The UCU have finally revealed their true colours. They exploit the support of students, without which they have nothing, while refusing to teach us. To strike and cancel lectures does not hurt the university, it hurts the universities fee-paying customers – the students. The UCU’s “unbeatable weapon,” to boycott exams, only acts in further detriment to the students. If we as a body withdraw our support for the UCU strikes, perhaps through another Union vote, we will be acting in our own interests by calling for lecturers to get back to work, and quickening an end to the dispute.
The UCU hopes to force the University into negotiating an impossible position. St Andrews simply does not have the budgetary surplus or a large enough endowment to fulfil the demands of the UCU. The options are to raid the endowment, and cause further detriment to future employees and students or to take out more debt to pay for an unstainable increase in loans resulting in more money having to spent on servicing debt, or increase student numbers while decreasing staff costs. That means lowering the quality of teaching we receive and the number of research posts available at the University. So even if the UCU gets what it wants, in the long run its cause is detrimental and unsustainable as their will be fewer teaching positions and so fewer jobs in the future. It’s all very well and good if you have a pension to complain about its value going down, but think for a minute of all those who will no longer be able to get jobs or receive research funding from the University in the future.
The offer that has been made to the UCU is not a bad one: by private sector standards a 15% contribution to your pension, even when you factor an increase in the amount that has to be contributed, is very good. The current level of 18%, is twice that of the average paid by employers normally into similar schemes. One argument that seems to be constantly levelled against the new proposal is that the UCU pension fund will be invested in the stock market which is risky. Unfortunately for the UCU members, their USS pension is already invested in the stock market: it owns 10% of Heathrow, and shares in Roche Pharmaceuticals, British American Tobacco, Shell, Glencore, Tesco, and many others. It is true however that under the new proposal individual lecturers would have responsibility for their investments, but claims that they might end up with less money than original put in, while possible, is statistically unlikely if their investments portfolios are diverse and held for forty years. This may result in a loss from the status quo, but the status quo is not sustainable.
This is because the pension fund has a deficit of £6.1 Billion. This valuation is contested – it is based on a situation whereby every university in the UK goes bust, and the remaining money is then reinvested in Gilts and Bonds. UK sovereign gilts currently yield an average return of 1.31%, far below the historic average yield of 5%, which is one of reasons for a such a large discrepancy. Every university in the UK is not about to go bust – the UCU correctly argue that the sector is in good health. However, this deficit cannot be addressed merely by pointing that model used to work out the deficit needs to be changed. What is needed is for the fund to be audited again, using conventional models, in order to work out the true size of the funds deficit in order to act as a foundation for negotiations.
What it comes down to is that the UCU argument relies on the claim that investing their pension in the stock market is risky, in response to which I say it is already invested in the stock market, and it is not feasible to ask for an even larger employer contribution than 18%. The second claim is that it is unfair to impose a pension cut on the lecturers. To which I respond, yes, but if you do not take a pension cut their will be fewer jobs in academia in the future. The pension cut, unfortunately, has to happen, no amount of striking will change that, because their simply isn’t enough money. Like the majority of employees, lecturers are going to have to get used to making bigger contributions to their pensions.
This is fact of the matter – current pension levels cannot be sustained, and as such I oppose the UCU’s position on strike action, on the grounds that it is of a detriment to students. We suffer as a direct result of the UCU’s failure to reach an agreement in 35 meetings last year with Universities UK. This failure on the part of Union should not be taken out on the student body who have done nothing wrong, are not their employers, and do not pay into their pensions.
On the same grounds, I oppose the University’s abysmal pay for doctorial students who tutor undergraduates. It is effectively required of them in order to get further employment in academia, but the pay rate is effectively below minimum wage when you factor in that many tutors, in order to do what they consider justice to the work they are marking, spend more time on it then are paid to so. This should be recognized, and their pay should rise accordingly. If the university claims to not be able to afford this, then I want an answer to a very simple question: where is the money I spend on my degree going if not into paying the lecturers and tutors who teach me and for their research? According to my calculations, as a second year student from England, paying £9000, that comes down to an hourly rate of £37.50 for the 240 hours of tuition I receive each year. This is much higher than minimum wage, I am one student; tutorials have many more than one paying student, so I fail to see why the pay cannot be higher than the minimum wage. My guess would be that the faculty of Arts and Divinity department’s see very little of the money they attract from undergrads, with money from students being siphoned off to pay for far more tuition intensive science degrees. A better funding model would perhaps see each school being the primary recipient of all of the undergraduate fees they attract, which they could then invest in research funding, new members faculty, and even pensions if they so wished.
Boycotting exams should not be the unbeatable weapon that the UCU think it is. The UCU treats students with an apparent distain. I do not doubt that individual members care for their students. However, it is unacceptable that they should attempt to exploit current levels of student support, by treating us as pawns, by risking the cancellation of our exams, to benefit themselves, when their union has already failed them in negotiations, and whatever they do, they will have to take a pensions cut. I have immense sympathy for all those who stand to loose out as a result of the pension changes. Yet however sympathetic you and I maybe to the plight of lecturers who stand to lose out on their pensions, however stupid scheme one (where every university in the UK simultaneously goes bankrupt) may be for a model, do not forget that in weaponising their labour, they are hurting us and our prospects. Not the university who just ceases to pay them and gets good press by the putting the money into a hardship fund. The solution is simple, us students need to wake up to the fact that we are being used as pawns. Do not sit idly by and let this happen. Oppose the strikes, and then everyone will go back to work and we shall be taught again.
All opinions expressed in Viewpoint are those of the authors.