Report: UCU Rank & File Meeting

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By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep

On 29 April 2018, approximately 50 activists from across the UK met at City, University of London. They were there as part of a newly formed Rank and File network within the University and College Union (UCU). This network emerged from the strikes this year over proposed cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which saw a surge in activity within the union at the grassroots level. 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ on 14 April 2018 to an offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK), to set up a Joint Expert Panel that would, among other things, look into the valuation of the USS Fund. Despite this, many UCU members – myself included – saw the handling of this ballot as a capitulation by Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary.

The Rank and File meeting therefore had a central objective of ensuring we do not lose the energisation of UCU’s activist base, especially seeing how 24,000 new members have joined the union since the USS strike ballot. Although the network and meeting both arose from the USS dispute, the common understanding remained that our battle is against larger ills within the education sector, including marketisation and precarity. Likewise, the question of how to intervene in UCU’s structures and democratise the union was central, with the members present generally accepting that UCU’s weaknesses cannot be solved with a change in leadership alone.

We also acknowledged the need to share skills and resources, especially between stronger and weaker UCU branches, and to link with broader workers’ and students’ struggles. Encouragingly, it was suggested that the new network should push UCU to work in closer solidarity with students in the fight for free education. Much inspiration was taken from examples across the world, including the recent West Virginia wildcat strikes and the establishment of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union in California. Although involvement in the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) was suggested to keep the dynamism of the strike alive, no serious case was made for UCU activists to ‘dual card’ as IWGB members or to found another union altogether.

The Rank and File network has no steering committee as such, but now has several working groups that we broke into following general discussion of the network’s aims. These working groups are on democracy, anti-racism (including migrant workers’ rights), the Higher Education pensions dispute, and precarious labour. Given my history of union activism around casualisation, I joined the precarious labour group, which saw a healthy discussion of everything from practical demands, such as moving precarious staff onto fractional contracts, to common interests to which we can appeal in our campaigns, such as high workloads and the gender pay gap.

Overall, the Rank and File meeting was promising, but the onus falls upon the newly connected members to turn its initiatives into concrete gains. We have a vision of a better union in mind: now we need to bring it into reality.

Reflections on the UCU Strike: Where Do We Go From Here?

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By Dan Davison, NCAFC Postgrad & Education Workers Co-Rep and Cambridge UCU activist. Photo by Andrew Perry.

On 14 April 2018, 64% of members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted ‘Yes’ to the offer made by the employers’ consortium, Universities UK (UUK). Industrial action, including action short of a strike (ASOS), is now suspended. UUK’s offer aims to end the ongoing dispute over intended reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. As explained in a previous article, these changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, spelling the effective end to guaranteed pension benefits. In their offer, UUK proposed to establish a ‘Joint Expert Panel, comprised of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers from both sides’, to ‘deliver a report’ and ‘to agree key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund’.

NCAFC advocated a ‘No’ vote in the ballot, finding that the proposal offered little in the way of concrete guarantees and noting how it could see UUK continuing to use the contested November valuation for the USS, despite the pension scheme’s ‘deficit’ being fabricated. On 13 March, UCU rejected a previous proposal drawn up by the union and UUK’s representatives during negotiations, after UCU members demonstrated outside the union’s national headquarters and local UCU branches called on the national leadership to turn down the deal: an outcry that trended online with the hashtag #NoCapitulation. Moreover, between the announcement of the new proposal on 23 March and the closing of the ballot on 14 April, many branches came out in opposition to the offer as it stood, preferring a deal with clearer and more reliable assurances. On social media, this position was often identified with the hashtag #ReviseAndResubmit, in humorous allusion to the peer review process for academic journals.

Whilst the 63.5% turnout for the ballot on the new proposal is not something to dismiss out of hand, the result comes as a disappointment for many strikers, as well as those who have stood in solidarity with them. I will lay out some major criticisms of the UCU leadership’s handling of the ballot and offer a few explanations for the ballot result. I will then make some critical observations about how the National Union of Students (NUS) conducted itself throughout the strike. I will end on what I hope will be a constructive and optimistic note on how we can build upon the gains of the strike, particularly the unprecedented energisation of UCU’s rank-and-file.

