NUS and UCU: Unite and Fight Better than This!

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

demo pic

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]!

ci3a1327

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!

UCU strike

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!

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

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!

Tory “Teaching Excellence” in action: UoM cites TEF as motivation for massive cuts

Manchester students & staff protest cuts to catering jobs last year

Manchester students & staff protesting cuts to catering jobs last year

Just days after the passage of the Conservatives’ higher education reforms through Parliament, the University of Manchester has announced plans to axe 140 academic jobs and 31 support roles, placing 926 workers at risk. You can read the UCU trade union’s press announcement about the cuts here.

UoM isn’t facing a financial crisis. In 2015-16 the university made a £59.7m surplus, and it holds reserves of £1.5bn (including £430m in immediately available cash). They have also cited Brexit and economic uncertainty as creating a need to expand what they call their their “financial headroom”. Yet their headroom is already substantial and their most recent financial statements say that there are “no material uncertainties” posing a threat to their ability to stay afloat. The UCU has called this out as opportunism – university managers are using wider events as excuses to make these cuts.

Sackings on this scale are unprecedented for a UK university in good financial health. So why are they doing this?

UoM’s managers (including the Vice-Chancellor who was paid £296,000 as of last year) have cited the HE Bill passed by Parliament just 2 weeks ago. They say they can raise their score in the Teaching Excellence Framework by cutting staff and student numbers. As the UCU branch put it: “the aim is to become a smaller but more elite university, regardless of the costs to staff or the impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

This is a damning indictment of the government’s reforms, and a sign of things to come if we don’t reverse them. Universities are being incentivised to reshape themselves, not to benefit students, workers or communities, but to game TEF ratings and play the market.

Workers and students at Manchester are already gearing up to stop these cuts in their tracks. NCAFC sends its solidarity, and in the weeks and months to come we’ll be ready to take action to support them. At the same time, we’ll keep up the fight to reverse these ruinous reforms before they can do any more damage.

Support education workers on strike for #FairPayInHE

fair payThis week, the UCU trade union (representing academic and related workers, including many students who teach as postgrads) announced the opening of industrial action in their campaign for fairer pay in higher education. They will be on strike in universities 25-26 May, and at the same time beginning to work to contract, which means they will refuse to work overtime, set additional work or undertake any voluntary duties like covering timetabled classes for absent colleagues. If the situation does not improve, they are planning further strikes and a marking boycott.

They are fighting to reverse pay cuts that have seen their real-terms income slashed by 14.5% since 2009, to close the gender pay gap that sees women systematically paid less, and to push back against the casualization of work in higher education and ensure that casualised staff – like hourly-paid postgrad teaching assistants – are paid equally and in full for their work.

We totally support these demands, and extend our solidarity to staff as they take industrial action to win them. Not only do they deserve better, the unjust treatment of education workers affects students too and damages education. We know that short-term disruption to education as a result of industrial action is worth it to prevent the long-term damage threatened and to push back against the injustices staff face – and we note that the action can be called off as soon as our university managers agree to the demands.

In particular, we would like to extend our support to those workers campaigning to push the often-under-prioritised issues of the gender pay gap and casualisation into the foreground of the dispute, such as the activists of Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (many of whom are students themselves, working as postgraduate teachers).

What can I do?

NCAFC will be organising to support the campaign – keep your eyes peeled for further info. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Sign the petition and share it. This is a simple way to add to the pressure on university managers and show them that students support our staff and we won’t be divided. Sharing the petition is also an easy way to spread awareness of the campaign. You can find the petition here.
  • Reach out to your university’s UCU branch. Let them know you support them, and ask them what you can do together to build the campaign. Maybe you could co-organise a protest or a rally on campus?
  • Build the trade union. If you are a postgrad teacher, join UCU and join the industrial action (and if you’re a postgrad but not teaching right now, you can get involved in the union as a student member for free). And support recruitment drives to get postgrads into the union.
  • Get your student union to support the campaign. Find out what your student union is saying and doing about the campaign. If they’re not already supporting fair pay and the industrial action, call on your SU officers to show solidarity, and if you can, propose a motion for a vote at an SU meeting.
  • Get creative. Think about stunts and direct action to increase the pressure! And ways you can reach other students with information and convince them to back the campaign, from posters all over campus, to social media, to reaching out to clubs and societies.
  • Join the picket lines. On strike days, trade unionists will set up picket lines at entrances to your university – don’t cross these lines, but instead offer them support and help out.

Fight job cuts at Aberdeen University!

Aberdeen student left bannerBy Dexter Govan, Aberdeen Defend Education Campaign

There’s trouble brewing in the north east of Scotland. As Aberdeen faces an oil crisis that’s led to thousands of redundancies, the University of Aberdeen is hoping to add to that number. For those that haven’t made the the 186 mile trip north of the Tweed, the University of Aberdeen is one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world. Founded in 1495, it went on to play a critical role in the development of the Scottish Enlightenment. A proud legacy the current management appear determined to ruin.

The philosophical school of Scottish Common Sense owes much to the University of Aberdeen, and it is a dire shame that our principal Sir Ian Diamond (of the Welsh Diamond review) appears so bereft of it. Due to what may be described kindly as appalling mismanagement or accurately as a zealous commitment to enforce austerity thinking onto the HE sector, the University of Aberdeen has decided to make ‘savings’ of £10.5 million in staffing. By their own calculations this translates directly into 150 redundancies. What is absolutely unacceptable is any suggestion by university management that this will not affect the coveted ‘Student Experience’ at Aberdeen.

The axe will fall on teaching staff. It will be our tutors, our lectures, our university community that will be hit like broadside by these vicious, vindictive cuts. And the sickening but predictable irony of it all, is that it will be imposed on us by a management team who take home six figure salaries and a principal who earns over £300,000 a year.

So as students we must fight these job cuts, which will mean not only the destruction of peoples livelihoods, but will leave a gaping wound in our community. Voluntary redundancies will make up some of the cuts, but many more will be compulsory. Originally planned for July, the University and College Union have negotiated a temporary reprieve from the bloody cleaver of the ‘New Strategic Plan’. Many of the university managers may see this a success on their part. After all, delaying any compulsory redundancies until November gives them more time to bully staff into accepting voluntary redundancy. However, this delay is in fact a victory for the union. It’s a victory because it pushes direct strike action into term time. It’s a victory because it means students will return to our campus. It’s a victory because as students we will stand with staff and grind this ancient institution to a halt.

Of course the management team at the university will attempt to play students off against staff. Students will get emails saying that the management are committed to our education, and hope that we aren’t alarmed by staff out on picket lines defending their livelihoods. We will be more than alarmed, we will be incensed that behind this patronising rhetoric is the power to end this dispute. There is no giant hole in the finances of the university. Instead management see an opportunity to maximise profits. Our loyalty as students isn’t to any vice-principal, it’s to the over-worked teaching staff in our university community. It is an indicator of the severity of the situation that before the reprieve, UCU Aberdeen balloted for strike action – it passed overwhelmingly. It will surely pass again when voluntary redundancies fail in November. Before then we can’t afford to remain idle, as students and staff we must stand united and ensure that every student on our campus knows about the callous actions of our institution. We must ensure that we mobilise our community to fight the cuts and reject the rapid decline of our university teaching. Come November our community of students and workers will show that the university does not exist without us, and that a threat to one is a threat to all. We hope that others across the country will support us in this struggle.

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