As most people are aware: the UCU are currently on strike, meaning that 61 universities across the country will be going on strike for a period of 14 days. Many students are very confused and annoyed at the timing of the strike action, so I decided to speak to a couple of my lecturers at the University of Liverpool to find out more about the specific reasons for the strike and make people aware of the importance of standing in solidarity with the lecturers who are striking. Due to the overwhelming response I’ve received from my lecturers, and from students, I will also be writing a separate article about what the strike means for students and how we can support our lecturers.
“There have been two cuts to our pensions in the last couple of years,” Dr. Deana Heath told me, “and now this proposal is to scrap defined contribution, which means you pay in a certain amount and you’re guaranteed a certain amount at the end, and they’re basically just going to float our pensions on the stock market. So we’re state employees, but these pensions aren’t being handled by the state – they’re being handled by who we don’t know. We might get a pension at the end, we might not. And so, what the union has calculated, is that it could lead to a really significant cut in our pension.”
So it’s clear, from Dr. Heath’s point, that there is a worrying level of uncertainty surrounding not only who is handling their pensions, but at the unknown extent to which their pensions could be cut. I learned that lecturers used to pay a certain amount into their pensions, with a certain guaranteed amount to be given at the end, but now this is set to be scrapped. I also asked Dr. Roland Clark what his reasons for striking were:
“First, it is a hell of a lot of money for us and not a lot of difference for our employers. A defined benefits pension means that when we retire we know that we will have enough money to live on. That's what we have at the moment. The proposed changes, which have come out of nowhere over the past couple of months, will give us defined contribution pensions, which means that we put in even more, it is invested on the stock market, stockbrokers take more administration fees, and then we get whatever is left when we retire.
“Second, it is about solidarity. Unions are not strong in Higher Education, and the result is that in the UK at the moment we have 75,000 university staff on casual contracts, including 21,000 on "zero-hours contracts". Again, based on my experience in America, this means that some of your lecturers are on food stamps, many have no access to health insurance (in America that can be a death sentence), and many are living in poverty. We need a union that can fight to pay teaching staff properly, including one that supports casual staff and fights for secure contracts. Industrial disputes like the current range of strikes make or break unions. If we don't support this one then they will continue to take our rights from us. If we do, then we have a chance to gain more rights.”
Dr. Heath pointed out to me that their pension system is actually “transforming along the lines of the US system.” Coincidentally, as mentioned earlier, Dr. Clark has worked in the US and explained to me what the system there is like.
“I was part of defined contribution schemes when I was working in the US and often people retired with less money than they put in. As Dr. Lee Jones (University of London) explains, this means that “Despite record-high student fees and income, universities are cutting our pensions for the third time since 2009, since when real-terms wages have also fallen by 15-20%. The latest cut will reduce our pensions by 40-75%. After a lifetime of public service, I will be asked to survive on £250 a week in my old age, when social care costs £24,000-£36,000 a year.””
Both professors made very clear points explaining the reasons for the strike. This information alone is enough to make me want to support my lecturers and stand up against the unfair pension system and I learned lots about the specifics of how the system works. It is simply illogical that lecturers should end up with less money than they put into the system, and with no idea whatsoever what that figure could be by the end. My next blog will specifically explain why students should support our lecturers, and what we can do to support them.