 69 pre-1992 universities returned an overwhelming vote in favour of industrial action to fight off attacks on their pensions. As students, we offer our full solidarity to staff.

The attacks – which the employers are justifying using distorted analyses and dodgy statistics – threaten to wipe as much as 27% off some members’ pensions and to deny retiring university workers financial security after a career of service to education. We have written more about the nature of the attacks, the employers’ distortions, and the potential for damage to our education here.

The turnout was higher than any ballot since the UCU formation 8 years ago. 78% voted to authorise strikes, and 87% for action short of a strike, potentially to include a boycott of setting and marking students’ assessments. The UCU has given the employers a final opportunity this week to withdraw their threats. If there are not serious improvements, union representatives will meet Friday to decide the precise programme of action.

If workers are forced to take action, NCAFC will help provide materials for student support campaigns. For now, we urge you to start organising on your campus – we have written previously about action you could take locally.

Stop the pensions raid: support our staff

Save our Pensions!

On 1 October, UCU members (academic and related staff) in the pre-1992 universities began voting in an industrial action ballot. They are considering action to defend their pensions from a vicious raid being attempted by their employers. As students, we wholeheartedly support our staff in this battle. At the end of this article, you will find tips and tools about what you can do on your campus to help the fight.

The USS pension scheme has already been attacked once in recent years. In 2011, changes were pushed through which split the scheme, forcing worse pension conditions onto new entrants to the career track, and onto existing staff who take career breaks (disproportionately affecting women who are more likely to pause their careers for childcare). At the time, activists said it was just a matter of time before they came for the more senior scheme members’ pensions too.

Sadly, inevitably, we were right. That is now happening. But it’s not just the earlier generations of staff being hit, but everyone – newer staff will have their already-poor conditions further degraded along with their more senior colleagues.

The employers have cooked up an exaggerated “crisis” in the USS pension scheme in order to justify this attack. Though there is much more money going into the scheme than coming out, they have used a malicious, politically-motivated analysis method to claim there is a major deficit. They do this by using what Leeds UCU’s President has called a “zombie apocalypse” scenario – imagining that all pre-1992 universities were going to shut, simultaneously, tomorrow, leaving the scheme to pay out all their former staff’s future pensions with no income. Only with this absurd assumption can their analysis create the scale of deficit they allege needs to be resolved.

And how do they want to resolve this absurdly-constructed deficit? By reining in spending on marketing gimmicks and senior managers’ salaries? No. As ever, they want workers to take the brunt, by paying in more now and getting much less out when they retire. Employer contributions, though slightly increased in some parts of the scheme, are to be significantly lower in others. The returns in retirement will not even be guaranteed – financial insecurity will follow workers to the grave. Some staff will have as much as 27% of their pension stolen by these means.

The result will be a pension scheme much less favourable than TPS, the one for their counterparts in post-1992 universities. If the USS changes go through, it could set a precedent encouraging the post-1992 universities to launch similar attacks.

What’s more, the proposed changes also de-collectivise the scheme, reducing the amount that gains and risks are spread between staff. Individualising staff members’ pensions is a key step toward making it cheaper and administratively easier to outsource them. So the changes are potentially paving the ground for further privatisation of our universities. Even before that, by stretching, stressing and demoralising our educators, and even pushing them to leave for greener pastures, the changes will damage the quality of our education.

Attempts to negotiate have been unsuccessful, so workers are voting on whether to authorise strikes and actions short of strike, including boycotts of assessment marking and of employee appraisal processes, which are likely to begin soon after the ballot ends on 20 October – unless the employers relent. If it comes to this, the disruption will be entirely the responsibility of the employers. That is unfortunate for us as students, but by supporting and maximising the strength of the campaign, we stand the best chance of a swift victory and a positive resolution for both students and workers in the longer-term.

This is the latest in a string of attacks on the earnings and working conditions of our educators. We must join this fight, to defend education, to defend our staff, and to stand for the right to a decent pension and a decent retirement – not just for university workers, not just for public sector workers, but for all workers, present and future, including ourselves.

What can you do?

The industrial action ballot will close on 20 October, and action could begin very soon after if the vote is “yes”. So if you’re in a pre-1992 university, start preparing now and be ready for 21 October! Here are some ideas:

  • Make contact with your local UCU branch and activists in it, if you haven’t already.
  • Propose the model motion below to your student union’s general meeting, council or executive, and try to spark debate about the issues.
  • Produce material (online, plus leaflets and posters) that let students know what’s happening and why they should support their staff.
  • Student unions and campus activist groups should contact their local UCU branches to discuss supportive action.
  • Write an open letter or a petition to your Vice-Chancellor, demanding that they intervene in the employers’ forum to halt the attack on pensions and so prevent the industrial action affecting students.
  • Consider protests, stunts and direct actions in your university. Why not approach UCU officers and activists about planning a joint demonstration or stunt on campus to launch the campaign very soon after the ballot? Pending the result, of course!
  • If there are strikes, join the picket lines and help workers to shut down your university.
  • Emphasise mutual solidarity in the campaign: this year, students will be fighting against tuition fees and staff will be fighting for their pensions. We stand a better chance of winning both battles as a joint force, supporting one another.

