"In many ways, the 2018 strikes were never just about pensions."Louis Ashworth

The University and College Union (UCU) — which represents supervisors, lecturers, and other academic and academic-related staff at universities nationwide — is currently holding two concurrent ballots on whether to go on strike: one regarding pay and the other regarding pensions. These ballots are just the latest in a series of efforts by workers to stand up and fight back against the wave of marketisation which has been sweeping the higher and further education sector in recent decades. While pay for vice-chancellors and principals continues to grow, staff have faced a real terms pay cut of 21% since 2009. The mean hourly pay for women at Cambridge University is 20% lower than for men, a gender pay gap which is almost twice the sector-wide average of 12%. A 2016 UCU survey in Cambridge found that its members were working a full-time equivalent of 52.8 hours per week, significantly higher than the 42 hours the average worker in the UK clocks in. Precarious employment is more widespread in higher education than in almost any other sector — 53% of staff are currently working on fixed-term or casual contracts.

"As UCU members vote on whether to go on strike again, it is vital that students stand behind them. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions."

In addition, workers in higher education are due to face a steep hike in the amount they are expected to contribute to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the pension scheme they fund jointly with employers. It was a dispute over proposed changes to the rates of contribution by universities and staff to the USS that triggered the previous round of strike action in 2018. The strikes brought university campuses to a standstill and ended when the UCU agreed to set up a joint panel with employers to investigate the dispute. The Report of the USS Joint Expert Panel is widely considered to have vindicated staff and rebuked employers, but its recommendations have so far been largely ignored. 

The 2018 strikes saw incredible solidarity between students and staff. Students refused to cross picket lines, attended rallies to support striking staff, organised daily breakfast runs to the picket lines, set up collaborative learning schemes and held teach-outs to replace missed teaching hours, and wrote and signed open letters and emails of support. A student-led occupation of Old Schools to demand that the vice-chancellor take steps to restart negotiations between employers and the UCU successfully pressured him into participating in open meetings where students and staff could hold university management to account. It was an extraordinary opportunity for students and staff to learn from each other, act together for a better and fairer university, and reclaim power from an opaque corporate management. 

"Students should stand with staff not only because it is the right thing to do, but because the fight staff are fighting defends students’ interests as well."

In many ways, the 2018 strikes were never just about pensions. The savage cuts to pensions were part of the more long-term and wide-ranging project of turning higher and further education into a profit-driven business, and the strength of the opposition to these cuts demonstrated that students and staff refuse to take the marketisation of universities without putting up a fight. As the then-CUSU Education Officer, Martha Krish, said at the time, the strikes were a “fight for the future of our education system”: “[t]he fight over pensions is the same fight that students have been having about fees, interest rates, extortionate rents and about the lack of funding for graduate study.” 

As UCU members vote on whether to go on strike again, it is vital that students stand behind them. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions. When staff are being overworked and underpaid to the point where they are performing an average of three days’ unpaid work per week, students cannot expect their lectures and supervisions to be fruitful. More importantly, in a marketised higher education system where universities must maximise revenue to make up for a lack of government funding, both staff and students suffer. Staff costs are slashed, while students are ripped off with exorbitant tuition fees and rents, cannot access adequately-funded mental health services, and are having to compete with each other for ever-smaller amounts of financial support. It is also arguably part of the reason why universities continue to invest their endowments in the fossil fuel industry and the arms trade. 


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Furthermore, the spiralling costs and deteriorating security and stability of a career in the higher education sector could deter students, especially those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, from pursuing research and teaching. The ongoing ballots are an opportunity for students and staff to demand that urgent action be taken to open up a profession dominated by middle- and upper-class white men to greater representation from marginalised groups. 

Put simply, students should stand with staff not only because it is the right thing to do, but because the fight staff are fighting defends students’ interests as well. The fight against inequality, casualisation, workloads, and pay and pension cuts is the fight for a fairer and better university which prioritises students’ welfare and wellbeing over profit. The UCU’s successful campaign in 2018 to end the History faculty’s use of unpaid teaching by graduate students proves that this future is within our reach, so long as we stand in solidarity with our staff. 

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