Falling wages, now pensions under threat

Wave of militancy

Kevin Bean of Liverpool UCU (personal capacity)

Lecturers and academic support staff from 61 universities across Britain are engaged in 14 days of strike action - unprecedented in British higher education.

The strikes result from the dispute between the employers, Universities UK, and members of the University and College Union. There is another threat to cut pensions - the third since 2009.

This time the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) is proposing a change from a defined benefit scheme, which gives guaranteed income in retirement, to a defined contribution scheme, where pensions are subject to the vagaries of the financial markets. The union has forecast an average loss of up to £10,000 a year for retired members. This represent cuts of between 40% and 70%, with the future pensions of younger members worst affected.

According to the employers, the USS deficit has grown to such an extent that it is now one of the largest of any UK fund, with estimates wildly fluctuating between £6 billion and £12 billion. However, the UCU and its actuaries have challenged these figures, on the basis that the data and forecasts are fundamentally flawed. Nevertheless, the dispute reflects an increasingly widespread pattern of public- and private-sector employers transferring risks and liabilities to their workforce. The union argues that pension benefits are in fact deferred wages and that the proposed cuts simply add to the pain of over a decade of salaries that have been falling in real terms. In addition, we are experiencing deteriorating terms and conditions, including increased casualisation. Over half of university teaching staff - estimated at 96,000 - are currently on short-term or zero-hour contracts.

The dispute comes at a time when higher education is in the political spotlight like never before. Since their introduction in 1998, student fees have become central issues in public debate and electoral politics. Losing the student vote probably helped wipe out Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election, and now Corbyn and May are vying with each other to win over young people with promises of reform and even the abolition of tuition fees.

Over decades, the expansion of university education has been linked to any number of political and economic strategies, ranging from Tony Blair’s ‘knowledge economy’ to Theresa May’s social mobility agenda. These instrumental approaches are echoed by senior university leaders like Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, who argues: “Universities are key to developing the skills needed by employers and students across a wide range of industries, sectors and professions.”1 Not only do vice-chancellors and senior managers talk like executives: they increasingly act that way too, running their universities like business empires. Last year, for example, the University of Liverpool recorded a turnover in excess of £520 million, including income from tuition fees of £256 million, and generating an operating surplus of over £44 million. Universities have become big global business.

Meanwhile, scandals around fat-cat salaries, expenses and perks have fuelled public anger and brought complaints about the marketisation of higher education. All of this has added to staff discontent. However, as one academic has argued, far from raking it in, universities are increasingly starved of public investment and are in reality facing a ‘profound crisis’. Increasing marketisation is a major factor, as universities become subject to “fluctuations based on demand and supply, compelling irrational short-termism”.2

The current dispute has been building for a long time, with the pension threat acting as a catalyst for multiple discontents. The union’s leadership has found itself under increasing pressure to defend wages and conditions and in last month’s strike ballot, 88% of members who voted backed strike action on an overall turnout of 58%. These almost unprecedented figures show the degree of anger within Britain’s universities. Across the country there are reports of enthusiastic and determined picket lines, swelled by support from students, other unions in the universities and the wider Labour Party and trade union movement.

Having been confident that the UCU would not achieve the necessary turn-out or majority for the strike, the employers have been taken aback by the depth of this militancy. A decade of cuts in living standards and union retreats in the face of an employers’ offensive, the university establishment clearly imagined it could win on this. Our job is to prove them wrong.

The UCU leadership’s usually cautious and hesitant approach has to a certain extent been swept aside by the membership’s determination to defend their pensions, much of it coming from below. In my own branch in Liverpool, the union has actually recruited following the strike call. In the fortnight before the walkout, 138 new members signed up, with new layers of younger activists being drawn in. In the five days of the strike, there have been between 140 and 200 registered pickets on duty every day. Similar reports of revived militancy and determination are also circulating among activists across the country.

In common with many other universities, UCU members in Liverpool have been explaining their case to the wider labour movement, bringing in support from the RMT, Unite, Unison and CWU, as well as other teaching unions. This has been vital in building morale to sustain the struggle. Another crucial feature has been the support of students, who have enthusiastically publicised our case and taken part in solidarity actions, including an occupation of the vice-chancellor’s office.

Another important feature at several universities has been the organisation of alternative lectures, exploring a broad range of political, economic and philosophical themes, such as the nature of university education and the production of knowledge under capitalism. Like the political discussions that are spontaneously arising on picket lines and in strike committee meetings, these ‘teach-outs’ are much more than mere add-ons to the economic dimension of the dispute, suggesting a growing opposition to the stifling culture of managerialism that characterises university ‘education’ today.

Arbitration talks under the auspicies of Acas have been announced. Whilst the outcome remains uncertain, the determination among ordinary members to win the dispute is strong. Whatever happens in the next few weeks, it is clear that a new militancy and questioning of the status quo is emerging among UCU members.

Perhaps the big question underlying all aspects of this dispute is the same question that more and more are starting to ask in society at large: who is in control and by what authority?


1. www.theguardian.com/education/2018/feb/18/cutting-tuition-fees-would-backfire-justine-greening-warns-theresa-may.

2. www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/perpetual-financial-crisis-uk-higher-education.