Neil Davidson interview: ‘People think we can win the USS strike’

Neil Davidson is a striking lecturer in sociology at Glasgow University and he sits on his local UCU branch committee. He is a revolutionary socialist in RS21 and regularly writes about politics and Marxist theory.

I spoke to Neil at the beginning of the fourth week of industrial action over pensions to discuss the strike, its impact and the challenge it poses to the model of neoliberal higher education. *

SC: How has the strike been going so far where you are?

ND: It’s been very well supported. The first two day strike I would say there was around 250 people out on the main picket line. Even the last two weeks there’s been 100 – 150 out most days so it’s been pretty good, very sustained and I think some of the biggest picket lines I ever have been on. I think the mood has been good as well, it hasn’t been that kind of depressed ‘we don’t think we’re going to win but we’ve got to do it anyway’ type of attitude you get from old timers who I recognise from strikes in the 80’s or 90’s.

This is a much more ‘we think we can win’, people feel confident about it and people feel cheerful about it, which is pretty amazing given the amount of money people are going to lose.

Why have the UCU leadership committed to the strike in a way that other unions might not have done?

Well this is one of the big questions and I’m not sure I have an answer just yet. I suspect possibly because they understand the seriousness of what’s being imposed, possibly because there’s a large section of the left in the leadership. But maybe they feel that’s it’s possible to win in a way that a lot of strikes haven’t really felt like that. This is such a major attempt to reverse our terms and conditions that I think it struck them that it might be worth pushing this to the limit and seeing if they could successfully win it.

Maybe if it had been weakly supported or there hadn’t been such good turnout in the first two days then it’s possible that they might have backed down and be prepared to make concessions earlier on. But because it was so strong they themselves thought ‘well, hell, the members want to do this so we may as well take it to the limit and see what happens.’ So I think there have been a number of different factors.*

And why do you think many student unions haven’t been so forthcoming in their support?

I think a lot of the student unions formally want to maintain a kind of middle position. And let’s be frank, some of the upper echelons of the student unions are embedded with management and probably don’t want to upset them so they take a fudged position. Other ones have actually given a nod and a wink to the students themselves to support the lecturers and use the student union buildings to hold meetings in.

I think probably the deeper argument is that some students have bought into the consumer argument about what the university is there for. [In this sense] we’ve just withdrawn their commodity by not giving them lectures and so some of them will feel that that’s a breach of the contract, and they pay their money and why are they not getting their service. I don’t think there’s any point in denying that some people have accepted that.

I don’t think that’s the majority though. If you look at students (and certainly you’ve seen lots of examples of this around the country) people understand that the struggle is for their benefit as well as ours. In another sense they’ll be those who are going to become academics themselves. More generally with the experience of education, there’s a hope that this strike is the beginning of a challenge to the neoliberalisation of education and HE.

Could you describe how the neoliberalisation of education has taken place?

I think there are maybe four different aspects to it. One is simply students having to pay fees. If you’re paying for something then you view that almost as a commodity. And then it becomes, ‘I want a 2.1 or a 1 so I can get a job’. So in a sense employers are saying, ‘you know we want you to have degree to put you in line for any job at all’. So students want a degree and it almost doesn’t matter what it is – they’ve paid their money and they want it. So that’s clear neoliberal marketisation there.

The second thing would be the way the REF poisons academic work and intellectual work by making it this assessment of what the value of your outputs are based on where they’re published and how many stars they can get and all the rest of it. It’s obviously not a direct market relationship but there is a kind of pseudo assessment being made there, usually with things that are of no intellectual value whatsoever.

The third is lecturers being made to apply for research income almost as a requirement for a job. You’ve got to apply for research funding so you become almost like self employed, you get your own salary by applying for research funding from research councils and so on. The university looks for you to do that.

Then the fourth way is in terms of job relationship in the university itself. Just the endless proliferation of zero hour contracts, of short term contracts and of nobody having any certainty which is almost to your American proportions. And to bring it back to your pensions, the struggle to defend the pensions is the first stage I think in resisting those kind of work conditions for lecturers and tutorors which are attempting to bring them down to this kind of fake self employed status that’s also going on elsewhere in the economy.

And how do you think the strike will challenge this system?

Well the next thing we would move onto is terms and conditions of young lecturers particularly. The ones who are doing PHDs and who are working as tutors and the ones who are on very short terms contracts. I would see that as the next phase as we start attacking just the basic level of job conditions. I think the union has been a bit slow in dealing with that generally and I think now people will feel confident to take action because they’ve seen solidarity and that this actually this works. I mean the employers in great disarray. I think that’s important: we’re strong and united; they’re not. And that’s unusual and I think having felt that strength… they’ll be a great deal of confidence that will feed into other areas, for example reasserting university lecturer control over the curriculum and over what we actually teach.

