Goldsmiths students voting to support UCU strikes. Photo: Goldsmiths Students' Union Goldsmiths students voting to support UCU strikes. Photo: Goldsmiths Students' Union

As education workers get ready to strike, Des Freedman, a professor at Goldsmiths University, tells us what we can do to support them

Higher education workers in at least 61 universities across the UK are preparing for the first of 14 days of strike action in opposition to proposed cuts to their pensions. The employers are insisting that the frailty of the existing defined benefits USS scheme means that they have no alternative but to move to a defined contribution scheme in which individual pension pots are gambled on the stock market and in which risk is borne by members of staff and not institutions. According to figures from First Actuarial, a new lecturer could lose some £208,000 of retirement income and be some £385,000 worse off than if they worked in ‘post-92’ universities on a different pension scheme. 

Recent events have only dramatised the consequences of these proposals to de-mutualise pensions and tag them to the fluctuations of stock markets – the very stock markets that tumbled last week with the biggest fall in six years in the US as the Dow Jones index finished nearly 5% down in one single day of trading. 

Yet this volatility also makes the assumptions that governed the most recent valuation of the pension fund so arbitrary – and so selective. Only this week, figures from the Pension Protection Fund revealed that the combined deficits of Britain’s remaining ‘final salary’ pension schemes – the kind of scheme that UCU members were told was unaffordable back in 2015 and were forced to sacrifice – halved in one month alone, from £104 billion to £51 billion. This was as a result of a ‘perfect cocktail of rising interest rates and stock markets.’ True, this deficit may now have risen a little because of last week’s ‘crash’ but the bigger point is that the employers have chosen to select the most pessimistic figures in relation to a necessarily volatile market that then justify their catastrophic proposals. Indeed, in an attempt to calm nerves ahead of the dispute, the USS has now assured its members that the ‘best estimate’ of the future is that ‘the scheme actually has a significant surplus’ – precisely what UCU has been arguing all along.

That’s what makes this such a political dispute. It is about moving risk away from institution towards individuals; it is about de-mutualising and privatising; it is about preparing universities for full entry into a higher education market where the richest institutions don’t want to carry liabilities on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable. This is what lies behind the staggering figures revealed this week that show that 75% of Oxbridge institutions want to take financial control of their liabilities and that 73% want to de-mutualise compared to 24% and 14% respectively of other USS universities. The dispute has been engineered in order to suit the imperial ambitions of a handful of the biggest universities to operate freely in a ‘competitive’ university system. This makes the reluctance of vice-chancellors from smaller universities to criticise the USS proposals and to call for a return to negotiations even more puzzling. 

The political dimensions of the dispute – that attacks on pensions are intimately linked to the further marketisation of higher education more generally – have been key to the fact that increasing numbers of students have welcomed the dispute. The NUS has formally declared its support for the dispute but students up and down the country are taking the issue into their own hands. Students at Goldsmiths had to move rooms several times to find a location big enough to accommodate the over 250 people who voted to support the strikes; students at Warwick University have produced a video arguing why students should get behind striking staff; and students at Cardiff University have urged sabbatical officers to rescind their statement that criticised the UCU for taking action with the president of Cardiff Labour Students arguing that it ‘does a disservice to the 89% of Cardiff University UCU members who voted for this strike action.’

Support from students will be vital to how this dispute plays out. If students join picket lines, organise direct action to tie the cuts to pensions to the hike in tuition fees, and complain to university managements about why they have allowed the situation to escalate, this will make it harder for the employers to adopt a common position against UCU members. Could pensions be the issue that, a little counter-intuitively, helps to re-ignite the student movement? Perhaps that’s not so strange given that this is, fundamentally, an inter-generational struggle in that many older academics will be taking action precisely to safeguard the sector for future generations. 

This solidarity won’t happen automatically. An active strike will make it far easier to win support from both students and other members of staff. Strike committees are absolutely essential to organise the picketing, publicity, teach-outs and direct actions that can galvanise all those who want to stand up against the further encroachment of the market into university life. UCU members can use the strikes to illustrate some of the broader issues that are at the heart of the neoliberal university. Why not have a day that is devoted to challenging the increased casualisation of labour in higher education? Why not use March 7th to discuss the gender pay gap in HE and to prepare banners for International Women’s Day protests on March 8th? Indeed, why not make common cause with other workers facing pension cuts?

Meanwhile, UCU members need to spend the days leading up to the strikes leafleting refectories, lectures and libraries, sharing the messages on social media and joining with students in presenting a vision for higher education that isn’t simply about ‘student satisfaction’ but about genuine learning and that isn’t about cutting the staff bill but about investing in the resources that matter to students? Pensions are the cutting-edge of this dispute but the governing logic is much bigger: a determination to re-shape higher education in the face of the market. The future of what remains of the ‘public university’ is at stake. 

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.