Model motion: “Support our staff – stop the pensions raid”

This union notes:

  1. Academics and related staff at this and other pre-1992 universities currently face a raid on their pensions in the USS scheme.
  2. University managers claim there is a black hole in the scheme – however, their estimate is based on the ridiculous assumption that every university in the country will close at the same time, and the pensions scheme would have to pay out. In fact there is much more money going into the scheme than coming out.
  3. Pension schemes are generally paid into jointly by the employee and the employer.
  4. To address this alleged black hole, university managers are demanding that staff contributions are increased and payouts are decreased.
  5. Some staff will have up to 27% of their pension stolen if the changes go through.
  6. Staff have tried to negotiate through their union, the UCU, but their employers’ refusal to listen has forced them to ballot on whether to take industrial action. If they are forced to act to defend themselves, they will boycott marking and boycott appraisal processes and they could strike.

This union believes:

  1. When there is so much wealth in our universities and in our societies, it is wrong that people’s right to a decent retirement is undermined in this way.
  2. When the people who make our education possible are over-stretched and under-paid, or pushed to leave for better opportunities elsewhere, the quality of our education suffers.
  3. Education workers lose pay when they take industrial action, and they do it as a last resort. Senior managers are to blame for leaving them with no choice. The short-term disruption is more than worth the long-term benefits to education, so we should support them.
  4. Students and campus workers are strongest together. The UCU trade union has supported our campaigns against fees, we should back them on this.
  5. The stronger the support for our staff, the more likely we are to see a fast, positive resolution to disruption.

This union resolves:

  1. To write a letter from the sabbatical officers to the Vice-Chancellor, demanding that they intervene in the employers’ forum to halt the attack on pensions and so prevent the industrial action affecting students.
  2. To support our staff if they are forced to take industrial action.
  3. To inform students about the reasons for the dispute and why it is in our interests to support staff.
  4. To organise and to support student petitioning, protest and direct action in support of our staff’s right to a decent pension.

Labour leaders’ refusal to set policy on education funding is cowardly dithering

Photo of Liam Byrne MP (Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills) at a podium

Just weeks after releasing his feeble, reactionary essay on education policy, “Robbins Rebooted”, Labour’s shadow HE minister Liam Byrne has said it would be “tough” to make its fees policies clear before December. This is a back-track from Labour’s earlier position. The party had previously appeared likely to announce that they would cut the undergrad UK/EU fee cap from £9000 to £6000. That would have been far from enough – we would continue to fight the proposals and demand free education – but at least it would have been a clear plan. This retreat echoes Byrne’s refusal in “Robbins Rebooted” to go beyond vague noises to clear commitments on a postgraduate fee policy.

The Labour leadership says it is holding off committing to spending on this and other areas, but it is still banking on students’ votes, which it describes as “critical”. It has caved and embraced the logic of austerity, and expects us to do the same. We refuse.

There is no justification for this conservatism. The money is there: in fact, our society is awash in immense wealth. The only issue is that that wealth is squandered, locked up in the bank accounts, mansions and businesses of the rich. Labour claims to be the party of the working class. If so, it should commit to taking back the wealth that class creates, and putting it to better use. Propose serious, properly enforced taxes on the income, assets and businesses of the wealthy, and take the banks under democratic control. Use this vast wealth to provide free, accessible education at every level, to rebuild and improve the NHS and other public services, and to guarantee decent wages and benefits.

Simple.

Trade unionists support the demonstration for free education and donate to NCAFC

ucl_ucu_strike_28jan2014_marchingThis Thursday, a general meeting of the UCU trade union branch at UCL voted with no opposition to back November’s national demo for free education and to donate £300 to NCAFC’s work. We are very grateful to our trade union comrades for their support.

The UCU and other trade unions in education have long backed the abolition of tuition fees, even during the period when our own union, the NUS, abandoned this stance. Our campaigns, our protests and direct actions have always been strengthened by the solidarity of campus workers. Likewise, NCAFC has built for student solidarity with workers’ struggles in our colleges and universities and beyond. This is not just because it’s the right thing to do but because we’re stronger together.

