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UCU strike at SOAS, May 2016. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

UCU strike at SOAS, May 2016. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

University staff are set for 14 days of strike action after voting decisively for walkouts in opposition to attacks on their pensions reports Des Freedman

Staff at universities across the UK are set to take industrial action to oppose attacks on their pensions after a decisive vote in favour of both strikes and action short of strikes. In the first ballot inside the UCU to take place under the new trade union laws requiring a 50% turnout, participation nationally was nearly 60% with all but seven of the pre-1992 institutions meeting the threshold requirements. More significantly, there were massive majorities for strike action – ranging from 80% to, in one instance, 100% – demonstrating a real appetite for a sustained campaign over pensions.

Following the result, UCU announced 14 days of strike action across 61 universities starting with a two day walkout beginning 22nd February.

It was also a decisive rejection of the employers’ claim that the pension fund, the USS, is in deficit and therefore in need of restructuring. The employers continue to insist that the stability of a defined benefits scheme is no longer possible and want to tie pensions to the volatility of investments portfolio with higher staff contributions and fewer returns. These are serious cuts: figures show that a typical USS member will be some £208,000 worse off under the new proposals, with some staff losing far more.

The whole premise of their argument rests on a skewed and partial assessment of what the fund is worth, fixing its value at particular low points and neglecting to take full consideration of the volatility of all pension funds.

Employers, many of whom are thriving on huge property portfolios and healthy bank balances thanks to £9,000 fees, have refused to compromise. Their commitment now appears to be less towards staff and students than to the long-term project of reducing risk and liabilities in the competitive market of higher education. As such, while pensions are at the core of this dispute, the broader marketisation of HE is its driving force and underlying logic. If universities can afford the engorged salaries for vice-chancellors and the shiny new buildings that have sprung up on campuses all over the country, surely they can guarantee the staff – who deliver the actual education – the pensions to which they are entitled?

Such an overwhelming vote for action ought to make it easier for national negotiators to call the kind of action that will make the employers take notice. Yet this shouldn’t be taken for granted, as we have been here before. University staff took action back in 2015 to prevent the scrapping of our final-salary pension schemes, but were undermined by a counter-productive and cautious strategy on our own side. Activists warned at the time that unless there was a firm stand against the employers, the latter would come back for more cuts and more deterioration.

That is what has now happened and why a different approach is needed. Sustained strike action will be needed to shift the employers: one-day actions won’t even start to scratch the surface and will be seen as a sign of weakness. But staff will also need to work closely with students to launch more campus-based forms of resistance that ties the attacks on pensions to the direction of travel of the contemporary university, with its attachment to audits, surveys and sectoral competition. A student population energised by Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to scrap fees is a fantastic partner for staff whose futures are being undermined by a specious commitment to failing markets.

Pensions are deferred wages. They are a vital part of the salary package for existing staff and an equally vital guarantee of a healthy future for new staff suffering at the sharp edge of the zero hours contracts and insecure employment that dominates higher education today.

The results of the ballot provide the foundation for a comprehensive and creative campaign that refutes the flimsy arguments of the fund managers and employers who claim that cuts are necessary. This dispute isn’t about gold-plated, luxurious handouts for the middle-class; it’s about resisting pay restraint, claiming what is owed and struggling for a university system beyond the damaging logic of market fundamentalism.

Des Freedman

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 author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

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