1. The UCU Leadership

One of the most significant problems with the ballot is the manner in which Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, presented the available options in her emails to the membership. More specifically, Hunt conflated the more hard-line ‘no detriment’ position with the less hard-line ‘revise and resubmit’ position, and then framed the ‘No’ option on the ballot as a mandate for ‘no detriment’. A significant number of UCU members favoured ‘revise and resubmit’, considered ‘no detriment’ unrealistic, and would have been willing to pursue further industrial action in pursuit of demands shaped by a ‘revise and resubmit’ position. As Hunt presented the ‘No’ option as a commitment to bargaining for ‘no detriment’, we can safely assume that many members who ordinarily would have rejected the offer instead accepted it. Moreover, whilst it is established practice for a union’s executive committee to make recommendations in such matters, it appears that the recommendations Hunt gave to members were hers alone.

Unfortunately, UCU’s national leadership has a long history of failing to pursue effective industrial action when needed. As we recognised when UCU called off its marking boycott during the 2014 pay dispute, when the national leadership clearly does not support further industrial action, members become demoralised and are left to believe that, if they do vote for further action, the action will be tokenistic and ineffective. With staff members losing significant pay on strike days, one can understand why the leadership’s visible lack of commitment to seeing the strike through to the end would have had a dissuading effect on UCU members. Indeed, one would be forgiven for a certain cynical suspicion that the ballot was called during the Easter break precisely because it would be a time of year when student support for the strike would be less visible on campus and when there would be no picket lines to generate feelings of solidarity.

In many respects, the contrast between the ballot on the one hand, and the wave of demonstrations, open letters, and branch resolutions for #NoCapitulation on the other hand, is instructive for the problems with an atomistic approach to democracy in a national organisation. When members are in a room with others who have shared their struggle, the fostered feeling of solidarity boosts confidence, and one can actively participate in a structured discussion that lays out and debates the available positions. When members have to vote as geographically separated individuals, that atmosphere of solidarity and accompanying confidence are lost. Moreover, in the context of the present dispute, those members who were not active during (and, presumably, less supportive of) the strike ended up receiving disproportionate guidance from the leadership’s communications.

Nevertheless, I urge student and trade union activists not to assume the worst of those UCU members who voted to accept the deal. Apart from the leadership’s handling of the ballot and general lack of effective leadership, there are numerous understandable reasons why members would choose not to continue striking. With classes finishing for the year, the most disruptive part of the industrial action would have been the marking boycott. Since this would affect students’ reception of marks much more directly than cancelled lectures, one can sympathise with staff members’ fear of ‘hurting’ their students or losing student support by continuing the action, even if a victory for the strike would actually have helped students in the long run by resisting a systematic attack on learning conditions. Likewise, one can understand why the prospect of standing on a picket line when the campus is less busy would be quite bleak for many strikers. Once we have more data on the number of UCU branches that came out against both the rejected and the accepted deals, along with a breakdown of the ballots cast, we can better account for why members voted as they did.

2. The NUS

In a previous opinion piece, I criticised the NUS leadership for demonstrating no support for the strike beyond than a lacklustre joint statement (itself released more than a week after UCU’s industrial action ballot result), despite it being the clear policy of NUS’ National Executive Council to provide much more concrete assistance. That was at the start of February. Individual NUS officers might have made supportive gestures and commentary during the strike period, but as an institution, the NUS remained conspicuously absent. This means that the 26 campus occupations and other surges of campus activism in solidarity with UCU materialised in spite of the NUS rather than because of it.

NCAFC assisted many of these occupations by helping coordinate them online, and – in some instances – by sending members to boost numbers and expertise. This resulted in approximately 40 activists from 13 different campuses across the UK meeting in London to share their experience and draft a joint solidarity statement, with further cross-campus connections being drawn now. Similarly, NCAFC administered both the popular ‘Students Support the UCU Pensions Strike’ Facebook group, which allowed activists to share materials, and the @Occupation_hub twitter account, which kept abreast of direct action in support of the strike. Still, all this is no substitute for the material support of a national union tasked with fighting for our interests as students. In other words, if there was any moment at which the NUS should have lived up to its name, it was at the height of campus activism in solidarity with UCU. The NUS could have officially sent representatives to the occupations and committed itself to defending student protesters from victimisation, especially those on visas who take an especially high risk when participating in direct action, but they did nothing.

