University pension row: 14 days of strike action across the UK

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Protestors outside the university of glasgow

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Kirsten Colligan

Jonathan Peters and Rebecca Zack
News Editor and Deputy Editor

Student-staff solidarity strongly opposed the pension deal

Industrial action at universities across the UK continued, after a deal between the Universities and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK) was rejected by local UCU branches over proposed changes to academic pensions.

The news last week was positive, with both sides in the negotiation agreeing to revised changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Strikes came close to being called off when UCU and USS announced a negotiated settlement. However, the deal was quickly rejected by most local branches of UCU, leading to a resumption of strike action across the UK.

Morale on the picket line remained high as strikes at over 60 UK universities entered their fourth week. The picket was active every strike day from 8am-11am at Glasgow University Gilmorehill and Dumfries campuses.

Across the UK, staff and students have been organising to oppose the changes to the USS pension scheme, but also broader changes to university culture. Many of the solidarity groups across the UK propose a new vision for the future of universities, in the face of increasing marketisation and casual employment.

A resolution to the dispute depends on a number of universities backing down from their hardline positions. The actions of solidarity groups across the UK have already seen tangible results that could lead to meaningful negotiations.

The University of Glasgow adopted a more sympathetic stance towards UCU’s demands, having backed down from a previous statement that staff would receive a 25% pay dock for taking action short of a strike. University management also agreed that any pay deductions would be spread over three months instead of one.

Principal Sir Anton Muscatelli joined the picket for the second time on Monday, reiterating the University’s alignment with UCU on many of their goals. Student support has been significant at a number of universities, with several student solidarity groups organising “teach-ins”, rallies, demonstrations and occupations of university administrative buildings.

Ellinore Folkesson from the student/staff solidarity group at Glasgow told the Glasgow Guardian: “The picket line is still going strong. The striking staff really appreciate the student support they’re getting, and it’s great to see that more and more students are wanting to directly support staff members.”

“With regards to the teach-ins, we had a really good turn out – about 40 participants at its peak. We have a lot of ideas for upcoming teach-ins and are seeing great potential for more open discussions and closer relationships between staff and students.”

Neil Davidson, lecturer in Sociology and member of UCU Glasgow branch told us: “I have been a trade unionist since 1976. These are the biggest and most sustained pickets I have ever been involved in, which fills me with the hope that we might actually be in a position to win. Part of that hope stems from the solidarity we have received from students. This is tremendously important to striking lecturers.

“Sometimes we fear that students have absorbed the neoliberal ethos promoted by the government and university management groups […] but the support we have received on the picket lines and demonstrations has shown that this is not the case, and has made this action more like a joint struggle by lecturers and students. Above all, it’s made it really difficult for managements to claim that we’re hurting students and that they oppose our action.”

This is not the first time lecturers have walked out over pay and working conditions, nor is it the first time that students and staff have organised in solidarity. As Neil explained, the “teach-ins” that took place at the QMU last week “first took place in the student upheavals around 1968 – the 50th anniversary of which we’re celebrating this year – and acted as a place where students and lecturers could debate and exchange ideas in conditions where questions of strategy and tactics, as well as theory, could be openly discussed.

“I certainly hope that this kind of meeting can be continued once the – hopefully victorious – strike is concluded, to discuss how student/staff unity can be continued as a way of addressing other issues that concern us both.”

The solidarity shown in Glasgow echoes across the UK, with other universities seeing demonstrations, occupations and similar “teach ins”. In the face of mounting pressure, the University of Oxford, one of the staunchest proponents of the pension reforms, backed down from support of UUK’s position.

Andrew Melling, of UCU Oxford branch, told us: “Here in Oxford, there is no campus as such, and University buildings are dispersed throughout the city, so we would risk marginalising our action, or at least restricting its visibility, were we to picket in one or two central locations.”

“The strategy here is to have multiple pickets spread throughout the city and to concentrate the picketing times into a couple of hours first thing in the morning […] We have five or six ‘fixed’ picketing sites from which smaller groups can be despatched to set up impromptu pickets in the vicinity. So the organisation is quite flexible and responsive.”

Similar to Glasgow, the solidarity actions in Oxford go beyond the current dispute over pensions. As Andrew explained, “A couple of weeks ago the picket was followed by an anti-racism rally. Last week we had a rally in celebration of International Women’s Day.”

