YES – Archie Batra
At the end of January, the University and College Union (UCU) announced that they would go on strike over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) by Universities UK (UUK), which would end the defined benefit plan that entitles UK university staff to a guaranteed income from their pensions, ultimately costing staff up to £10,000 a year.
In layman’s terms, some university staff have been compelled to strike over their pensions, and coverage is already falling into familiar territory; strikers are being dismissed as selfish, greedy Marxists with little care for those poor students who just want to get on with their degree. Student outrage is rampant, if not misguided; many want some form of compensation for their lost contact time, and the St Andrews University Conservative Association (STAUCA) boldly proclaimed that “students should not be held to ransom.”
However, what the clamour and vitriol disguise is that strike action is reasonable and just. First and foremost, the strike has only been called as a measure of last resort. The UCU have not jumped straight into strike action, and they take no pleasure or pride in keeping staff away from their students: the call to strike is the result of the failure of negotiations that have been going on for some time. Staff are exercising their right to strike, a right they have not exercised lightly, to attempt to stop UUK depriving them of a proper pension. Students have a right to be angry at the fact that strikes are taking place, but they shouldn’t misdirect their anger; it is UUK that is fault, and it is they who have forced university staff to strike. Remember that, however angry you are at losing contact time, members of staff are probably even angrier as their pensions are being threatened.
Strike action is further justified as the changes proposed by UUK are attempting to close a deficit in the USS pension fund that may not even exist, and university economists have been keen to point out that UUK’s plans are based on an unnecessarily pessimistic modelling system. Dr Sam Marsh, teaching fellow at the University of Sheffield’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, said that “by USS’ own admission, the scheme is in good health, provided universities are prepared to stand behind the current investment portfolio.” Further, UUK’s proposed changes are not the only way to aid the ostensibly beleaguered USS pension scheme. The UCU aren’t throwing a collective tantrum, they are legitimately protesting a disastrous change to their pension schemes that will unnecessarily leave them much poorer.
We must also consider what would happen if the proposed pension reform was carried out. It is probably hard to appreciate in our small, remote and (largely) wealthy town, but the academic road isn’t paved with gold. Becoming an academic is laborious, expensive, and requires years of training on top of your degree, during which it is necessary to rely on what little income can be gained through teaching alongside your research. Those who tread the academic path won’t receive anything resembling a salary for a long time, and when they do get one it’s normally on a very precarious basis, with the exotic luxury of job stability only really coming into an academic’s life when they’re in their thirties or forties. In fact, many members of staff are on exploitative zero hours contracts as opposed to any form of secure income. All of this is, as one can well imagine, enough to dissuade many talented and great minds from taking their undergraduate degree further.
But now let’s make it worse, and deprive a potential academic of a sizeable chunk of their pension that was guaranteed to them when they paid into the scheme. Academics warn of a brain drain in UK universities, and UUK is playing a dangerous game by ignoring it. As in most things, our island nation punches far above our weight in provision of higher education, and UUK’s proposed pension reform damages British universities and hurts their staff. Universities like St Andrews are able to attract students from all over the world because they have world-class academics; making the route into academica harder than it already is serves only to discourage potential academics, and threaten the excellent reputation that St Andrews and dozens of other British universities have.
I would urge everyone to have sympathy with those who are striking in coming weeks; they are protecting their pensions, which are needlessly being taken away from them. Members of staff are not being selfish, and those striking will no doubt minimise the inconvenience caused to their students. Support your tutors and lecturers by not crossing the picket lines, and hopefully their pensions can be saved.
NO – Leo Kelly
To make things clear, this not going to be an article arguing blindly against the striking lecturers. I feel a great deal of sympathy for those affected by the pension model proposed by UUK (Universities UK). Who wouldn’t? They stand to lose a great deal of money. While I respect the fundamental right to strike, the University and College Union (UCU) will not help their members through industrial action. The aims of a strike will not be met because of who is affected in this case. In my opinion, the decision to strike is a misdirected one, and will ultimately serve to hinder, not help, the lecturers’ cause.
This is primarily because the action taken will affect students, rather than the University itself. Typically, industrial action is employed in order to leverage the employer by depriving them of something they need. Miners’ strikes deprive employers of coal, and rail strikes deprive employers of the ability to operate a train service – in both cases, employers are deprived of their revenue.
By contrast, the planned UCU strikes will not deprive the employer the University – of anything (discounting any small losses from research being slowed). Revenue will not be lost on account of lecturers striking, as the University will continue to receive tuition payments from students regardless.
It is the student body, deprived of the education they have paid for, that will be harmed by these strikes, not the University. This is especially the case for fourth year students, who will be affected by the strikes in their most crucial year, with some having their contact hours halved. Our many international students will also be especially hard-hit, seeing as they pay even more than other students.
Therefore, UCU’s strikes are bringing about a situation in which those who are uninvolved with the changes in the pension scheme will be held to account for it. Of course, supporters of the union have argued that in the case of all strikes, a certain amount of collateral damage must be expected. Very rarely, however, will a strike almost exclusively affect those who bear no responsibility. In any case, while the strikes will certainly serve to inconvenience the student body, they will do very little to actually pressure the University.
Of course, strikes achieve more than leveraging the employer. Another aim of a strike is to garner support and attention for the issue that is being disputed. The irony here is that, purely because of the choice to strike and thus harm the student body, the UCU is losing some of its greatest supporters. Rather than attracting support and sympathy for the loss of pensions, the strikes have served to alienate much of the student population of St Andrews. Many students, of course, feel sympathy for their lecturers, but the use of strike action has created a division between students and teachers.
Furthermore, while the law does not require it, the student body would have certainly appreciated some level of action from the UCU taken to mitigate damage to studies, and to demonstrate that the measures in place were not solely punitive. Had the UCU started a national campaign encouraging lecturers to make their voices heard within their institutions rather than striking, more students would have no doubt supported their lecturers on their pensions issue. But as it stands, how on earth can we be expected to support industrial action that has directly targeted us? We, the students, do not deserve to be used as chess pieces in a protest against decisions over which we had no influence or control.
While students stand to lose a lot, we must acknowledge that many of our own lecturers could lose far more, and we should consider this issue in terms of what will help them most. This strike is certainly a conspicuous gesture, but it is one that will ultimately harm and alienate the student population, while leaving the administrative body in charge of the University relatively untouched. A more productive option would be for the UCU to devote the time and resources spent on organising and carrying out the strikes to continue with negotiations with USS Universities Superannuation Scheme) and Universities UK, in order to work towards an outcome that will actually benefit lecturers. Currently however, I would recommend continuing your studies independently and disregarding the strikes; we cannot support action that will both harm the student body and achieve nothing for our teachers. The University is not going to up their pensions if lecturers strike, and while there cause might be legitimate, legitimacy to strike is never going to be the best way to get us to support them. Do not be afraid of crossing picket lines. We are, after all, here to learn.
Archie Batra is President of the University Labour Society. Leo Kelly is the St Andrew’s University Conservative Association’s Policy and publications officer. The views expressed here are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective societies or those of the Saint.