Eleanor Blair supported strike actionDaniel Gayne

“It’s a genuinely painful moral situation for academics.” So says Dr Sam James, a J. H. Plumb College Lecturer at Christ’s and the current Vice-President of the Cambridge UCU. James spoke to Varsity in a personal capacity on the conflicting sentiments of reluctancy and determination felt by academics in the reality of a pensions strike.

After talks with a university advocacy group Universities UK (UUK) reached a deadlock on Tuesday, the UK’s largest higher education union has announced that strikes over pension changes “look like a reality” in 61 institutions nationwide, including the University of Cambridge.

The method of “escalating strike action” would begin with a two-day walkout on February 22nd and 23rd, followed by blocks of strikes that will last up to five days. The strikes are expected to take place over the course of four weeks, with a total of 14 teaching days of industrial action. They will occur alongside actions ‘short of a strike’, including lecturers refusing to cover classes, do voluntary work, or reschedule classes lost on strike days. Cambridge UCU expects that an estimated 800 staff are likely to participate.

“[Academics] are acutely conscious that it’s not just a relationship between their employer and their employer’s profits, but it’s also a relationship between the students’ education,” said Dr. James on the prospect of strikes. While he was certain that every union striker would “make every effort” to avoid serious damage to the student body, he remarked: “it’s a very difficult balance.”

Lectures taught or covered by non-union members or those not on strike will go ahead during the period of industrial action, as well as any college-based teaching such as supervisions. Because college teaching officers are paid by individual Cambridge colleges which do not have a stake in national negotiations, union members are only legally capable of withdrawing their labour from their teaching and research paid for by the university.

Whether yearly examinations will include material missed during days of strike is unclear, given that Cambridge examinations are written by individual faculties. 

Dr Sam James described "a generally painful moral situation"Daniel Gayne

Representatives from University and Colleges Union (UCU) and from UUK attempted to negotiate a compromise this week over staff pensions in an effort to avoid strike action. The talks have stalled, however, with neither side willing to concede, and the UUK having dismissed further talks.

The UCU call for strike action followed the results of a nationwide ballot in which UCU members voted overwhelmingly in support of industrial action over pension reforms. Cambridge UCU members voted with 89.4% in favour of potential strike action and 95.8% in favour of action short of a strike, with a 57.5% turnout across the university. Dr James views the ballot support for strike action as reflective of “how angry and frustrated [members] are about the scale of degradation” in pension values.

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The strike action is in response to a proposal put forward by the UUK to replace defined benefit pension schemes for incomes under £55,000 with defined contribution schemes. The value of the defined contribution fund depends on stock market performance of the underlying investments, rather than the guaranteed retirement income provided in defined benefit schemes. The UCU has criticised defined contribution schemes as riskier and less generous, citing analysis by actuarial consultants First Actuarial that staff could be as much as £200,000 worse off than under defined benefit schemes.

The UUK argues that replacing defined benefit schemes with defined contribution schemes is a financial necessity, citing a deficit of £12.5bn in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension scheme for pre-1992 university staff. The UCU disputes this figure as overly pessimistic.

CUSU Council voted on Monday in support of a motion which backed any industrial action taken by university members, and which encouraged students to join staff on the picket line in February.  

Cambridge UCU told Varsity that they are “optimistic” that a strike will prevent the implementation of a defined contribution scheme, though Eleanor Blair, a Computer Officer in the Department of Engineering, described her feelings as “hopeful, rather than optimistic”. Having previously been on the Cambridge UCU Exec Committee and participating in past strikes, Blair said: “it’s hard to be optimistic when we’ve failed previously.”

There is a sense of culmination in a pensions dispute that dates back to 2011, when the USS changed from pension contributions calculated using an employee’s final salary earned prior to retirement, to the average salary earned over the course of their career. Dr. James characterises the latest change, in not providing staff with a guaranteed income in retirement, as the “final straw”.


Mountain View

CUSU Council votes to stand in solidarity with striking academics

James also considers the switch to defined contribution schemes as a means for the university employers to individualise risk in order to place themselves in a more secure financial position, especially in an economic climate where employers are less certain of the long-term returns from stock market investments.

A possible outcome from the changes to the pensions scheme may be lessened demand to enter the higher-education sector, particularly at pre-1992 universities under the USS. Blair told Varsity that IT staff, whose skills are more easily transferable across sectors, may “feel less loyal to universities in general if [they] feel like [employers] are not putting as much money into staff as they could be, or as they previously have been”.

The fight over changes to academics’ pensions has also come to light as criticism over vice-chancellors’ wages exceeding an ‘acceptable range’ has reached fever pitch. “It just doesn’t feel very fair,” says Blair in describing her reaction to “shocking headline figures”.

Blair described a “mood of determination” among her colleagues, where growing frustration over pensions overrules a general reluctance to disrupt students’ education. Similarly, Dr. James argued that “academics have been asked on pensions specifically to make real compromises, and each time it’s been presented as a kind of unavoidable compromise”. For Cambridge staff, he said, the only alternative to strike action seems to be “to accept an unacceptable proposal”.