“One of the really heartening features of this strike has been the engagement that I’ve seen from students joining the picket lines each morning. It’s great to discover that the same spirit is abreast in Glasgow.”

The positions of Oxford and Cambridge University are pivotal in the negotiations between UCU and UUK. Students and staff are hopeful that their sustained action will bring about a meaningful resolution to the dispute.

Some universities have seen even more radical action, with students occupying university buildings and forcing the management to back down from hardline positions. At Bristol University, students told us how they forced the university to agree not to dock the pay of staff who take action short of strike, to spread the financial penalties for striking staff over three months instead of one, and to donate the docked pay into student welfare services and hardship funds.

Speaking to the Glasgow Guardian, Bristol students Lois Davies and Prarthana Krishnan explained: “[we] hadn’t anticipated the occupation to be as successful as it has been. Hugh Brady [Bristol VC] flew back early from Dublin after hearing about our occupation in the top floor of Senate House, where management offices, including his office, are located.

“[We held] a brief conversation and two formal meetings with him over the 60-hour period, where we stated clearly that we refused to leave unless he agreed to act on our demands.

“Whilst we were pressing the Vice Chancellor and other members of the senior management on our demands, hundreds of staff and students chanted in support below, the sounds of their voices were heard loud and clear in the boardroom. It was an incredible moment. We felt empowered by those voices, and knew that we were united and strong.”

In Bristol, the solidarity group is clear that these protests are part of wider push against the changing environment of universities. “Many in the group perceive these cuts to pensions as part of a continuing marketisation of our education, which we firmly oppose.”

“The group has been putting in a lot of effort, […] organising through rallies, leafleting, emailing, press, public meetings and lecture shout-outs. […] We did not take the decision to occupy lightly, but we felt that it would put greater pressure on the VC and so on Monday, nine of us decided to stage an occupation.

“We were treated very well by staff during our occupation and are appalled at other universities which have acted coercively and inappropriately towards their students. We would encourage students to be active, vocal and persistent in support of their lecturers and contribute to the collective voice.”

Similar occupations took place last week at the University of Leicester, where students occupied the Fielding Johnson building, which houses the offices of university management, including the VC Paul Boyle. The occupying students told us their actions were: “in support and solidarity with our striking lecturers and staff whilst their pensions are being threatened, especially as our Vice Chancellor Paul Boyle gets paid £250,000 a year and is on the executive committee of UUK.”

“We achieved some concessions regarding future elections of our chancellors, and more vocal support of UCU strikers, but we still have a long way to go.”

In Warwick, students and staff have collaborated to create “The Free University of Warwick”, which has seen lectures, workshops and events given in student union locations across the university. Topics ranged from “how to start a radical media organisation from scratch” to “right wing politics in India and beyond.”

A member of the solidarity group in Warwick told us: “We are a collective of striking staff who wanted to make this as dynamic as possible, and student activists who wanted to work in collaboration with those staff and support the strike however possible.

“We started a few weeks ago, holding meetings as ‘student staff solidarity’, aiming to discuss tactics and ways of supporting the strike. Among the central tasks before the strike began was creating graphics and flyers about the action that was going to take place”

Students and staff held a special demonstration for International Women’s Day, in addition to “talks on Black British Women’s Movement, Re-Thinking Housework and Feminised Labour, as well as Women of Colour Resist, and in the evening a fundraiser featuring DJs and an auction of various items donated by feminists.”

This wave of industrial action has seen unprecedented disruption across the UK. While there have been some positive developments, with UCU and UUK issuing joint statements regarding talks held last week, there are fears that the strike could end without agreement.

UCU has warned that universities could face another 14 days of strike action during exam times if the pension dispute ends without resolution. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt explained that this warning is “a necessary precaution against the failure of talks to deliver an acceptable settlement.

“The union would prefer dialogue and I have given my personal commitment to Acas that UCU is serious about reaching an agreement. However, if talks fail, we are prepared to carry out the action in defence of our pensions.”

UUK has stressed that the negotiation is “serious and constructive”. They continue to call for an end to industrial action while talks are ongoing.

A spokesperson said: “we are committed to seeking a viable, affordable and mutually acceptable solution to the current challenges facing USS pensions.”

Talks are ongoing, but across the UK students and staff have shown solidarity in the face of unprecedented industrial action. They are hopeful that their efforts will see a meaningful resolution to the dispute, as well as contributing to the burgeoning debate on modern university culture.