Angus Gillies

Deputy Culture Editor – Film and TV

Measuring the success of past higher education strike action and the benefits of continued action moving forward.

At the start of February, the University and College Union (UCU) announced 14 days of strike action at 74 UK universities, the University of Glasgow being one of these. Most students will be familiar with the pending course of action from the eight days of industrial action that took place across November and December last year, and those who were studying in 2018 will remember the 14 strike days that took place between 22 February to 20 March, the longest ever strike in UK higher education history. An estimated 42,000 staff went on strike, with an estimated 575,000 teaching hours lost. As academic staff and the student population gear up for the third major strike in two years, it is an understandable concern to wonder what this strike will hope to achieve, how likely this hope is, and what similar strikes have accomplished in the past?

Rather than the Industrial Revolution, a more apt place to start in relation to these current strikes would be the 1990s. 68 of the 130 institutions in the UK were founded before 1992 and are members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). The USS scheme was originally created in 1974 to provide sector-wide pensions for UK university staff. It is currently the second largest private pension scheme in the UK, and has over £50bn under its management. The terms of this pension scheme remained relatively stable until 2011, when it underwent major reform in the wake of the recession. The final salary scheme was closed, and the move to career-average pensions reduced the amount that many USS members would receive in retirement.

This action led to the first major strike in the escalating row over pensions, and the first UK-wide higher education strike since 2006. In this instance, 67 older UK universities went on strike for five days and were also joined by colleagues across higher and further education in the UK. Even though the staff at latter institutions were mostly members of different pensions schemes, the strike became a broader concern due to government support for raising contributions, moving to a career-average scheme, and linking pension rises to the lower measure of inflation. The UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said at the time: "Strike action is always a last resort but the attacks on pensions and pay have created real anger and, instead of burying their heads in the sand, the employers need to respond urgently to our concerns.” Early research found that the “pre-October 2011 scheme was not viable in the long run”, whereas the post-October 2011 scheme was “probably viable in the long run”, however, future members of the USS lost 65% of their pension wealth. Subsequent research found that these rule changes reduced the state subsidy to members by £1.86bn and to the pension sponsors by £0.9bn, increasing UK government wealth by £2.86bn.

In 2014 and 2016 further changes were implemented, with a discernible hike in employee contributions. Since 2011, member contributions have risen, from 6.5% in 2011 to 9.6% in October 2019. By 2017, the USS scheme made headlines as it reported a technical deficit of £17.5bn in July 2017, the largest such shortfall of any British fund at that time. The USS Joint Negotiating Committee made proposals to reduce this deficit to be introduced after 1 April 2019. These proposals were hotly contested, the UCU stating that the proposals would “leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up”.

On 23 February 2018 the second major UCU strikes commenced, lasting over 14 days and affecting over a million students. The Universities UK (UUK) decided to meet the UCU for negotiations on 27 February. The meeting led to an agreement to undergo conciliation through ACAS, the UK’s national industrial dispute conciliation body.  On the evening of Monday 12 March, UCU and UUK issued a joint three-year agreement, based on maintaining defined benefits, raising pension contributions, and aimed at promoting greater transparency amongst other concerns. On 13 March, this agreement was withdrawn by the UCU, following branch meetings of members who raised their concerns that this agreement failed to address the issues of strikers.

A new deal was offered by the UUK, and the UCU membership body agreed to this offer by a majority of 64%. Included within this deal was the creation of the Joint Expert Panel, a group of experts who would independently review the USS. Whilst the body representing employers - Universities UK (UUK) - had been inflexible with the UCU, it should be noted that some vice-chancellors expressed support for the UCU’s position rather than the UUK’s. Anton Muscatelli (University of Glasgow) was amongst them, with the institution spreading lost pay over a two-month period following a local agreement with the UCU. Other universities which did this included Leicester, Cardiff, Cambridge, and York. With respect to the 2018 strike action, the move to close the “defined benefits” portion of the scheme was halted, and the Joint Expert Panel’s report also highlighted serious flaws with the methodology used to calculate the 2017 USS valuation that caused alarm in the first place. But this independent report was not accepted by the USS, and despite putting various short-term methods in place to pacify UCU member concerns, the fundamental issues were not addressed.

In May 2019 the UCU decided to run two ballots for its members, one for renewed industrial actions on pensions, and the other for industrial action on pay and conditions. On 26 May 2019, the UCU voted to commence a further dispute with USS employers. UCU announced that in institutions where support for the ballots was over 50%, eight consecutive strike days would be held toward the end of 2019. These strikes encompassed even broader issues than the first round, involving “gender and ethnicity pay gaps, casual employment arrangements and workload”. The number of institutions with a mandate to strike at this point stood at 74: 47 for pay/conditions and pensions, 22 for pay/conditions only, and five for pensions only.

The University of Glasgow is one of 47 institutions striking on both accounts. When asked why the UCU were continuing strikes into 2020, UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said:

“They are finally starting to agree a more prescriptive set of requirements for individual institutions to live up to. They are also moving towards higher levels of transparency and detail in the data they are willing to share with us about some of the issues we are confronting. However, this offer does not deliver on everything we have asked for. The employers have refused to put forward a clear set of mechanisms for policing and enforcing the expectations which they are signing up to.”

What we can tell from the latest offer is that the UCU are very close to getting a strong framework that would address the concerns of academic staff, however at the current moment the offer received is not satisfactorily binding. In an open letter, Grady then told the UCU membership: “What your action has already achieved is impressive and you should be proud. It is UCU that has stood up for action on equality pay gaps, precarity, and workload intensification.” In fighting against huge forces such as rampant privatisation, the commercialisation of the UK education system, and systemic inequality, we should not come to expect black and white solutions to the issue. But what the history of striking shows is that there is a building of momentum, and the recent 47 universities that have decided to strike on pay/conditions as well as pensions showcase the collective dissatisfaction with the terms offered by the USS, even after consecutive years of strike action.

Reading this, you might be led to wonder about the potential for individual universities to leave the USS scheme in favour of their own schemes. On 15 March 2019, Trinity College, Cambridge withdrew from the USS scheme unilaterally. Rather than drawing support, Cambridge Universities Graduate Student Union would vote to support a boycott of Trinity College, led by academic staff at the other colleges. The UCU have also been reported to be preparing a nation-wide boycott of Trinity College. The fellows at the college have since doubled down and voted to leave the USS. Academic staff at other constituent colleges have refused to supervise the college’s students, and students have protested intermittently in solidarity since then. Though it may appear beneficial to leave the scheme, the strength of a pension fund is in having the financial strength to protect the pensions of all in the case of institutional failure. It remains the case that continued involvement with the USS is preferential, but as the UCU gets closer to finalising a deal that will protect the quality of HE in the UK, precautions to stave off wholesale commercialisation lie in acting decisively, and in solidarity.

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