owen jones Owen Jones speaking at Goldsmiths. Photo: Des Freedman

The UCU strike has the potential to rebuild the campaign against the marketisation of our higher education, writes Des Freedman

What an incredible 48 hours of action! Tens of thousands of UCU members across dozens of universities – eagerly supported by students – brought their institutions to a standstill in the first two days of strike action in opposition to proposed reforms of the USS pension scheme. Rallies, teach-outs, marches and some of the biggest pickets UCU members can recall highlights the anger inside higher education about what is happening to the sector.

The gutting of USS is one dimension of a broader HE landscape that is enjoying record surpluses and is dominated by vice-chancellors on huge salaries ‘enjoying first-class air travel, five-star hotels and fine dining’. Yet, while capital expenditure (in other words more designer buildings) is expected to increase in the next four years, the employers are refusing to honour their existing pensions arrangements. 

With one million students set to be affected by the action and over a half a million teaching hours expected to be lost, the strikes have started to panic the employers. Headlines that talk of ‘campus chaos’ and the ‘disruption of summer examinations’ reveal how the scale of the strikes has shocked the employers and forced them onto the defensive. Universities UK, the employers’ body behind the proposals that would lead to the loss of over £200,000 in pension income for a new USS member, has offered to meet with UCU on Tuesday 27th February in a desperate attempt to weaken the strikes.

Yet a leaked letter also shows that UUK has no intention – yet – of backing down from its devastating proposals. Its chief executive, Alistair Jarvis, insists that talks ‘would not re-open’ the decision to shift USS from a guaranteed ‘defined benefits’ to a far less secure ‘defined contribution’ scheme with individual pension pots subject to market fluctuations. He added that ‘talks without preconditions cannot achieve a sustainable resolution to the dispute’.

Having witnessed the anger of the last few days, it seems clear that UCU members are not in the mood to accept anything less than a return to the existing defined benefits scheme. Indeed, the employers have failed to make a convincing case that the USS scheme is even in deficit. When even the Daily Mail runs a story arguing that ‘University administrators have got their sums WRONG’, then it’s clear that the employers are in a very weak position.

The employers have also failed to divide students from striking staff. A YouGov poll last week showed that 61% of students support the strikes, that 50% of students blame the employers for the strikes and that just 2% of students put the blame for the disruption on the strikers themselves.

There will be nervous voices in the days ahead arguing that we should welcome negotiations on any basis. In response, I believe that we ought to argue that what has started to split, and to panic, the employers is the scale and unity of the strikes. The strike will have to continue until we get guarantees from the employers that our existing defined benefits scheme is back on the table – not when ‘economic and funding conditions improve’ as the employers are promising – but NOW.

This will take more resilience and energy from the strikers and the students supporting them. We will have to turn the Arctic freeze into political heat by showing the employers how determined we are to win. We will need more teach-outs, bigger pickets and more noisy demonstrations including:

·      Lobbying the talks on Tuesday 27 Feb at Universities UK in central London (details to be announced soon) and demanding negotiations on the basis of a return to the existing pensions arrangements

·      Joining the London Region UCU demonstration on Wednesday 28 February and showing solidarity with UCU members in Further Education who are striking against pay cuts

·      Organising rallies and marches up and down the country.

This strike has the potential not just to restore the pensions to which UCU members are entitled but to rebuild the campaign for a higher education system which puts a high-quality public education – and not shiny buildings, bloated VC salaries and market forces – at its very core.

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.

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