The NUS thus finds itself in a curious state of double removal. It is removed from the mass political drive for free education that has seen expression in the Corbyn surge and in Labour’s significant gains in the 2017 General Election. Likewise, it is removed from the fertile layer of grassroots campus activism that made the recent wave of occupations possible. As of the 2018 NUS National Conference elections, the NUS leadership is split evenly between the left and the right, but the right still holds the presidency. However, if the experience of the UCU strike has taught us anything, it is that any attempt to rebuild the student movement must amount to something far wider and bolder than putting left-wingers in office.

3. What Next for UCU?

Even though our current position is intensely dissatisfying, we have made genuine gains through our activism. UCU membership has increased by the thousands and seen unprecedented energisation at the grassroots level. Now we must ask how we rank-and-file activists can prepare for the (almost inevitable) next round in the dispute should the talks with UUK fail and, more pointedly, how we can transform the union itself. I wholly understand the temptation for left-wing members simply to jump ship from UCU. As it stands, UCU has all the trappings of a bureaucratised union disconnected from its more militant base and the UCU Left faction, dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), serves as little more than an electoral machine. For these same reasons, I understand suggestions to ‘dual card’ with smaller, more dynamic unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

While all available options should considered carefully, I do wish to stress that there are significant advantages to a large, national union, not least in respect of collective bargaining. Since university employers in the sector have to deal with industry-wide unions such as UCU, it is harder to drive down wages on individual campuses and make the sector even more closely resemble a market than it does already. Moreover, one should bear in mind that the character of unions can change dramatically. Many of the large national unions now infamous for bureaucracy, such as the GMB, grew out of the ‘new unionism’ of the 1880s, which replaced the older ‘craft union’ models. This shift from craft unionism to new unionism meant an upsurge in militancy and the bringing together of different workers in the same industry to fight for collective gains rather than to defend the special interests of a uniquely skilled ‘labour aristocracy’. Conversely and more recently, rank-and-file activists transformed the traditionally conservative and bureaucratic Chicago Teachers Union into an energised, combative body. As such, we should not be overly dismissive of what we could achieve within UCU, building upon the kind of grassroots revolt we saw with the #NoCapitulation surge.
In short, whether one chooses to start a new union or to reform an existing union, there are no shortcuts to effective workplace organising. For now, we must keep engaging with UCU’s activist base and ensure that its newly tapped potential does not dissipate. With new rank-and-file networks emerging in the wake of the ballot result, a glimmer of hope appears in the darkness. It is a hope that springs from a single, potent realisation: we are the union.

“The roving picket” and Sheffield’s strike solidarity campaign

By Małgosia Haman, Free University of Sheffield

Everyone already knows that in Sheffield we have the best activists. Our banner game is particularly strong.

Just last year The Free University of Sheffield made this gigantic banner. The biggest banner in the history of the whole world*.

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Here’s a short summary of what we’ve been up to during the UCU strike.

We made some really good banners again.

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We take them with us every morning on our now-famous Roving Picket™. Tens of students meet outside the SU on strike days and visit the picket lines bringing music, joy, and solidarity like the Strike Santas that we are.

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(This Strike Santa btw is Charlea, the most important person in creating the huge Free Education banner)

Sometimes we also bring hot drinks.

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Here’s our Education Officer, Stu for a Grassroots SU himself, distributing hot coffee to strikers.

Picketers love us and we get requests to join specific ones every day!

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Here are lecturers striking outside the Jessop West building. We had a fun dance party at the picket, they are amazing dancers!

Our dearest Vice Chancellor Keith Burnett was conveniently away for the first 2 weeks of the strike. When he finally came back to Sheffield (and joined the picket line for literally 2 minutes before crossing the picket line and going to his office) we felt so happy, we organised a welcome back party for him!

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But there’s more!

Just in the first 2 weeks of the strike, we had two massive demonstrations. Hundreds of students joined staff in solidarity and marched through the streets of Sheffield. We’re currently preparing another one on the International Women’s Day and we’re sure it will be even bigger and even louder!

We’ve also organised fundraisers for the strike hardship fund. And when the university threatened to deduct pay from staff working to contract on non-strike days, our alumni organised on twitter within minutes threatening to stop donating to the alumni fund and instead pledging donations to the UCU fund.

