THOUSANDS OF LECTURERS at more than 60 universities across Britain and Northern Ireland look set to launch the most radical campaign of industrial action their union, the UCU, has ever mounted. In an unprecedented move, the union’s leadership agreed a rolling programme of 14 days of strikes over the space of four weeks, culminating in a five-day walkout from 12th to 16th March.
This came after talks with Universities UK, the employers’ umbrella body, ended on 19th January with no agreement on the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which covers both lecturers and many support staff at universities established prior to 1992. The confirmation of strike dates came in the wake of a ballot involving UCU members at 68 institutions. The overall turnout reached 58%, thus surmounting the high hurdle imposed by the Tories’ Trade Union Act 2016.
More than 88% said Yes to strikes and 93% supported other forms of industrial action. Lecturers backed action at all 68 universities, but in seven turnouts fell below 50%, albeit exceeding 40% everywhere. The UCU is currently staging a second ballot of members at the seven institutions with the aim of engaging them in lawful action at the earliest opportunity. The thumping majorities for action and the high turnout nationally reflect both the impact of a serious, sustained campaign by the union and the severity of the university bosses’ attack on the USS. Universities UK employers are now seeking to impose a dramatically worse scheme on lecturers and other non-academic staff with an end to defined pension benefits, replaced by a scheme linked to the stock market performance of USS fund investments.
The union estimates that for some lecturers the new scheme would reduce pension payments by 40%, while a typical lecturer would effectively lose some £10,000 a year or £200,000 over the course of a 20-year retirement. The UCU claims the revised USS is actually a worse scheme than the pension arrangements for schoolteachers and lecturers in the post-1992 universities.
Senior managers in many universities have done their best to fuel lecturers’ ire in recent months with reports of staggering increases in the salary and benefit packages awarded to vice-chancellors and principals from coffers swollen by student tuition fees.
At Edinburgh University the total remuneration deal for newly appointed principal Professor Peter Mathieson totals £410,000, up 27.8% from the miserly £321,000 package endured by his predecessor. Still, Professor Mathieson lags behind Bath University’s vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell, whose overall pay and benefits deal of £468,000 eventually generated national headlines and a narrowly defeated ‘no confidence’ motion and threatened campus protests by both staff and students.
Meanwhile at Southampton University, vice-chancellor Sir Christopher Snowden, came under scrutiny when university officials admitted that, like Dame Breakwell at Bath, he was a member of the institution’s remuneration committee, which agreed a £433,000 package.
While the Daily Mail may promote a fantasy where ivory tower Marxists dominate British academia, the reality is that UCU members are unlikely militants, driven to action by the long-term erosion of pay and conditions, associated with the accelerating marketisation of higher education, with their anger fuelled by arrogant senior managers. UCU members warrant the wholehearted support of the Labour Party and wider trade union movement, along with student unions.
As with the CWU’s autumn campaign among Royal Mail members, the UCU has proved that a determined effort can beat the Tories’ attempt to effectively outlaw nationwide strikes. The outcome of the USS dispute could have profound consequences for the future of trade unionism in the sector, so it’s crucial that lecturers win this battle with the university employers.
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP