From the 25 November to the 4 December, the University of Leicester, along with 59 other UK Universities, will be striking out in unison against the introduction of ‘damaging’ new proposals by employers to the USS Pension Scheme. This, along with failures to improve wages, the gender pay gap, casualisation, and workloads, has forced many members of the UCU to take this industrial action in the hope that Universities will ‘recognise the anger and frustration that members feel about the recent changes, how the scheme has been valued and how it has been run’, according to UCU general secretary Jo Grady.
But are these strikes justified?
According to recent modelling by First Actuarial in light of these recent policy changes – including the rise in contribution levels from 6.35% of ones salary in 2011 to 9.6% next month – a typical member would pay £40,000 more into their pension but receive almost £200,000 less in retirement, leaving them £240,000 worse off in total. This being in comparison to someone who joined the scheme back in 2011 prior to these changes being announced.
Yet whilst critics acknowledge that these issues are real, they argue that the negative impact these strikes will have on over a million student from across the country renders them unjustifiable. With assignments needing to be completed and the prospect of UCU members beginning ‘action short of a strike’ – including working strictly to contract, not covering for absent colleagues and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action – students are becoming increasingly anxious over the future of their studies and are starting to lose faith in their Universities to deliver on their promises of academic ‘excellence’.
Yet supporters argue that these consequences are a by-product of the Universities themselves, claiming that since the introduction of student loans by Labour in 1998, Universities have become business investments with a new breed of vice-chancellors with a focus on turning nice profits over academic excellence. This, it could be said, holds true within our own University, with one teacher arguing that staff incomes could increase when considering that our Vice-Chancellor (VC) gets upwards of £250,000 a year; to put this into perspective, this means that our VC gets paid more within a month than a teacher gets within a year. This in turn has led to the neglect of academic staff, who have seen a fall in average pay by 17% since 2009 (according to a UCU poll), as well as a stark rise in pay inequality, with a member from Professional Services claiming that she gets around 20% less than her male counterparts for the same work. In all, this has helped provoke feelings of pressure within teaching departments, with 4/10 academics having considered leaving the sector as a result (according to a YouGov poll).
With previous industrial action failing to achieve the changes asked and with some teachers even questioning their own faith in current industrial action, who knows how effective these strikes will be in getting the changes that teachers ultimately deserve.
Ed Morrison and David Guthrie