We won’t stop until the strike ends, we’ll keep supporting staff, we’ll keep dancing, and we will win!

Xoxo

PS If you want to keep up to date with our shenanigans, follow us on:

https://www.facebook.com/savestaffpensions/

https://www.facebook.com/thefreeuniversityofsheffield

and most importantly: https://www.facebook.com/TheRovingPicket/


*Or student activism in Europe or something like that.

Marketisation Must Be Abolished, Not Adjusted

By NCAFC National Committee member Dan Davison.

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On Monday 19 February, Theresa May launched the latest funding review for higher education. Acknowledging that the UK now has ‘one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world’, May put forward that the review would ‘examine how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed’. Such promises follow Education Secretary Damian Hinds’ suggestions last Sunday that students might be charged variable tuition fees according to their specific degree’s economic value. Indeed, the themes of ‘meritocracy’ and greater ‘value for money’ infused May’s speech, which floated such options as adjusting the repayment period for graduates and bringing back maintenance grants, but excluded abolishing fees altogether.

These shifts in position from Government figures almost certainly reflect pressures brought first by the student movement in the wake of the 2010 anti-cuts protests and later by the Corbyn-led Labour Party, which has committed to abolishing fees, reintroducing grants, and setting up a new National Education Service to allow people to access education throughout their lives. Nevertheless, such concessions from the Conservatives mean little without directly tackling the underlying problem of marketization. In other words, such tinkering around the edges of tuition costs and debt repayment not only comes across as a ‘too little, too late’ gambit after years of slashed funds, course closures, and fee hikes, but also explicitly reinforces the very education-as-commodity logic that gave ideological cover to this systematic gutting of the sector.

This is perhaps most obvious from the suggestion that tuition fees be varied by the subject’s economic value. Education is far more than a financial investment in one’s future: it provides a substantial benefit to society as a whole by fostering skills and knowledge, as well as individual fulfilment by allowing people to seek new personal and intellectual horizons. One cannot reduce this worth to a price tag based on whether the private sector happens to consider a given skill or field of knowledge vital for its internal operations. Whilst many students’ experience of the current system may well be a monotonous grind to gain a set of numbers on a sheet of paper that will hopefully find them a job, the only manner in which we can break people free from such a life-sapping existence is by radically altering the way we have come to conceptualise education itself. It calls for us to be able to see and treat education the way we see and treat healthcare: as a public good that everyone is entitled to access, supported by the redistribution of wealth. This is why I advocate a free education system based on taxing the very richest so that anyone can go to university, as opposed to treating those who complete their degrees as obligated to give back money through student loan repayments or a ‘graduate tax’ for the ‘privilege’ of receiving a special service.

We most clearly see the spectre of marketization lingering above the funding review when we consider it alongside the ongoing industrial action by education workers organised in the University and College Union (UCU) to defend their pensions. On 22 February, a wave of pickets hit 61 universities, with a further 13 strike dates to follow in an escalating pattern. These strikes are over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. The proposed changes would make final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions, effectively spelling the end of guaranteed pension benefits. The significance of this dispute cannot be overstated. Academic staff are posed to lose up to 40% of their retirement income – which for the typical lecturer could amount to as much as £200,000 – and other pension schemes will almost certainly follow in USS’ wake. Put bluntly, if UCU loses the dispute, it would sound the death knell for financial security in retirement across the entire education sector.

The role of marketization in all this is simple: the reforms to USS are driven by the felt need to shift as much financial risk as possible from the universities to the individual workers, which in turn is driven by the felt need to make universities more attractive to commercial investors. In other words, senior management are cutting staff pensions in order to maximise profits. This means that student hardships, such as extortionate rents, rising fees, funding cuts, and overcrowded campuses, and staff hardships, such as the proliferation of casual employment contracts and the stripping of pension guarantees, are symptoms of the same underlying problem.

Indeed, there is a striking thematic parallel between the suggested differentiation of fees according to economic value and the infamous ‘excellence frameworks’, which outline artificial metrics for success in the education sector. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) ostensibly evaluates the impact of academic research, the newer Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) does likewise for teaching quality, and the recently proposed Knowledge Excellence Framework (KEF) will purportedly ensure that knowledge produced by universities is put to good use. All these frameworks are deeply flawed. In the case of the REF and KEF, commercial interests largely determine whether produced scholarship is ‘impactful’ or ‘useful’. Moreover, the pressure on academics to keep churning out and submitting articles to keep their jobs or gain promotion perpetuates and deepens a ‘publish or perish’ culture amongst staff, to the detriment of well-being and research quality alike.

