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:
- Academics and related staff at this and other pre-1992 universities currently face a raid on their pensions in the USS scheme.
- 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.
- Pension schemes are generally paid into jointly by the employee and the employer.
- To address this alleged black hole, university managers are demanding that staff contributions are increased and payouts are decreased.
- Some staff will have up to 27% of their pension stolen if the changes go through.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Students and campus workers are strongest together. The UCU trade union has supported our campaigns against fees, we should back them on this.
- The stronger the support for our staff, the more likely we are to see a fast, positive resolution to disruption.
This union resolves:
- 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.
- To support our staff if they are forced to take industrial action.
- To inform students about the reasons for the dispute and why it is in our interests to support staff.
- To organise and to support student petitioning, protest and direct action in support of our staff’s right to a decent pension.