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UCU LSE picket line

UCU LSE picket line. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

Counterfire UCU members analyse the state of the struggle in higher education ahead of a second round of strike action

Over the last few years, a revolt has broken out in British universities. Higher education staff have faced the brunt of neoliberal marketisation of education for almost two decades, and the dam has begun to burst. While student numbers have more than doubled since 1992, and exorbitant fees began to be charged under Labour and Tories alike, staff have seen a major deterioration in terms of pay and conditions despite having to work harder and longer. Pay has dropped by between 15 and 20 percent in real terms since 2009, casualisation is rife and targets have gone through the roof.

Meanwhile, to capture the student market, universities have gone on debt-driven spending sprees to build shiny new buildings, to recruit overpaid vice-chancellors, and to sprawl across the globe, opening branches in different parts of the world. The astonishing and visible wealth of universities contrasts with the increasing stress and exploitation endured by workforces, from teachers and researchers, to cleaners, security staff and others.

The rise in strike action over the last few years – the highest ever in higher education history - was provoked by what many saw as the last straw: an attack on the USS pension scheme, which covers many members in the so-called pre-1992 universities. It was in 2018 when strikes began in UK universities against cuts and changes to employees’ pensions in the USS pension scheme. UCU union members at 61 universities across the UK took escalating strike action in February and March of that year. To settle the dispute, at least for the time being, the employers and the union agreed to a joint expert panel with an independent chair and three nominees from management and union each, which would look at in detail how the scheme was managed and valued every three years and put up alternative proposals. This duly met and delivered two reports.

The bulk of the proposals put forward by the joint expert panel were never implemented and another period of strike action took place just prior to the pandemic in early 2020. We are now in the third strike wave of strikes over USS nearly four years on with the employers still trying to wreck our pensions. Strike action took place in December last year at those branches which initially passed the Tory imposed ballot threshold of 50%.

Members at some universities which didn’t initially reach the threshold were reballoted earlier this month. There are now 44 out of a total of 68 USS branches balloted with a mandate for strike action over USS.

In parallel, we are also in dispute over pay and conditions (specifically equalities issues, workload and casualisation), often called the ‘four fights’ campaign. Following the January reballots, there are now 64 out of a total of 141 branches balloted with a mandate for strike action over pay and conditions.

Despite the weak turnout in some less well organised institutions – a situation that needs urgent attention from the national union – both disputes, and especially the larger ‘four fights’ dispute, have the potential to involve higher education institutions across the sector. Calculations based on UCU’s own figures show that for USS there are 35,127 UCU members in UCU branches with a mandate to strike, 70% of the total members in USS institutions who were balloted. For the pay and conditions dispute (not including Northern Ireland) there are now 46,516 UCU members with a mandate to strike, 65% of the total balloted.

Last week the union held two large delegate meetings to discuss the disputes. The results of these fed into a meeting of the Higher Education Committee (HEC) last Wednesday, the body tasked with organising any action.

UCU has now set out the action it is proposing. Action short of a strike will begin on 7 Feb and will include: working to contract; not covering for absent colleagues; removing uploaded materials; not rescheduling lectures lost to strike action; and not undertaking voluntary activities. Co-ordinated UK wide strike action will also be called in both disputes, starting in February. Coupled with this will be a programme of what is described as “rolling industrial action” both across the UK, and in regions and devolved nations. All this will progress to a marking assessment boycott.

What is not yet clear however is how many days' strike are being proposed or when. Motions were passed in a number of branches leading up to the branch delegate meeting last week which called for indefinite strike action after February should the USS changes be implemented. Also a concern is the potential fragmentation of the disputes, between USS and four fights and between different parts of the country.

There is also concern over the internal democracy of the union and how we arrive at these decisions. Last week’s branch delegate meetings were very well attended but we were broken up into small breakout groups, nearly 40 in total in the USS meeting. Although this allowed good discussion in small groups, there was no opportunity for delegates to get a sense of what the mood was around the country. There is also concern that the outcomes of the branch delegate meetings weren’t truly taken on board at the HEC meeting the following day.

An analysis of decisions from each of the branch delegate meetings by UCU at Kings College London found 81% of branches were in favour of escalation, for USS the figure was 95%, with clear majorities in both cases for keeping the disputes aligned. There is an important point here. Elections for the National Executive Committee are coming up soon and we need to get past the usual 11% or so of members who participate in these ballots and also to vote for candidates such as those in UCU Left who are in touch with the rank and file. We also need to support calls for a special conference of branch delegates to discuss the way forward in these disputes.

There are however issues we need to address. One is the fragmented nature of the dispute. A major factor in this is the disaggregated ballot tactic employed to ensure action would go ahead, even if nationally the ballot didn’t make the threshold. This has indeed allowed action to start, but with a minority of branches involved in the Four Fights, there is a real danger that the management will decide to try and ride this one out. Even in the USS dispute, there are still 30% of union members unable to take action to defend their pensions. There is real unevenness both across and within branches which the national union should do all it can to help overcome.

Determined action can still win in both disputes. Focusing on pay as the leading issue in the four fights, which is what seems to be happening, can be a unifying issue across the sector. And the sheer injustice of the USS changes, with a valuation at the very start of the pandemic when markets crashed, has ensured strong support for strikes on this issue as well. Students, whose fees are underwriting the sector surpluses and fat cat salaries of senior management also have a genuine stake in taking action in support of staff.

We need proper discussion in branches up and down the country on how we progress these disputes. Critically, the union’s leadership needs to respond to a growing militancy on the part of thousands of members impatient for action as well as the unevenness in union organisation. Most important of all, when the strike dates are called we need to ensure the strongest possible walkouts across the UK to demonstrate that HE staff and students have the appetite to resist management’s onslaught on jobs and conditions.

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