As for the TEF, its two major metrics are employment rates and graduate earnings on the one hand, and the National Student Survey (NSS) on the other. Even on their own terms, these are wholly unreliable metrics. After all, a student could very easily have the most skilful and understanding teachers imaginable, yet still struggle to find a well-paying job after graduation, whilst NSS results are basically junk data. More fundamentally, the TEF was established with the ultimate aim of allowing high-scoring universities to become more expensive than low-scoring universities, thereby making education even more hierarchical and commodified. This is why the National Union of Students (NUS) passed policy in 2016 to boycott the NSS until the higher education reforms are withdrawn, and why Students’ Unions and activist groups across the country are continuing the boycott this year. In short, like the pensions cuts at the heart of UCU’s dispute and the proposals in the higher education review, the ‘excellence frameworks’ demonstrate the grave effects of marketization upon staff and students alike.

Until and unless we overhaul the entire education system to prevent managers from running universities like businesses, May’s promises will continue to ring hollow. This is why the call for staff-student solidarity must fall upon receptive ears. This is the point at which the common struggle of students and workers on campus is most starkly apparent. Much of the sector has already withered in the malignant presence of marketization. Nevertheless, if staff and students realise how viewing education in terms of ‘value for money’ has led to the predicaments they face today, they can organise to fend off the latest wave of attacks upon education and to lay the foundations for a radically different system. Only by noticing their shared material interests can students and workers form the kind of solidarity needed to defend the education sector we have, and to bring forth the education sector that could be.

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.

Solidarity with striking staff: Acting like consumers is not what’s needed!

Tyrone Falls, NCAFC South-West Rep, offers a response to proposals that students should demand fee refunds for days and lectures disrupted by strikes. For a contrasting view, see this article by NCAFC International Students’ Rep Bobby Sun. Want to write an opinion article for our blog? Email [email protected]!

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At KCL a campaign has recently been launched by students to demand a refund for days and lectures lost due to strike action by UCU. The slogan for the campaign reads: “Our conscience should be free, refund our fees”. Whilst it’s understandable that students are annoyed that their lectures and seminars will be cancelled, presenting it as an either-or situation – either we have to strike-break because we are not getting a refund or we stand on the picket line because we are going to get a refund – creates a false dichotomy. Ultimately, staff are on strike because their pensions are under threat. Moreover, if these reforms go through they pave the way for further cuts and restructuring of universities. Therefore, the strike is to stop conditions worsening in education. This ought to be cause enough to support it.

However, there are further reasons why this campaign is the wrong approach. Firstly, it accepts the logic that students are consumers; secondly, the way it’s formulated now, it doesn’t strengthen solidarity, but instead says we might show solidarity if we get a refund; and thirdly, it misses the point that the people most immediately affected by the strike are lecturers, particularly those on more precarious and lower-paid contracts.

Solidarity with workers based on defending education not consumerism

A major issue with this campaign is that it embraces the logic that students are consumers and that education is a commodity. Rather than calling out this view of education – that you can attach a price-tag to the education you receive – as a myth, the campaign accepts it. Of course, you might reply, ‘Yeah, I’m against this logic too but the fact is that’s the system we have and we have to work with it’. You can still reject this logic and look to how we can best support the strike. How can we best make links with other workers that will set up structures to fight for a free and democratic education? Unfortunately, behaving like consumers who are paying for a service does nothing to question this model’s underlying logic, and so does nothing for people to become conscious and persuaded that education based on fees and consumerism can never be fair.

Lecturers are fighting cuts to education – this is why we should show solidarity

Again, I can see why students are annoyed that they are missing lectures. However, it is unfortunately normal that strikes negatively affect people other than management. However, if you understand why it is that lecturers are going on strike and agree with them, then you should be supporting the strike anyway. For any support of the strike to be real and genuine, it has to come from people appreciating why it is that workers have been forced to take this action. This is how we should be talking to students and others about the strike. If an en-masse refund campaign were done together with strikers purely for the tactical purpose of causing administrative disruption, then it would be different. However, as currently formulated, the campaign basically says that you can be unsupportive of workers who are taking action, losing pay, and trying to stop further cuts to education, if you don’t get a refund.

