The last rally of the term saw student occupants emerge from their five-day occupation of the Old Schools buildingLouis Ashworth

Last term’s strikes saw unprecedented levels of staff mobilise to protest the proposed risks to their pensions schemes.

“It made the place both more human and aggressive,” Clément Mouhot, a mathematician at King’s and member of the Cambridge UCU industrial action committee, remarked.

“A lot of us felt betrayed.”

For branch secretary Waseem Yaqoob, vice-president Sam James and Mouhot, the energy they saw has been stirring for almost a decade. “I arrived at the beginning of a small decay, of new changes in the UK [...] university system – very, very, very negative changes”, Mouhot said. The threat to their pensions, he added, was “the straw that [broke] the camel’s back.”

“A lot of us felt betrayed. There was an understanding that the head of the university is on your side, [that] they want the academics to do good teaching, to publish good papers,” he commented. “For many people,” the developments in higher education in recent years, which seemed to question that dynamic, was “a breach of trust.”

James describes the worsening working conditions that union members are pushing back against as an “ideology of management [which] tries to effectively externalise the costs of running the institution as much as they can onto staff and students in order to run [it] the way that you would run a business that makes the most profit.”

Yet, he added, “It imposes cuts on everyone involved. It doesn’t make universities good at what they’re for.”

“we will see whether academic labour becomes something that fits the neoliberal idea of competition.”

Jana Bacevic, a postdoctoral research associate at the Faculty of Education, felt the action short of a strike, particularly the refusal among staff to make up missed teaching hours, “has shown that it’s also about how we see work.” She added, “The more we perpetuate – intentionally or unintentionally – this culture of overwork, we will see whether academic labour becomes something that fits the neoliberal idea of competition.”

Cambridge, in particular, amplified its employees’ growing feelings of betrayal when allegations surfaced that its college bursars colluded to exert an outsized influence pushing for a funding scheme that would let them, and the rest of the country’s universities, take less risk in funding staff’s pensions. Yaqoob commented: “Cambridge has a history of assuming that its staff will tolerate very high workloads and low pay for the privilege of working here. Most staff now understand that that’s really the wrong way round, [that] the University is lucky to have academics willing to work this hard for this little.”

He added: “Because of the college system which [provides] high levels of pastoral care [and] one-to-one teaching, academics in Cambridge have extremely high workloads.” Many staff, he explained, have university jobs on top of college duties, and said, ”I think Cambridge has a real problem here.”

It seems difficult to pinpoint whether Cambridge staff were caught off guard by the allegations against their institution. Yaqoob, for one, was not entirely surprised. He explained, “[...] it’s clear that this university, like Oxford, has a lot of money to shuffle around. It therefore is a lot more engaged with the financial markets and large-scale investments in property or in the development of housing estates for staff. So it actually has a very major incentive to reduce its borrowing costs, because it might want to borrow a lot.”

“There’s a sense that over a short period, [there has been] an unrelenting effort to reduce pensions.”

A combination of factors spurred this growing discontent with employers into a perfect storm for protest. James commented: the change to employees’ pensions proposed was “a very black-and-white change – we used to have defined benefits, and we’re going to lose them.” The high stakes of letting things continue as they were made it easier to mobilise.

He added: “It’s [also] the fact that USS pension benefits remained the same from 1974 to 2011, [then] since 2011, this is the third proposed round of serious cuts”, and explained, “There’s a sense that over a short period, [there has been] an unrelenting effort to reduce pensions.”

The strikes seemed to bring people together in unprecedented levels, to discuss the growing concerns that had come to the fore like never before. “The strikes made the place much less atomised,” Mouhot said, and added: “A lot of people got together and talked, and shared similar grievances and problems.”

Staff gathered for mass rallies throughout the period of industrial actionLouis Ashworth

After four weeks of industrial action, organisation and mass rallies in Cambridge, when news broke on 29th March that union members across the country would ballot to suspend the strikes – contrary to what the branch had hoped for – many striking academics who had fought for UUK concessions were bitterly disappointed. Two weeks later, the impact of that decision and the road ahead for employees remains steeped in uncertainty.

Sam James voiced concerns over the establishment of the joint expert panel, and said “If the joint expert panel does not reach conclusions that are satisfactory for USS members, or those recommendations are not followed by the Pensions Regulator, then we will be back on strike in October.”

On the other hand, he argued that “equal representation from the UUK and UCU on this panel is really really important, and a big gain.” However, he believes that the time constraints on the panel, if it has to produce a report by April means it will “have to re-use a lot of the work that has already been done, such as the valuation process that has been in dispute, including the changes to the scheme.”

Still, Yaqoob and James remain hopeful. Despite criticism that the national UCU capitulated, both disagree with characterising the current situation that way. “I don’t think the people who voted yes are saying we trust UUK,” Yaqoob explained, adding: “People just want to see whether we won enough to carry on. [...] We will be ready to run an effective strike if we need to again.”

James appears to share similar sentiments, noting that, “At the moment, our strike mandate is suspended rather than called off, so the strike could be called on without another ballot.

“The judgement that members had to make was not so much [whether the] deal [was] good enough, but [whether] this way [was] the best way to the best deal.”


Mountain View

Did Cambridge’s colleges help cause the staff pensions crisis?

Moving forward, the dynamics between employees and employers, it seems, has shifted. The levels of trust between staff and financial management, Yaqoob said, is “near-zero levels”. James also commented: “I think it’s very clear that the employers’ attitude to the union has changed. [...] They used to think that under no circumstances would the UCU run an effective strike, so they could give the most minor concessions, and then a couple of dissenting academics would strike for a couple of days.”

Now, he added, “I think the [union has a capacity] to be a genuine partner in how universities are run, and if it’s not engaged with, it has the capacity to impose costs on the university sector. That does give grounds for hope that some of the bad things in how our education system is run can be resisted more effectively.”