This week I am on strike, for the first time in my life. I spent four hours this morning in the freezing cold handing out leaflets in front of New College, the building where I usually work. I did the same yesterday morning, and I will do the same again tomorrow unless the strikes are called off.
The reasons for the strike are set out clearly on the website of the Universities and Colleges Union. In short, the higher-ups have decided – on the basis of doubtful calculations – that our pension scheme needs reform, and that this reform should involve utterly devaluing the scheme for members. Not only will there be a huge cut in benefits as a result, there will be no predictability, as the value of individual pension pots will depend entirely on the vagaries of the market. Risk will be individual, not collective, and each of us will have to take a gamble based on how long we think we might live. It is, to put it bluntly, a disaster for all of us – academics and professional support staff – in the scheme.
I don’t consider myself a greedy person. I didn’t oppose previous devaluations of the pension, such as the closing of the final salary scheme or the introduction of a cap to the defined benefits scheme. All I want is a decent and predictable income in my retirement. I don’t really see that this is too much to ask.
But this strike is also about so much more than pensions. It is about a system where university management can make decisions that impoverish all of its staff without proper consultation. It is about a system where student fees – as our own PM recently admitted (and it isn’t often that I agree with her) – bear no relation to how much a course is worth or costs to provide, and relate only to the amount universities think they can get away with charging. Fees are soaring (and likewise student debt, which is now scandalous), pay has stagnated, an obscene proportion of UK academics are employed on precarious contracts, and now they want our pensions too? All while the Vice-Chancellors take their pay packets of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and spend millions more on vanity building projects? No thank you.
I love my job. It is stressful at times, as I have shared with honesty in previous posts. But I love being an educator and a researcher, and evidence would suggest that I’m quite good at both. However, I am starting to feel embarrassed about working in universities, which are becoming more and more like businesses. I passionately believe in the social good of higher education, and I like to think that I work in the public sector, for the good of others. These strikes have demonstrated plainly to me that I am far from the only person who worries that our university system is going down the pan in pursuit of profit.
So striking really has been an act of solidarity. We’ve sung and danced and eaten cake, and handed out “solidarity biscuits” alongside leaflets. The support from students has been overwhelming and humbling. They are losing valuable education, yet they can see the bigger picture, and they understand that none of us have taken the decision to strike lightly. Fingers crossed that negotiations re-open and we can all get in out of the cold, back into our offices and lecture halls where we want to be.