Those most affected by the strike are the lecturers

The third issue with the Refund Our Fees campaign is its focus. Yes, people are missing lectures and (based on a marketised view of education) they are losing money. However, those who are most affected by the strike are the lecturers, particularly lecturers on precarious and low-pay contracts. These workers will be losing out on big chunks of pay to defend their pensions. As people who are sympathetic to the lecturers’ actions, our focus should be first and foremost on how can we support striking staff to get over this difficult period and win. We should be asking: “How can we best build the morale of strikers, or help with strike funds, or get other students to understand what is at stake and genuinely support the strike?”

Victory to the UCU strike!

Open Letter from Sussex Labour Club – Support the UCU strike!

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University of Sussex Labour Society have released this open letter calling for students to support the UCU strike!

Sign up to it here: goo.gl/M4dnba [Read more…]

Stand Up for Staff Pensions! UCU Votes to Strike for USS

By Dan Davison, Cambridge Universities Labour Club Graduate Officer & NCAFC Postgrads & Education Workers Co-Rep. See here for a model motion supporting the UCU campaign to propose to your SU!

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On 22 January 2018, the University and College Union (UCU) voted to back industrial action over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pensions scheme for ‘pre-92’ universities. The balloting took place between 27 November 2017 and 19 January 2018. Based on a turnout of over 58% of UCU members eligible to vote, 88% backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. Consequently, as many as 61 universities could see industrial action this Spring.

The dispute itself has arisen because UUK, the employers’ consortium, wants to switch the USS from a ‘defined benefits scheme’ to a ‘defined contributions scheme’. Put simply, this means that final pensions will depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions. This in turn means the effective end of guaranteed pension benefits. According to independent modelling of the proposals, a typical lecturer is set to lose as much as £200,000 in retirement.

The significance of the ballot results should not be understated. They boldly show that tens of thousands of workers in one of the largest national unions are willing to go on strike, more than meeting the Draconian threshold of 50% voter turnout for a valid ballot result under the current legislative regime. Already, universities might face escalating strikes over 14 days, beginning with a two-day walkout starting on 22 February, if the USS dispute is not resolved. In the words of Sally Hunt, the UCU General Secretary, ‘Universities will be hit with levels of strike action not seen before on UK campuses if a deal cannot be done over the future of USS pensions. Members have made it quite clear they are prepared to take action to defend their pensions and the universities need to work with us to avoid widespread disruption.’

We in NCAFC support UCU in their dispute. However much industrial action affects students in the short-term, students are the primary beneficiaries of education and should stand with the workers responsible for keeping our academic institutions running. Moreover, PhD students and early career academics stand to lose the most from the proposed USS changes because they have built up the least on the current pensions scheme.

We also cannot ignore how these threats to the material conditions of workers on campus form part of the wider, harrowing picture of an increasingly marketized and commodified education sector. Therefore, we encourage activists to submit tailored versions of our model motion to their Students Unions. We call on students not to attend lectures and seminars, or use services still in operation, during any strike days. We urge as many as possible to stand with staff on picket lines. Let that rallying cry of the student and labour movements ring out across our campuses: ‘Students and workers unite and fight!’

Model Motion to Back UCU Industrial Action in Pensions Dispute

UCU poster reading "YOUR PENSION. AXED. Fight back against a brutal attack on your pension"

UCU trade union members have just voted to take industrial action against major attacks on staff pensions, affecting 61 universities (listed here). Please check out and share the article here to find out more about it, and pass this model motion in your student union as part of the solidarity campaign!

Motion to Back UCU Industrial Action in Pensions Dispute

[X] Students’ Union notes:

  1. In the period 27 Nov 2017 to 19 Jan 2018, the University and College Union (UCU) balloted on industrial action in Spring, in response to damaging proposals from employers to the USS pension scheme. 1
  2. Nationally, 88% of UCU members who voted backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. The turnout was over 58%2.
  3. The USS proposals will end guaranteed pension benefits, making final pensions depend on investment performance rather than workers’ contributions. They risk the futures of academic staff, effectively destroying the pensions scheme.
  4. The USS pension scheme’s own analysis shows that the employers could muster the funds to avoid this and keep guarantees on pension payouts.
  5. UCU have consistently supported student campaigns and actions.3
  6. NUS Conference has previously voted that our default position as students should be to back industrial action by education workers, because we understand that working conditions and teaching quality are so closely tied, and because we understand that the alliance of solidarity between students and education workers is vital to our own campaigns.
  7. NUS have resolved to support the industrial action.

