USS Strikes, Put Simply

By Senior Campaign Agent Megan Field

In a recent poll, 88% of members of the University and College Union backed strike action, leading to the largest scale industrial action the higher education sector has ever seen. As we enter the second week of disruption, this article will shed light on the decisions which led to such discontent. 

Why are the strikes happening?

The two parties to the dispute are Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents university employers, and the University and College Union (UCU) who represent 110,000 members of staff in the higher education sector.

Lecturers are striking due to proposed changes in their pension schemes, which would see the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) switch from a defined- benefit scheme to a defined- contribution plan. Whereas the current system gives a guaranteed retirement income, the reform would put income in the hands of stock market movements. The Trade Union are concerned that such reforms would leave staff £10,000 a year worse off in retirement; it is likely that the youngest academics, already weighed down with student debt, would be the worst affected. 

UUK have justified the change as a necessary step, which would go someway to addressing a £6 billion deficit in the USS. Arguably, the reforms are preferable to any alternative; sticking with the current scheme would require a dramatic increase in pension contributions from employers and staff, alongside spending cuts in areas such as teaching, research and student support. However, university staff are sceptical- with some saying that the deficit is overstated due to shortcomings in the UUK’s evaluation of the scheme, which is “recklessly prudent”

The Universities minister, Sam Gyimah, has expressed his concern regarding the impact the strikes will have on students, who deserve to receive the education they are paying for. To this end, he implored the groups “to get back to the negotiating table, without pre-conditions, and to find a solution that avoids further disruption to students”.  

Indeed, in the short term at least, students are bearing the weight of the strike. So what are their thoughts on the situation?

What do students think?

With exam season fast approaching, this could not have come at a worst time for students. Despite this, a YouGov poll showed that three fifths of students (61%) support the strikes- with 50% blaming University employers for the dispute. A mere 2% of respondents placed the blame on lecturers themselves. As strikes began on Thursday, a number stood in solidarity with their lecturers in picket lines. 

This will partly be due to efforts made by lecturers to minimise the disruption to students, ensuring any content that is missed is made available online. Liam Clegg, a lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York, stated in a public post: “Voting in favour of strike action is not an action that I take lightly. I know that by withdrawing my labour, your education will be affected.” He also urged students to write to the Vice Chancellor of the university to encourage them to contact UUK pension negotiators. 

Nonetheless, many are uncertain as to the repercussions the strikes will have on their studies. If they continue as scheduled, an estimated 575,000 teaching hours will be lost. Beyond this, students wait anxiously to hear what impact this will have on their exams; whilst some have been told that any content they miss will not be examined, others remain in the dark. Worryingly, the UCU could extend action beyond the four weeks if they fail to reach a solution, which would impact on final exams and graduation ceremonies. 

Heather Swain, a second year history student at the University of York said of the strikes- “I’m sympathetic with the cause but sceptical as to whether it will achieve anything. Asides from the UCU, the only other people who seem impassioned are students themselves.” Apathy within wider society is concerning given that education is a public good which could be at threat if the strikes continue. In this way, Lili Donlon- Mansbridge, a first year at the University of Cambridge,  highlighted that “Essentially, the strikes are about how much we value our educators and thus how much we value our education.” 

How have others responded?

Politicians from all sides have come out in support of UCU action. Writing for the Telegraph, Sally Hunt (General Secretary of UCU)  stated “Uniting our increasingly polarised political system takes some doing these days, but UUK appear to have managed it”.

Jeremy Corbyn issued a youtube video calling for a solution which avoids further disruption to students, pleading with the UUK to commit to meaningful negotiations. The Labour leader warned of the consequences cuts to staff pensions would have, such as a struggle to recruit and retain staff. 

Even some Vice Chancellors, the backbone of the UUK, have broken ranks and called for fresh talks with lecturers, with heads of 11 universities, including Warwick, Essex and Loughborough, speaking out. Unfortunately, this is just 11 out of 64- the remainder of which appear adamant to continue. Some universities, including City and Reading, have warned staff they could be included in any legal action for compensation taken by students. 

How long are strikes likely to continue? 

The UUK hinted at progress on Friday when they sent a letter to members of the pension scheme, stating “We are open to changing the scheme again to reintroduce defined benefits if economic and funding conditions improve.” They also conceded that they may not have considered “every possible angle”. 

Representatives of the warring parties are due to meet on Tuesday, but the UUK have said that talks surrounding pensions would not re-open. Striking a more amenable tone, the general secretary of the UCU stated “We remain committed to serious negotiations aimed at resolving this dispute.” It is unclear what it will take to re-open negotiations. As the situation currently stands, it seems likely strikes will endure for the entirety of the schedule. 

Crucially, these events have emerged amidst a wider debate concerning the higher education sector; Theresa May launched a review last week, citing high student debt and the rapidly increasing pay of Vice Chancellors as two of the pathologies to be addressed. It is striking that outcry from students has centred on value for money as opposed to quality and provision of education. Regardless of how these events unfold, it has surely highlighted the perilous side effects of the marketisation of education, an issue which even industrial action of this scale cannot resolve. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: Morten Watkins @flick

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