This Thursday (22 February), the most extensive industrial action ever to take place on British campuses will commence. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) at eight Scottish universities are involved, with all but 2 striking from Thursday - see the list here. The proximate cause for this extreme action is the breakdown of talks over pensions, but this is only the latest in a catalogue of insults inflicted by universities on the value of our education. I, a politics student at Strathclyde, have informed my lecturers I won’t be attending any non-compulsory classes during this time. My grades will undoubtedly suffer, but that’s a price I believe is necessary to pay. Let me explain why.
The proximate cause of the strike is a breakdown in talks over pensions. Employers plan to change the pension scheme from one with a guaranteed income to a defined contribution scheme, where income is dependent on the pension funds’ returns from stock market investments. The typical lecturer is estimated to lose a massive £10,000 a year in retirement, or around £200,000 each. The injustice of this only becomes apparent when placed in the broader context of the continuing trend of universities devaluing the work of lecturers and the education of students, while pouring money into their business models. While academics have only seen a 1% rise in their pay over the last year, the average university vice-chancellor has seen their annual salary skyrocket from an already excessive £165,000 to a morally indefensible £258,000 in just 10 years (plus expenses and other monetary perks). This pay rise, in the vast majority of cases, is influenced by the very people who receive them. 95% of vice-chancellors are either members of the committee that decides their salary or are allowed to attend meetings. This is corruption on a grand scale.
At the same time, the majority of academics are on some form of insecure, non-permanent contract, with the richest Universities proving to be the most exploitative. For example, two-thirds of Edinburgh University staff are on such perilous contracts. This not only affects staff, but it undoubtedly undermines our education, with the National Union of Students warning that the demoralised state of academic staff was having a significant impact on the quality of education.
Universities are increasingly taking on a business model that aims to exploit staff and students alike. This is no accident. A huge proportion of trustees (the people who are accountable for universities upholding their values) come from finance or business. These people are transplanting the same corrupt, repulsive, neoliberal model which infects the finance sector and caused the 2008 crash, into our universities. While they invest in state-of-the-art sports centres and paying senior staff big bucks, academics are having their pay and working conditions attacked. The inevitable result is that fewer lecturers will want to teach in the UK, and those who do will be overworked and feel undervalued. In turn, students will see their quality of education spiral downwards. Add to this the potentially disastrous impact of Brexit, and British universities, currently the envy of the world, could be on the brink of a crisis.
The impact this strike will have on students is deeply regrettable. But to blame lecturers for this is to ignore the perpetual devaluing of them and their work, and the consequent undermining of our education. Not only this, but the employers chose for the strike to happen. While the UCU asked to continue negotiations, the UUK, which represents employers, refused - in full knowledge that this would lead to 61 Universities going on strike. Students SHOULD be angry, but not at the overworked lecturers being exploited. Students should be angry at the people who are creating a two-tier education system where the bosses live in million pound mansions, while teachers often have to work multiple jobs on zero-hour contracts in order to get by.
This isn’t just about pensions. It’s about the future of our education. It’s about fighting against the burgeoning inequality that’s coming to characterise British further education. As another of the UK’s greatest institutions is at threat of being suffocated by financialisation, only mass resistance can save it. To quote one lecturer, "we can only motivate reform by maximising disruption.” If you’re a student at one of the universities impacted, I’d encourage you to email your lecturers saying you won’t be attending non-compulsory classes. At many of the universities, you can join protests on strike days. You can also send a template email to your vice-chancellor on the UCU website. If students don’t support this, we risk our universities being destroyed by the very people who are meant to look after them. Support higher education; support your striking lecturers.
Blog posts such as this one are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Scottish Young Greens or Scottish Green Party.
Which universities will strike and when: https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9242/UCU-announces-14-strike-dates-at-61-universities-in-pensions-row
How to support the strike: https://www.ucu.org.uk/student-uss-information