So it will start from defending terms and conditions then moving to the broader issues of what university is for.

One of the great things about this strike has been that people who generally haven’t been involved in struggle before are for the first time [getting involved]. And you can see how happy people are on the picket line. It’s really quite extraordinary for people my age to see this: people actually happy and enthused by taking this kind of action and doing it in conjunction with other people. Obviously most of the people have never done this before so all in all its been an extremely positive experience and if we do win then I think it’s going to be something of a turning point.


*This interview was conducted before UUK and the UCU leadership presented an offer on Monday that was overwhelmingly rejected by the membership.


**Guest Post by Steven Stanley **

Steven is a member of the UCU, has played an active role in the strike and has worked as a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University for the past 15 years. @Dr_SteveStanley

The mass striking of university workers has exposed an academy in crisis. Staff and students are fighting to save pensions and to challenge the corporate ethos of the university. The future of higher education is hanging in the balance. In this article, I will discuss university staff strikes over the proposed changes to pensions, explain my own reasons for striking, explore what I have learnt during the strike, and argue why we need to continue our fight against the idea of the university as a business.


The proposed cuts to university pensions (see below for a full background*) reflects a broader context of post-financial crisis ‘austerity’ and is commensurate with poor pay amongst university staff. Since 2009, university staff pay growth has risen by 1%, which in real terms equates to a 17% pay cut. Meanwhile, since the same year, University Vice-Chancellor salaries have risen by 13%, and now average VC salaries are over £250,000 with the highest VC salary being £808,000 (1). To put this into context, the British Prime Minister’s salary is capped at £150,000 per year. The salaries of the executives of the USS pension scheme are even higher. In 2014, the highest paid executive at USS received a 50% pay rise to £900,000. This year, two USS executives earn over £1 million per year (2).

As the evidence of such gross inequalities becomes more widely publicised, university staff, students, and the wider public have responded with justifiable anger. Our employers did not anticipate that university staff would collectively organise and come out on strike with their students standing with them in solidarity. Many of the brightest academics and students in the country are becoming radicalised over what might have previously been thought of as a somewhat boring, and certainly not ‘sexy’, topic – pensions.

University staff and students, along with members of many other trade unions, are angry that a fair pension is increasingly becoming a rarity in this country. The United Kingdom has the world’s second worst overall pension provision; only South Africa has a worse retirement income (3). The UK has very high numbers of pensioners living in poverty, almost 20 percent, which reflects the low state pension, £8,297 per year, which is the fourth lowest in the world (4). The proposed cuts to university pensions mirrors other recent attacks on private and public sector schemes, such as the so-called ‘WASPI’ women born in the 1950s, Carillion, British Home Stores, and British Steel. Such attacks show how poorly we value the elderly in our society.

The fight for fairer pensions is a fight to save current and future generations from poverty in their old age. Striking university staff like myself have been galvanised through the incredible support and solidarity offered to us by workers in other unions, such as the National Union of Students, UNITE, UNISON, Public and Commercial Services (PCS), and the Fire Brigades Union. Members of the wider public have been shocked by the evidence and statistics being made widely known by university staff and students who are using Twitter to engage in a new kind of academic activism. In a sublimely ironic twist, academics who have been pressured to promote themselves, their research and their universities using Twitter are now using social media to expose their employers for allowing an enormously disruptive and entirely avoidable decision which is causing catastrophic long-term damage to UK universities.

It should be said that it takes very special conditions to persuade academics, and academic-related staff, to go on strike. For many university staff, the proposed pension cut is the last straw after decades of neglect and devaluing of their labour. Academics in particular have been very reluctant to go on strike, not least because they deeply regret the disruption to their students’ education. Personally, I was very resistant to go on strike, because after all, I had to cancel my own classes, and decimate modules I have spent a long time crafting. But, when the strike began, I started to look forward to teaching in a different way – especially the kind of non-assessed and non-graded education that can take place within ‘teach-outs’ and more often in ‘teach-ins’ (it was very cold during the strike), which connect people together – in argumentative solidarity – to fight collectively for a just cause.

And, for those students joining us to fight in solidarity, lessons can be learnt through collective struggle, which may transcend the learning possible in lectures and seminars. The over twenty student occupations of university buildings have given me hope that the fight for a fairer future in higher education has not yet been lost. After all, our students represent future generations in which all academics must place their hopes. Not only for the future of higher education itself, but also for the future of the astonishing range of professions requiring higher learning and training. Many PhD and postgraduate students, many of whom hope to pursue academic careers in the future, joined us on picket lines, at rallies, and for teach-outs, and their solidarity has been a crucial source of support during the strike action. Indeed, I think their contribution has been pivotal in securing the wins we have achieved so far.

For those who join in our fight for fairer pensions for university staff, glimpses of alternative futures for higher education become possible. But striking has been no easy feat. Now is a deeply unsettling and upsetting time for all of us who care about education. People are angry and upset. I have veered between feeling heartbroken – it has been the worst of times – and heartened – it has been the best of times. While the conditions of UK higher education have arguably reached an all-time low, my faith in students and educators and the broader value of higher education has been rekindled in the fires of protest.

When academic and academic-related staff go on strike, they go unpaid, withdrawing their labour, which includes withdrawing their production of knowledge, along with the support systems which make higher learning possible. Such action can demonstrate the collective power of a union, especially when educators, students and professional services staff ‘come together, right now’, as The Beatles song goes (one from our picket playlist), to make a collective stand. Enormous energy and levels of creativity have been released, downtrodden and exhausted university workers and their students have been revitalised, and many of us have found new ways to ‘go on’ with the project of co-creating higher education and research, with a renewed faith that not everyone has ‘sold out’ to the idea of the corporate university. I have even been prompted to write and perform an academic rap, ‘Get Your Paws Off Our Pensions’ (5). Things must have gotten very bad for academics to start dancing, singing, and rapping.


This pension strike is the largest and longest industrial dispute in the history of UK higher education. It is as significant as the massive demonstrations against UK government increases tuition fees in 2010. The managers who are now proposing to cut our pensions are the same managers who introduced and keep on raising student tuition fees in England and Wales. Undergraduate tuition fees of £3,000 were first introduced in 1998, by the New Labour government, and were then raised to £9,000 in 2010, by the Conservative/Liberal Democratic Coalition. In 2018, it is the same staff who stood alongside students protesting against tuition fees who are now defending their right to a fair pension, especially for future generations of academics and academic-related staff.

While this dispute is about pensions, it is also about the future of higher education. Colleagues from Western Europe are looking upon the UK university system with a mixture of sadness and horror. Sadness because they once deeply respected British higher education. Horror because they know that the free higher education they take for granted will soon be replaced by a system of tuition fees. They know that the ‘marketisation’ of higher education is heading their way. And they fear the consequences of importing privatised university business models, implemented in the US and UK, to their own countries (6).

Just as they have done with students’ education, our employers want to privatise the pension scheme. This involves shifting the financial risk from collective institutions (Defined Benefit) to placing financial risk onto individual staff members (Defined Contribution) – especially the youngest generation. Employers think that young people want to individually take on the financial risk of pension investments. Rather than being guaranteed a pension on retirement, employers think the youngest staff want to make their own choices about how to invest their wages, flexibly gambling their pension payments on the stock market. It is assumed that these young ones would prefer to be self-sufficient, rather than wanting university institutions and staff members to collectively share the burden of risk. The tragic irony of this position is that it is precisely the youngest members of the USS pension who stand to lose the most, if their ‘DB’ pensions are changed to ‘DC’.

The executives running the USS pension understand pensioners as investors in their own futures. Similarly, Vice Chancellors understand higher education as an economic investment. A business model of universities has become the taken-for-granted reality of UK higher education. The majority of staff and students have internalised the corporate vision of education and, as they work and study, act according to corporate principles (7). Universities are commonly being understood as companies or corporations; Vice Chancellors as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs); staff and educators as service providers and salespeople selling educational products; and students as customers, consumers, and clients – buying their education like they would any other consumer product. The idea that the student is primarily a consumer, which is now part of our shared common sense, was officially instantiated in UK higher education policy in 2005 with the introduction of the National Student Survey (NSS). The NSS is basically a customer satisfaction survey, the results of which feed into national University league tables. The newly developing Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) involves extending this spirit of evaluating teaching and learning from a consumerist vantage point. The basic question about university from a consumer point of view is whether you are satisfied with the educational product you have purchased. Is the product value for money? One Vice Chancellor has compared a university to a gym – a student pays for their education like they pay for gym membership. It is up to the individual student whether they take advantage of the ‘learning opportunities’ made available.

This commercialised ethos of higher education originates in the 1980s and has developed during the past 40 years, and has been intensified in an especially pronounced way within the past 10 years, since the 2008 financial crisis. The rise of the corporate university has gone hand-in-hand with a gradual corrosion of basic human values of dignity and respect between students and staff. Education, particularly undergraduate education, is increasingly understood as an economic exchange, rather than as involving a reciprocity of human relations. In the 15 years I have been a lecturer, I have noticed the presence (and absence) of ordinary human practices of gratitude and thanksgiving in the academy. Students do not routinely clap at the end of a lecture, as academics would for colleagues at the end of a conference paper or presentation, and I often feel that ordinary human relations of reciprocity have been replaced with a market logic of economic exchange. In ‘delivering’ a lecture, I have done my job in ‘delivering’ a service, providing students with a product which they will pay for, at some distant future occasion (if, or when, they reach a particular salary threshold). The ordinary human relationships involved in teaching and learning seem to be compromised when students and staff alike internalise the corporate ethos of the university as a business. I have come to feel eager, sometimes, to be thanked by students at the end of classes. But, more often, I will instead thank my students for attending my lecture and listening to me.

