The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has announced three days of strike action from 1-3 December coupled with `working to contract’ following two successful industrial action ballots. The ballots covered two separate (but in many ways connected) disputes.
The first of these relates to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (the USS), the pension scheme in which teaching, research and academic-related (e.g. librarians and computer technicians) staff in the older `pre-1992’ universities are enrolled. Most staff in the newer `post-1992’ institutions do not belong to the USS but are in either the Teachers Pension Scheme (TPS) or Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) and so these institutions were not balloted as part of the USS dispute. The employers want to cut the benefits offered by the USS savagely and to increase contributions to the scheme as well. They claim that the scheme has become unaffordable owing to low asset returns.
This has been a long-running dispute. Proposed changes to the USS led to fourteen days of strike action in February and March 2018, with massive support from students – the longest and most extensive strike action ever taken in the UK higher education system. At the time this held back the proposed changes which were referred to an independent review panel (the `Joint Expert Panel). The panel supported the union position on nearly every count but the employers have continued to press for changes. There were further strikes in the autumn of 2019 and spring of 2020 but the dispute at that time was overtaken by the Covid pandemic. This was only a temporary respite however and the threats to USS have continued leading to the current strikes.
The second dispute is over pay and working conditions. Again, this is a long-running struggle arising out of years of attacks on pay levels and intensification of work coupled with a dramatic rise in precarious working as a result of the marketisation of the sector. The UCU response to this in 2019 was centred around the `Four Fights Campaign’ – the four elements of the claim related to pay, casualization, inequalities within the sector and workload stress. These remain the basis of the dispute today with UCU demanding that the employers
- address the gender, ethnic, and disability pay gap
- end contract casualisation and rising job insecurity
- tackle rising workloads
- implement a pay increase for all staff of £2,500
The `four fights’ campaign covers both pre and post-1992 institutions and so all universities were balloted for this dispute.
A key issue for UCU in recent disputes has been the legal requirement to obtain a 50% turnout in order to take action. This has led to an important tactical question; should the union carry out an `aggregated’ ballot, covering all staff on a national basis, with the risk that if the total turnout is less than 50% no action can be called anywhere or should they implement `disaggregated’ ballots in individual institutions with the consequence that some institutions will meet the threshold for action but others will not? In the event, the NEC opted for the second approach and went for a disaggregated ballot.
In fact, the turnout for the ballots on both disputes was better than many expected with an overall national turnout of 53% on the pension ballot and 51% on the four fights ballot and with large majorities for both strike action and action short of a strike in both cases. In retrospect, it would have been possible to have called a national strike based on an aggregated ballot, even though the ballot was rushed through in three weeks as a result of the tight timetable associated with the attack on the USS. However, since the ballot was disaggregated many branches narrowly missed the threshold for action (my own branch had a turnout of 49.6% – two more votes would have allowed us to strike – band the University of Manchester, one of the largest branches in the country, had a turnout of 49.95%!). As it stands, 37 institutions are set to strike over pensions and 54 over the four fights with a further six taking action short of a strike as part of the four fights dispute. It is very likely that many of the universities which failed to reach the 50% threshold will be balloted again in the new year.
Support from the NUS nationally has been strong so far with NUS president Larissa Kennedy issuing a powerful statement saying that
Students have a rich history of standing shoulder to shoulder with university staff, who have seen their pensions, pay and conditions slashed in recent years. With vice chancellors’ average total pay packets rising to £269,000 per year, it’s clear employers can afford to resolve their dispute with UCU over staff pay, which has fallen by an average of 20% in real terms since 2009. Staff teaching conditions are student learning conditions, and we mustn’t forget many postgraduate students on casualised teaching contracts will be striking. The onus for minimising disruption for students lies with university bosses: they must come back to the table to address the clear issues in how higher education is currently run.
This dispute, which looks set to bring about the third major set of strikes in UK universities in four years, is confirmation of the complete moral (and probably financial) bankruptcy of the neo-liberal, marketised higher education system which has grown up over the last thirty years and has been intensified since the rise in student fees pushed through by the coalition government in 2010.
A dramatic example of this has been the `Shaping for Excellence’ programme at the University of Leicester which has been a bitter battle conducted mainly against those involved in ‘critical management’. This programme included bringing in a sociologist to claim that the critical management researchers were doing sociology instead of management, and advising staff not to conduct research into political economy, except, bizarrely, in ‘rational choice theory’.
The UCU branch at University of Leicester has pushed as far as it could against the ‘Shaping for Excellence’ programme, and is likely at the EGM on 17 November to follow the reluctant decision of the Leicester UCU Committee to recommend acceptance of the latest university offer which agrees to ensure there are no compulsory redundancies, and instead subject those refusing voluntary severance packages with redeployment and ‘coaching, training, pay protection and working with individuals to support them in securing alternative roles’. This will mean that the branch will ask the UCU national executive to lift the global academic boycott of the university.
More generally, in addition to such attacks on radical ideas spending has been concentrated on prestige building projects, a bloated managerial infrastructure and, as Kennedy indicates, on stratospheric salaries for those at the top of the system, at the expense of core teaching and research and of the bulk of the workforce. Indeed, those taking action as UCU members represent only some of those at the sharp end of the management offensive in HE. We have seen an epidemic of outsourcing pushing down conditions for cleaners, caterers and caretakers coupled with an ongoing low pay scandal for many of the administrative and technical staff within the sector. United action with these workers, who are represented by Unison and Unite, would greatly strengthen future strikes. Nonetheless, the current strike votes, coming after a year of upheaval as a result of the Covid pandemic, are a dramatic indication of the crisis within higher education and of the possibilities for change that exist.
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