Cambridge Defend Education joined staff in protesting pension cutsMathias Gjesdal-Hammer/Composite: Rosie Bradbury

Earlier this month, an expert panel, the Joint Expert Panel (JEP), found the employers’ decisions that sparked this year’s pensions dispute had been based on shaky foundations. Its findings vindicated staff who had voiced similar concerns to no avail.

The past year saw a new focus placed on the perceived disconnect between senior administrators, and staff and students – a consistent thread over the past year, where structures have proven ill-equipped to give differing perspectives due weight.

Struggling to cut through levels of bureaucracy

Student representation within University committees has proven to carry little weight in current governance structures in cases where there is a lack of genuine engagement between perspectives.

Writing in Varsity in March, student representative to the University’s divestment working group Alice Guillaume said: “The working group is afraid to be ambitious, in the fear that its recommendations will not be accepted by the University Council.”

Despite the working group having been tasked with consulting widely on whether to recommend divesting Cambridge’s endowment from fossil fuels, Guillaume argued that the debate was constrained, as members were hesitant to recommend proposals which were unlikely to be approved by the University Council – to whom the group’s final report was presented.

She called into question the group’s ability to form an independent opinion, arguing that even if there had been rigorous debate among members of the working group, Cambridge’s governance structure meant that radical change was never on the table.

Levels of bureaucracy have also meant that discussions take place in various committees before reaching the Council, such that few issues were brought to University Council with members not having already formed an opinion.

Ex-CUSU President Daisy Eyre, who served on University Council, has described her “feeling that decisions have been made long before they make it to the Council”, and where Council is unable to come up with its own recommendations.

‘How do we know that we’re investing in Shell?’

In both the pensions dispute and issue of divestment, senior officials have cited the complexity of financial issues in dismissing staffs’ or students’ concerns.

A Varsity investigation in June found that finance officials dismissed a Grace signed by 501 members of Cambridge’s governing body Regent’s House – which called for the retention of existing pension values – as “evidence of the poor understanding of the matters at issue.”

A lack of sincere engagement was evident in the final report’s simplification of their main argument

And, in the divestment working group report – meant to be a point of genuine engagement with the various arguments – members dismissed campaigners’ concerns with the claim that they poorly understood the issue at hand.

A lack of sincere engagement was evident in the final report’s simplification of their main argument. The group wrote: “many of the calls for the University to divest... presupposed that such action was straightforwardly feasible and within the direct control of Council and the IO [Investment Office]”, largely overlooking campaigners’ challenging the University’s very lack of control over its indirect investments. When divestment campaigners asked for more information on respective issues, they were denied it.

In an unprecedented move in July, Queens’ announced that it will divest the entirety of its £86.2m endowment, noting explicitly that the decision was a direct response to growing calls for ethical investments. The college’s decision was the first of its kind in Cambridge, both in that it marked the strongest commitment so far from any Cambridge college to environmentally ethical investments and that it saw students’ calls as sufficient reason to take action.

In making lobbyists’ concerns a focal point and in recognising that their efforts justified a response, the College – in an unusual move – took the divestment lobby to be significant enough to warrant action.

In both cases, the University’s response placed campaigners in a Catch-22, telling them that they didn’t understand the University’s finances and could not get more information.

Schrödinger’s strike

It was only as a result of 14 days of staff action that an independent panel was created, and validated their concerns.

Dr Jo Grady described the situation in a tweet responding to the JEP’s report: “The JEP has simultaneously demonstrated the strike was both necessary & unnecessary. Without the JEP we wouldn’t have the proof it was unnecessary, but the strike was necessary to get the JEP. “It was Schrödinger’s strike!”


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Employers’ responses to the report’s findings remain to be seen over the next few weeks as UUK begins a series of consultations with them before returning to the negotiation table with the University and Colleges Union, the UK’s largest higher education trade union.

In Queens’ taking into account campaigners’ arguments in choosing to divest, the college offered a counterpoint to University structures skirting genuine engagement on financial concerns.

The JEP report is the most substantial legitimation of striking staffs’ perspectives on the pension dispute so far, as the independent panel came to a similar conclusion as staff: that employers may be capable of taking on a higher level of risk. It could mark a turning point in the search for legitimacy.

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