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Support the pensions strikes – defend higher education

Published: 4th February, 2018

Why are we taking action?

Staff at universities across the UK voted overwhelmingly for strikes and other forms of industrial action to resist savage – and wholly unnecessary –proposals to cut our pensions. Under the new scheme, our pensions will be gambled on the stock market and the average loss for a new starter is likely to be some £208,000. Here at University of Leicester, 86% voted for strike action (and 92% for action short of a strike), on a turnout of 69% (the sixth-highest in the country).

Why are the employers so determined to push this through?

Universities are raking in huge amounts of money from £9000+ tuition fees but are reluctant to invest this in things that will improve the quality of education: better staff/student ratios, smaller classes, more motivated and secure staff and fewer temporary contracts. Instead vice-chancellors are being paid huge salaries (in 2016/17, for instance, Paul Boyle received £288,000 – including a pension contribution of £6,000). This attack on staff pensions is an attempt to shift pensions liabilities from institutions to individuals themselves, and is part of a wider shift in higher education to embrace market forces and competition. It is a situation in which students are seen as ‘customers’ and staff as a ‘cost’ to be minimised.

Aren’t staff at Leicester paid too much already?

Some staff probably are. A decade ago there nobody at University of Leicester (apart from the VC and some staff on clinical scales) earned more than £100k. Now there are 32 individuals (not including the VC) who are paid more than £100k, including 2 who are paid more than £200k. (If you count staff on clinical scales, 90 people earn more than £100k.

But staff costs as a percentage of total income have remained roughly constant – in spite of the attempts of many VCs, including Professor Boyle – to drive them down. Infact, once you take inflation into account, the value of university staff pay has declined by 15% since 2009. The situation for Leicester’s female employees is even worse. Last year the University topped the gender-pay-gap ‘league’; despite being a global HeForShe ‘impact champion’, the average woman still earns one-quarter less than the average woman.

But isn’t the pension fund in debt?

It depends whose figures you believe. The employers have chosen to use the most pessimistic (and unrealistic) scenario of widespread university closures that, not surprisingly, shows a deficit. In reality, the scheme receives each year much more than it pays out and runs a healthy surplus.

What are staff actually planning to do?

Members of UCU will be on strike on February 22-23, February 26-28, March 5-8 and March 12-16. We will also be ‘working to rule’ which means not taking on any additional or voluntary duties. We will be picketing the University on all these days and organising ‘teach-outs’, short talks by staff and visitors, about a range of relevant topics. We also plan some other activities.

Won’t this hurt students unnecessarily?

The dispute comes about as a result of the refusal of the employers to negotiate seriously. We know that this will have an impact on students, but hope that they will direct their understandable frustration at the employers and the government, and not at staff who are seeking to maintain a high-quality university education system. Students can take up their grievances by emailing the University’s president and vice-chancellor Professor Paul Boyle: Professor Boyle is a key figure in this dispute as he sits on the executive board of Universities UK, the body that manages academics’ USS pension.

What can I do to support the strike if I’m not a member of UCU?

If you’re a member of staff in a relevant grade or a postgraduate student, please join UCU! Whoever you are, please spread the word about the dispute. During the strikes, we would ask everyone NOT to cross our picket lines if at all possible and to take part in the activities we plan to organise. Please email the president and vice-chancellor to ask exactly what he is doing to bring the employers’ body UUK (of which he’s a executive board member) back to the negotiating table, and how the University he leads plans to address the real concerns of staff and students at such a critical time.