Stopping these unjust changes to academics’ pensions isn’t enough. Low teacher pay, high student debt and undemocratic oversight of universities all need to be done away with, argues lecturer Hamish Kallin
I am what’s called an ‘early career scholar’, which means more is expected of me as I grow older.
I work at the University of Edinburgh, and I am lucky enough to be on a proper contract. I have been a union member since the day I could be, and I will be until the day I can’t. Like so many of my colleagues across the UK, I have recently been on strike over proposed cuts to our pensions.
Striking was a strangely therapeutic experience; long hours standing in the cold, talking to colleagues, tending a fire in an old metal bin. It was a surreal routine, and not one without its tensions, its strain to my emotions, my muscles, and my bank balance. But now we’re in an awkward interim.
The first wave of strike action has ended; the next round looms. The first offer put to us by Universities UK (UUK) was resoundingly and angrily rejected. The second – more ambiguous, more slippery, more promising – will be put to members early next week, and I for one will be rejecting it. We went into this to stop the attack on our pensions, and until we get a trustworthy offer that will achieve this, we must not give up.
It’s worth pausing to take stock of how much this strike action has already achieved. It is, by far, the largest and most severe strike in the history of British higher education. By some estimates more work-hours have been lost in this single action than in all UK strikes in 2015 and 2016 combined. And this has been achieved in a sector characterized by working conditions that enforce individual competition, reward self-exploitation, and incubate a hierarchical division between colleagues (divisions that all-too often reinforce distinctions of race, class, age, and gender). Despite this, picket lines held firm for the duration.
In Edinburgh, some 500 staff members have joined the union since this dispute began, a trend replicated across the country. And perhaps most importantly of all, the students have rallied to us in ways I could not have imagined. One student would slog up the hill to our department gate every morning, her own supply of tea and coffee in tow. Others would bring us pasties, porridge, and hot water bottles. The first offer from UUK came through on a cold Tuesday morning. It belittled us, offering nothing but a delay. And it insulted us, demanding we rearrange all our teaching for free. Just as spirits were beginning to dip, news hit that a group of students, inspired by others across the nation, had occupied the main lecture theatre on our central campus. They have since conducted themselves with astonishing maturity and focus, hosting an ever-evolving curriculum of talks and workshops.
We can’t be complacent about this. The feeling of standing together is fragile; it begins to dissipate as soon as we lock back into the grooves of everyday work, and it takes effort to keep it alive. It also begins to dissipate as soon as victory becomes less-than-certain.
UUK have offered their latest solution on condition that all further industrial action is suspended. This might have worked a month ago, but they have since misled us repeatedly. We have lost trust in them and gained trust in each other, and this is illustrated neatly by their insistence that we retreat from a position of strength to a position of compliance while they commit absolutely nothing.
As Jo Grady, a lecturer in Employment Relations at the University of Sheffield, has pointed out, the members of UUK stand to lose nothing if we win; they will continue to earn six-figure salaries while harvesting the prestige created by the history of those institutes they claim to ‘lead’. We, on the other hand, will be hit hard if we lose.
It is imperative we do not bow out of this until we have a victory we can depend on, not one that disintegrates under scrutiny. As UCU members, we’re struggling on both sides: keeping the pressure on UUK requires us to keep the pressure on our union leadership, who have been known to wilt before. But ‘before’ was an era of fewer members, less anger, and less determination.
We need to win this for our pensions, that much is obvious. But for an increasing number of precariously employed academics, retirement remains a fantasy. Across the UK, around 54 per cent of all academic staff are on insecure contracts, and this adversely effects those lower down the career ladder.
There is often a galling disconnect between the money invested in us and in the things that aren’t people; to give one example, the University of Edinburgh is currently investing £120 million in something called the ‘Edinburgh Futures Initiative’, a high-tech research hub that defies disciplinary categorization. Designed ‘to ask what the future could look like’, it is being built at the same time as 67.4 per cent of all academic staff here are subject to insecure work contracts.
The university’s laudable commitment to ‘tackling society’s most pressing needs’ should start by looking in the mirror.
Precarious employment is by no means confined to Edinburgh, or higher education more broadly (in excess of seven million British workers are now on precarious contracts of various forms), but it rots the heart of universities. Those who teach and research are increasingly doing so while stressed and tense, overworked and underpaid. There’s no point fighting for our retirement if we’ll never get there, and it’s important to acknowledge that these two processes – insecurity of work now; insecurity of retirement later – are fundamentally linked. Victory now will inspire victory later (the inverse is also true, as UUK well know).
At a recent rally in Glasgow, one speaker urged us to demand the status quo and settle for no less. Each offer of a solution is to be measured against the benchmark of what we already have: is the new proposal worse, and if so, by how much? Collectively, how much worse do we feel is tolerable?
In such a formulation, the status quo takes on the sheen of a radical demand. But when bellowed through a megaphone, it falls rather flat. This strike has made clear that a return to the status quo on the issue of pensions requires an almighty upheaval of the status quo more broadly. The entire gamut of high student debt, low teacher pay, and undemocratic oversight needs to be done away with (or, in management-speak, ‘reformed’).
Each of these struggles is strategically separate, but intimately connected nonetheless. Capitulation on one issue will make the cause of fighting the others so much harder.