[X] Students’ Union believes:

  1. Student-worker solidarity should be central to everything we do.
  2. Although industrial action is likely to affect students in the short-term, fighting for pensions means fighting for the long-term health of a profession of which students are primary beneficiaries.
  3. Threats to staff working conditions are part of a wider picture of cuts to education funding and marketisation.
  4. The attacks on different pension schemes are used to play staff against one another – one scheme is undermined, then members of another are told that they must accept attacks on their own scheme on the grounds that it is unfairly better than the first.
  5. These attacks will be most damaging to workers at the beginning of their careers, including our members such as PhD students looking to begin research careers, which could have a devastating impact in years to come. Furthermore, we all have a long-term interest in halting and reversing the erosion of pensions across the labour market.

[X] Students’ Union resolves:

  1. To give full and public support to UCU on any industrial action that follows the ballot result.
  2. To lobby the University to oppose the changes to USS.
  3. To encourage students to show solidarity by not attending lectures and seminars, or using services still in operation, on the strike day(s).
  4. To encourage students to join staff picket lines.
  5. To engage in an educational campaign for our students explaining why the strike is happening and why we should all show solidarity. Staff working conditions are our learning conditions.

References:

1. https://www.ucu.org.uk/strikeforuss
2. https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9194/University-staff-overwhelmingly-back-strike-action-in-USS-pensions-row
3. https://www.ucu.org.uk/boycott-the-nss

Strike for USS! UCU Now Balloting to Strike over Staff Pensions

 university-and-college-union-ucu-pensions-demonstrators-new

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

Over the past couple of weeks, the University and College Union (UCU), the national trade union for academic staff, has been sending out industrial action ballot papers. This is over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pensions scheme for staff in what are mainly ‘pre-92’ universities: that is, institutions that had university status before the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. In short, the proposed changes would leave staff pensions at the mercy of the pension fund’s gambles on the stock market and we should fight them at every turn. That is why I welcome NUS’ backing of the dispute after a motion submitted by NCAFC activists was voted through their National Executive Committee.

Currently, the USS is what is known as a ‘defined benefits scheme’. In other words, one’s annual pension is linked to salary and service. More specifically, each year of contributions guarantees a defined retirement income to each member. The employers’ consortium, UUK, wants to turn this into a ‘defined contributions scheme’. Under such a scheme, the contributions of individuals and their employers build up as personal investments, which are cashed in on retirement. This move effectively scraps guaranteed pension incomes in favour of a retirement income based on how each individual worker’s ‘investments’ perform on the stock market.

Whilst it is evident from even the USS’ own research that most employers could indeed pay more to protect existing pension benefits, they have chosen not to do so. With USS’ tens of thousands of active contributors, the choice to de-invest in pensions is nothing short of a slap to the face for university staff. Those most affected by the changes will be early career academics, since they have built up the least on the current pension scheme. In an industrial sector already rife with casual employment contracts, this additional insecurity will only make education workers in the beginning stages of their careers even more victimised by the gig economy. Shifting financial risk onto individual workers aids the marketization of education by making such practices as outsourcing and privatisation easier. It could also see talent drawn away from the education sector and towards jobs that struggling workers perceive as more secure.

We in NCAFC support the UCU in their dispute. We can pass motions in our Students’ Unions to back the campaign and any resulting industrial action, including marking boycotts. We can call on activists in Defend Education groups, anti-casualisation campaigns, Labour Clubs, and other bodies on campus to spread word of the ballot and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with academic staff on picket lines if a strike materialises. The ballot closes on 19 January 2018 and, under our repressive trade union laws, we need a turnout of at least 50% for a valid result. Every round of leafletting, every burst of social media promotion, and every conversation with current or potential union members about the dispute could make all the difference. For the sake of our teachers, researchers and other university workers, spread the word to every corner of your campus! Vote yes to strike action! Vote yes to action short of a strike!