Protest outside UCU headquarters, 13 March 2018. Photo: Lawrence Warner, Twitter Protest outside UCU headquarters, 13 March 2018. Photo: Lawrence Warner, Twitter

Feyzi Ismail reports from outside UCU headquarters as the union’s Higher Education Committee votes to reject the employers’ derisory offer

This morning the mood over defending pensions got angrier. By afternoon, victory. Lecturers have forced Universities UK – the elitist employers’ organisation representing vice-chancellors – to go back to the negotiating table.

As lecturers entered their 10th day of strike action yesterday battling wind, snow and rain over weeks, UUK offered a proposal to end the dispute: put more into your pension now and get less when you retire.

Within a few hours, over 6,000 academics had signed a statement rejecting the offer, and 3 different Facebook events were set up to call a protest outside the headquarters of UCU in the morning, where its Higher Education Committee (HEC) was meeting to discuss the contents of the deal. Hundreds gathered, chanting to reject the offer, and reaffirming their commitment to defending the current pension as it stands.

A meeting of branch delegates from across the country inside UCU headquarters one by one reported that their branches were rejecting the offer – soon to include the overwhelming majority of the 64 universities on strike. Almost 10,000 academics had by then signed the statement, and with local union offices also being picketed. The HEC was in no position to counter – the offer was officially rejected.

Lecturers have rejected an offer that was nothing short of scandalous. The employers wanted to move from what is known as a defined benefits scheme, which guarantees an income in retirement, to a defined contributions scheme (which is not, in fact, a pension) and means that retirement income would be pegged to fluctuations in the stock market. The average lecturer would lose over £10,000 a year in retirement.

To add insult to injury, the flawed valuation of the pension would only be reconsidered in 3 years, and lecturers would be encouraged to reschedule classes, after having their pay docked for the duration of the strike. It would have been a betrayal by the union leadership to agree to anything close to such an offer.

The union has grown by several thousand members since the strike began, and picket lines have been solid nationally. Student support has been critical to the strength of the strike and the levels of mobilisation. Students at a number of universities have occupied, stood out on picket lines, held meetings, written to managements and have organised in support of the strike, knowing that they were also losing out on teaching and lectures. The solidarity students have offered and continue to offer has been extraordinary.

The experience of higher education over the past 8 years since the Browne Review and the Tories’ subsequent tripling of tuition fees, together with the imposition of increasing punitive administrative, teaching, research and funding demands on staff, while squeezing pay and conditions – in short, the increasing marketisation of higher education – has been dramatic. While the quality of education has suffered, the price of education has skyrocketed.

Today’s victory means that the strikes will continue for the rest of the week. If UUK comes back with a slightly better offer, it too should be rejected. If they try and divide us, we have to stay united. More strikes will be planned in the coming weeks, and a marking boycott if necessary. Striking has been a last resort for lecturers, but it’s been effective. The strikes have created facts on the ground that can’t be ignored.

The strike also shows what’s possible. Several weeks ago there was no offer on the table, but the strike has deepened our collective power. Now, the employers are on the back foot. And now, people talk more confidently about transforming higher education: abolishing tuition fees, closing the gender and BME pay gaps, scrapping the REF and running the university in the interests of staff and students – not university managements, not branding, not real estate, not profit.

Millions of people will be looking see how this dispute is resolved. Wider support from the public and other trade unions will be crucial, and we need to work towards building that support. For that we need to get even more organised in the coming weeks.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU