“The future of UK higher education is at stake: now is the time that the education unions and allies need to come together to reverse the attack on pay, conditions and pensions.”
By Caitlin Adams
On Thursday 24 November 2022 university staff in the UK will begin the biggest strike action in the sector’s history. It’s a terrible time to lose pay and we worry about what the students of the ‘Covid generation’ have already experienced. But the higher education sector in the UK is broken nearly beyond repair.
Even those institutions overseen by the more sympathetic devolved governments have experienced an unprecedented wage squeeze, ever-growing workloads, soul-destroying job security and swingeing attacks to pensions based on a lie.
I know of one colleague in a ‘red-hot’ academic field who held over 30 casual contracts in just a few years: in demand, yet somehow never deserving of an actual post. This sort of ‘gig economy’ working is common, well-documented and (with a few honourable exceptions where unions have forced improvements) growing. Ninety thousand university staff are now on precarious or ‘non-standard’ contracts; the path to stable, permanent work is via luck or lottery. Horribly, a few universities have gotten away with outsourcing academics or professional services employees into separate companies to bypass basic legal safeguards around pensions and working conditions.
In short, the most rapacious private sector business practices are endemic in UK universities.
As universities have grown more toxic and less humane, in emulation of cost-cutting corporations (complete with a cadre of overpaid management consultants and too-often-somnolent board members) they have also systematically cut pay. Since 2009 university employees have suffered a real-terms pay cut of at least 25% against inflation. This year’s offer is a laughable 3%. Each year vice-chancellors have cited uncertain conditions and told staff to be patient with uplifts below the level of inflation (one year, famously, a 0% pay rise).
A pseudo-marketised and competitive HE system has deliberately fostered turbulence in student numbers, and set tuition fees at an unsustainable level. We are seeing the effects of this play out in a determined and sustained attack on non-science subjects, and on institutions such as Wolverhampton, Goldsmiths, Birkbeck and many others which serve diverse, working-class students. This is in addition to shameful gender, race and disability gaps which at the current rate will take decades to close, and the ongoing exploitation of PhD students.
The only people doing fine at the moment in UK HE are Vice-Chancellors: 150 of them took home £45 million last year.
UCU and the other education unions have been fighting on pay and conditions since 2019 but this year’s battle is different. Staff who are very part-time, on the lowest salary grades or most insecure contracts are using food banks and can’t afford the travel to their workplace. Energy costs, childcare and other bills are increasingly a massive challenge for the majority.
The growing fighting spirit within UCU is fuelled by massive pension cuts in pre-95 institutions. In April 2022 the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) cut future pension benefits by 35% on average, while university leaders acquiesced. This was after a faulty valuation in March 2020 (yes, that March). The pension scheme is by any reasonable measure healthy and in surplus. Members in USS saw off a previous attempt to destroy our defined benefits scheme in 2018 through sustained industrial action, and it is hard to express how furious many of us are at these unnecessary cuts.
UCU has engaged in several years of emphatic action at dozens of UK universities over pay, conditions and pensions. This was supported by the NUS and achieved some great local wins. But now we have to up our game, and we are.
The future of UK higher education is at stake: now is the time that the education unions and allies need to come together to reverse the attack on pay, conditions and pensions. And fundamentally, a decent, fair and secure workplace can only be realised by something new: an alternative to the marketised content-factory model imposed by Westminster governments since 2010 and before. This has to be, and could be, a strong and vibrant university sector for people from all walks of life to realise their ambitions and creativity. The current situation benefits no one, least of all students, and that’s why we are pleased to have their support.
On 24, 25 and 30 November, alongside colleagues from Unite, UNISON, GMB and EIS – and unions from other sectors such as the CWU – we will have the biggest, boldest picket lines the sector has ever seen. Join us.
- Caitlin Adams is the Branch President of the Open University UCU.
- Please show your support for the UCU strikes by: Sign the Picket Pledge and publicise the strikes on your social media channels UCU – Picket line pledge; Find a picket line to join at one of the 150 universities using branch websites/Twitter or Find my nearest strike; Join and publicise UCU/education/union rally, Kings Cross London, 30 November at 1pm.
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