It’s particularly apt that UCL UCU should offer its support, as it was at UCL that the NCAFC was founded in 2010. As we enter this next stage of the fight for free, democratic and just education, we are grateful for the continued support of campus workers is a real boost. And since NCAFC’s work is carried out entirely by the volunteered efforts of its members, and funded only by members’ and supporters’ donations, financial contributions like this are warmly received and very much needed. Organising and campaigning require resources!

NCAFC members will be approaching more trade union branches over the coming weeks, and we hope that this is just the first of many supportive branches. If you are a trade unionist and would like to propose that your branch support us and the campaign for free education, please get in touch by emailing [email protected].

Student representatives offer solidarity for next steps in workers’ campaign for #FairPayInHE

The following letter has been signed by representatives in student unions, NUS and NCAFC, and will soon be sent to the committees in the higher education trade unions that decide industrial action strategy in the current campaign for decent pay for higher education workers.

Comment below, or email pso [at] uclu.org, to add your signature!

 

*****

 

Dear UCU Higher Education Committee members,

CC: Unison HE Service Group, Unite HE Sector Committee, EIS-ULA Executive Committee

We are writing as student representatives to offer our solidarity as you consider the next steps in the campaign for fair pay at your HEC meeting this Friday 14 February.

We support your campaign wholeheartedly. We have supported your protests and picket lines, and some of us have occupied our campuses in solidarity. We know that students lose out and education suffers when your members – the people who make our members’ education happen – are underpaid, overworked and treated with disrespect. Moreover, our postgraduate members are among those receiving insulting wages (if any) for their vital teaching work, and students considering working in education are facing an uncertain future. And we remember the solidarity you and your members offered when we marched and occupied against the tuition fees which are now lining the pockets of senior managers and private businesses instead of supporting your members. So we will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with education workers, and fight together for an education system that serves the needs of students, workers and society.

We understand that to win on pay will require a strong, disruptive escalation of industrial action. We know that this is a difficult decision for you and your members, as well as affecting students. But we will support your action because we know that to allow unfair treatment of education workers to continue and worsen would do much more damage to all of us in the longer term, and the employers’ intransigence has left no other choice. So we urge you to move forward in the knowledge you can call on us for whatever help your members may need, whether that is fundraising for strike pay, complementary direct action or any other support.

In solidarity,

Ben Towse (UCLU Postgraduate Students’ Officer, NCAFC National Committee)

Rosie Huzzard (NUS NEC, NCAFC NC)

Gordon Maloney (NUS Scotland President)

Shelly Asquith (Students’ Union University of the Arts President, NUS London Chair)

Katie Kokkinou (UCLU Welfare & International Officer, NUS London Committee)

Michael Chessum (University of London Union President, NCAFC London Rep)

Daniel Warham (UCLU Democracy & Communications Officer)

Hannah Webb (UCLU External Affairs & Campaigns Officer, NCAFC NC)

Aisling Gallagher (NUS-USI Women’s Officer, NCAFC NC)

Shreya Paudel (NUS International Students’ Committee)

James McAsh (NUS NEC, NCAFC NC)

Omar Raii (NCAFC Black* Power Rep, UCLU Halls Accommodation Rep)

Matt Reuben (Royal Holloway SU Disabled Students Officer, NCAFC Disabled Students Rep)

Emma Brownbill (NCAFC LGBTQ Rep)

Beth Redmond (NCAFC NC)

Max Crema (Unison Scotland Labour Youth Rep)

Grace Jeremy (UCLU Disabled Students’ Officer)

Søren Goard (Goldsmiths SU Education Officer)

Daniel Cooper (University of London Union VP, NCAFC NC)

Jamie Green (Royal Holloway SU VP Communications & Campaigns)

Helena McCoy (NUS Welfare Committee, Stanmore College VP Campaigns & Welfare)

Matt Withers (Central School of Speech & Drama SU President, NUS London Committee)

Clifford Fleming (Manchester SU Campaigns Officer, Young Greens Co-Chair)

James Perkins (City University London SU VP Education, NUS London Committee)

Hattie Craig (University of Birmingham Guild of Students VP Education, NCAFC NC)

Areeb Ullah (Kings College London SU VP Academic Affairs, NUS Black Students’ Campaign Committee)

Deborah Hermanns (NCAFC NC, Birmingham Guild NUS Delegate)

Sam Rae (Sheffield SU Education Officer)

Rob Henthorn (Aberdeen University Students’ Association President for Education)

Rosie Dammers (Manchester SU Education Officer)

Natalie Poernig (Central School of Speech & Drama SU Vice President (Democracy))

Tom Wragg (University of Birmingham Guild of Students VP Democracy & Resources)

Howard Littler (Goldsmiths SU Campaigns Officer)

Keir Gallagher (UCLU Education & Campaigns Officer)

Kirsty Haigh (Edinburgh University Students’ Association VP Services, NCAFC NC)

Adam Bland (University of Central Lancashire SU Education Officer)

Jack Saffery-Rowe (Royal Holloway SU LGBT+ Officer)

James Elliott (Oxford University SU Disabled Students’ Officer)

Hannah Roberts (Students’ Union University of the Arts Education Officer)

Gary Paterson (NUS Scotland Executive Committee & University of Strathclyde Students Association)

Neill Clark (Glasgow Caledonian University Students’ Association VP Education)

Blane Abercrombie (Students’ Association University of the West of Scotland President)

James Moohan (Edinburgh College Students’ Association VP Education)

Michelle Bingham (South Lanarkshire College Students’ Association President)

Updates from #copsoffcampus National Day of Action

Want to continue the fight for democracy, workers rights, free education and against police repression? Join activists from local campaigns across the country at this demo and conference in Birmingham on 29/1/2014.

  •  Breaking News: Aberdeen and Manchester Universities are in occupation – solidarity!
  • Protests in Leeds, London, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Manchester, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester…

Leeds University Protest

Who killed Mark Duggan?

Stay safe everyone:

Paul Mason (Channel 4 News) reporting from Malet Street, London today “This is the new face of student protest…This is not the generation of three years ago, this is freshers from Oxford, Birmingham, Sussex”

Leeds Student Resistance #copsoffcampus demo:
leeds

Photos from Sheffield protest today here.

joshrock

Quote from Manchester Anticapitalist students:

“a group of supporters stormed into the Social Responsibility office to occupy and make the point that any University which cuts courses, invites the police to attack their students, and refuses to support staff demands for decent pay, cannot honestly call itself socially responsible.”

Students and protesters assembling outside ULU.

Demos and solidarity protests in London, Manchester, Nottingham, Derby, Cardiff and Sheffield due to start in five minutes (2PM).

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Trade Union Solidarity With Student Protests from Unite, IWGB, UCU, PCS and GMB!

solidarity is a weapon

Solidarity messages for today’s protests against police repression of students are flooding in. Today we have an extended blog post on the Young Members website of the PCS Union for civil servants:

As a point of principle alone, we as trade unionists should stand in solidarity with students. These attacks are nothing more than politically motivated attempts to undermine the right to protest and shut down any dissent against the Government’s plans to further privatise and run down education.

In this case, the student movement is being targeted partly out of fears that this could be the start of a new wave of student protests akin to those that rocked the country several years ago. More importantly though, it’s also because its taking place alongside a critical dispute involving all the Higher Education unions over the battle for decent pay. A strong united student movement that is actively supporting a solid HE strike across campuses through direct action has the potential to bring education to a halt. The unions could win, and if this happens, the effects across not just higher education, but the trade union movement would be felt. To prevent this happening, the state is flexing its muscles.

The full post from PCS Young Members can be seen here.

 

Unite the Union’s General Secretary Len McCluskey has also spoken out against the police and university management tactics used against student protests:

Len McCluskey said: “Unite is showing strong solidarity with the students of the UK who are being demonised by a coalition government which has precious little to offer anyone under the age of 40.

“Students have a legitimate right to protest peacefully against a governing elite intent on privatising higher education and cutting budgets.

“Some vice chancellors have adopted macho tactics to crush dissent and the police appear to be collaborating with this hardline approach. It’s time to back off.”

Full article here.

 

UCU – the university and college lecturers union, whose industrial action sparked many of the occupations and protests last week, have stated their full support. Many UCU members have written to the Guardian this week giving their support, and the UCU website said:

UCU also welcomes the support of students and their unions for our current industrial action which is aimed at securing a fair pay offer.

To that end, we endorse the Early Day Motion put down by John McDonnell MP which calls upon university authorities to respond positively to requests by protesting students and staff for ‘meaningful dialogue’ rather than adopt heavy handed responses. We also fully endorse Mr McDonnell’s view that, ‘universities should recognise that students have a right to protest as long as it is peaceful’.

Full article here.

 

Students have also received support from the Southern Region Young Members section of the GMB, who said:

GMB young members support students and university workers in their struggle against police violence, the fight for better pay and terms and conditions and defending the right to protest.

GMB members will join the cops off campus demo’s today in a show of solidarity and to fight for decent pay and terms and conditions for ALL staff on campus.

Students and workers face them same oppression from the state when they try and rise up. This campaign is embedded in workers’ struggles, whether that be the HE/FE pay dispute, the outsourced workers struggles like 3 Cosas, or the increase in casualisation, low pay and unemployment and underemployment of young people.

Solidarity!