Striking for a Higher Purpose

The lecturers’ strike, affecting more than 60 Universities and more than one million students, has thrown up new challenges to an increasingly dysfunctional university system. HAZEL HEAD reports.

As the UK lecturers’ strike by the University and College Union (UCU) enters its third week, pressure is mounting on the well-heeled leaders of higher education to give ground.

The strikers are opposing proposed changes to the long-established USS pension scheme which would change it from a ‘defined benefit’ scheme, where employees are guaranteed a certain level of income on retirement, to a ‘defined contribution’ scheme, where income in retirement is dependent on the performance of the scheme’s investments.

UCU strike image

University employers, under the umbrella group Universities UK (UUK), claim a deficit in the pension scheme makes the change necessary. Lecturers correctly see it as move that transfers risk from the employers to employees.

In fact, many of the arguments for the change have been demolished by academics and the UCU. Not only has the valuation and performance of the scheme been much better than USS claim, but the method the USS used to consult universities was hopelessly inept, leading to outrage among UCU members.

The strike is possibly the biggest ever in UK universities, and accounts from around the country show better support than in previous disputes: there are many lecturers taking strike action for the first time; picket lines have attracted much more support than usual; and the UCU has seen a surge in membership.

Students have also provided courageous and sustained backing to the UCU. This has not only been at a national level where NUS backed the lecturers, but also locally, in campus after campus. Such support has been crucial in turning up the pressure on vice chancellors, forcing growing numbers of them to support the UCU call for proper negotiations. Protests from staff, students and university alumni have also been critical in pushing many to back-track hurriedly on many of their hard-line, punitive measures.

By the end of the second week, UUK retreated from its insistence that the pension change was not up for negotiation and the parties met at ACAS for the first time on 5 March. Division within UUK was exacerbated by some inept and contradictory online messaging as they at first declared their willingness to meet at any time, then refused to meet on Tuesday 6 March, before later conceding to UCU demands for continuing talks.

Teach-outs, coffee runs and occupations

The strike has also invlolved some lively protesting and campaigning with ‘teach-outs’ on a range of topics, from pensions to union legislation; picket line lectures and speeches from the likes of John McDonnell and Paul Mason; teams of students delivering coffee to picketers; and a wave of occupations of university offices. Even the bitterly cold weather failed to dampen the campaign with lecturers, students and supporters (including local Labour Party groups) rallying and marching through freezing weather in Sheffield, London, Leeds, and many other places.

UCU strike banner

Growing public criticism of vice chancellors’ pay has made the employers vulnerable to effective campaigning. The highly publicised case of the Bath University vice chancellor’s near half-million pound salary revealed the tip of an iceberg. The Open University vice chancellor claimed recently his relatively modest £360,000 pay packet was well-deserved because he was leading ‘the largest re-structuring redundancy programme ever in UK university history’.

But the strike has also given expression to a broader set of concerns in the higher education sector. Student activism has drawn on persistent criticism of the tuition fees regime brought in by the Tory-Liberal coalition government. And the solidarity between lecturers and students comes from a shared anger and frustration at the wider commodification of higher education, including widespread casualisation, low pay, and the attempt to transform the values of education into the values of the market.

The challenge for the union will be to sustain the pressure long enough to achieve cast-iron commitments to the pension scheme. Previous pension agreements have been eroded rapidly once industrial action abated, and there is a very low level of trust in UUK. The wider challenge for students and lecturers will be to continue and deepen their challenge to the direction of the whole sector and to try to reinvigorate values of education and collegiality.