If you’re a student in the UK, you’ve likely heard that UCU, the union that represents many staff on university campuses, are striking, but you might not be familiar with exactly why, or why you should get involved.
UCU are striking over proposed changes to their pensions (proposed by Universities UK) which would scrap defined pensions benefits, tacking their final amount instead to the fortunes of the stock market- UCU estimates that this could leave the average lecturer’s pension £10,000 worse off a year. Despite attempts at negotiation the pension changes are going ahead, so with 88% of voting members opting for strike action, UCU have called for an historic 14 days of strikes occurring over the next month. (UCU have a load of information about the dispute and why it’s been called on their website).
If you’re at a striking university (only those covered by the USS pension scheme are affected and therefore striking), these are the people that have taught you, aided your learning and helped develop the way you understand the world. Many are not just our teachers: they’re our friends, councillors, role models or career guides. Many go above and beyond for us week in week out and they deserve our support. In addition, consider that you can’t harm the conditions that academic staff work in without also damaging the education that students receive- if staff are overworked, or underpaid, or on precarious contracts, or, as in this case, have uncertain financial futures, that is going to damage the quality of higher education, adding unnecessary stress and strain on the resources of already hard-working staff.
Unfortunately, those in charge of the reins of higher education either don’t get this or don’t care. This latest dispute needs to be seen in the wider context of the last few years- a process of sustained attacks on students, staff and education itself. The sector has endured marketisation, ever-higher fees, maintenance grants cuts and casualisation and exploitation of the workforce. As UCU itself puts it: “University employers are attacking security for everyone. They want staff to be cheaper to hire, easier to fire and cheaper in retirement too. This is part of a multi-faceted attack on security of employment and security of living in our sector.”
Universities want to look like they’re listening to students now more than ever, but this is often muted and diverted into module evaluations or blunt tools like the NSS- what if we as students aimed, and asked, bigger? It is more important now than ever to show that if attacked, both students and staff, together, are willing and able to stand up, fight and win. It is crucial that Vice-Chancellors and the government see that any infringements on working or learning conditions will be met with strong, united and sustained action on campuses across the country. This is the only way we can begin to craft a more sustainable, accessible and liberating education once more.
How can you help? Write to your Vice-Chancellor calling for Universities UK to get around the negotiating table with UCU (your VC will likely be a member of Universities UK whom the dispute is with), but make it clear that you absolutely support striking staff- doing this as a petition or open letter and getting lots of other student signatures could be even more impactful. Try to get policy passed through your Students’ Union that publicly supports your striking lecturers. Join staff on the picket lines (don’t cross them!) and show visible support on social media and elsewhere. (The NUS postgraduate campaign has a larger list of ways to help here).
What is crucial for the future of higher education is using this fight to begin to develop strong networks of solidarity between staff and students that go beyond the next month. Students joining their lecturers and speaking with them about unionising and the problems with HE is a great start, but structural mechanisms need to be put in place. A great first step is in working to set up meetings between your Students’ Unions and the local UCU branch on campus on a regular basis, working on a common plan of action between the two unions. If you’re a postgraduate student, you should join UCU, and encourage other PG students on campus to as well- this is something your SU can help with.
Being willing to be more than a passive consumer of higher education and standing in solidarity with lecturers against poor working and learning conditions is a powerful step - when students and workers come together, they can change the world. Let’s start with this strike.
Bradley is a PhD student and currently a committee member of his local UCU branch, but not one of the striking branches, and not currently teaching.