The idea of the student as consumer, in which students have the power to ‘buy’ their education, make choices, and seek ‘student satisfaction’ challenges traditional academic hierarchies and authority relations. The shift from an ‘elite’ to ‘mass’ higher education, characterised by the mass expansion of student numbers since the 1970s, has been accompanied by a simultaneous rise in the democratising of education and extended authority of the power of the student as a consumer. Yet this consumerist ethos, which has accompanied the rapid expansion of UK higher education, might also contain the seeds of its own demise. We are currently witnessing the potential implosion of commodified education within the present industrial action over pensions. Thousands of students are demanding their money back, or withholding payment of tuition fees, in response to losing lectures and seminars cancelled due to the strike.

The pensions dispute is the latest in a series of ongoing crises besetting UK higher education. University staff and students are buckling under the pressure of working and studying within corporate university systems. The pressures upon students and staff alike are increasing in number and severity each year. The list of challenges is long and ever growing:

Rising tuition fees. Escalating student debt – estimated to be around £50,000 post graduation. The creation of a precarious and casualised workforce. Increasing class sizes and decreasing ‘staff: student ratios’. Intensifying competition – for students, grades, grants, and jobs. Obsession with measurement, rankings, and metrics – including specific pressures to be ‘excellent’ and ‘world leading’. Ever changing goal posts and invasive measures of ‘performance’. Increasing sophistication and automation of auditing, surveillance, and technological change. Burgeoning social and economic inequalities along lines of gender, class, race, and age. Shifting of power, income, and wealth to a managerial elite alongside weakening of departmental committees and academic freedom. Exclusive ‘University’ committees characterised by unaccountable and irresponsible decision-making. Inflated VC salaries and excessive expenses sitting alongside stagnating wages and mass job losses. Faced with these, and other, crises, it is difficult to interpret the current situation of UK higher education as anything other than dystopic.

The corporate culture of university life is perhaps best exemplified in the endemic competition which characterises the sector. Universities compete with each other for students. Academics compete with each other for grants. And students compete with each other for grades and jobs. The flags hanging from the building where I work celebrate that Cardiff University is ‘Top 10 UK’ and ‘World Top 100’. But the pensions dispute has revealed the problems University management have with valuing the university workers who, in the end, keep the system going and contribute to making it so ‘successful’ – the teachers, researchers, Lecturers, Senior Lecturers, Readers, Professors, Professional Services & Support staff, technicians, administrators, librarians, and archivists. It seems much easier for employers to value and invest large sums of money in an abstract student experience’ – which is increasingly being understood by staff and students as being a coded expression meaning ‘investing in expensive building projects’.  But, as the strike slogan goes, ‘buildings don’t teach, people do’. It has never been more pressing to examine ‘who, what and how’ we value and care about during these fraught times in universities.

It is no wonder, given the shocking state and unjust working and studying conditions of the British university system, that there are worsening levels of mental health amongst students and staff, including rising numbers of suicide (8). The Universities UK group, who represent the interests of University employers, announced their commitment to protect the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff during their annual ‘University Wellbeing Week’ and recent ‘University Mental Health Awareness Day’, which was surprisingly announced in the middle of the strike action over pensions. Thousands of students and staff used the unmistakably institutionalised Twitter hashtag #UniversityMentalHealthAwarenessDay to publically announce how terrible they were feeling and what they were individually doing to take care of themselves. They studiously avoided mentioning the fact that staff in 68 universities were striking to save their pensions. Meanwhile, striking staff and supporting students were incredulous. They could not believe the hypocrisy and insensitivity of UUK, who profess to care about student and staff wellbeing, whilst simultaneously presiding over hikes in tuition fees and cuts in university staff pay.

The tragic irony of UUK’s apparent concern to address my ‘wellbeing’ were personally brought home to me in the midst of the strike action. After five days of withdrawing my labour, I returned to work for two days of ‘Action Short of a Strike’ (ASOS) which basically involves ‘working to contract’, or simply – getting paid to do my job. (This is how academics used to strike, alongside ‘2 hour strikes’, before they discovered how to strike properly). Arriving at work at 9am, I spent some time polishing the lecture I was due to give at 10 o’clock. Just before the hour, an announcement was sent around that the University would be closing due to ‘code red’ snow conditions. I decided that I would try to go ahead and give my lecture anyway in the midst of the snowstorm (it seemed appropriate given the circumstances) and so started to make my way to the venue. Just as I thought my day could not get any better, on my way out of the building, I checked my pigeon hole and found a parcel I had been expecting.

It felt like Christmas. I had asked to be sent the freebies given out during the ‘University Wellbeing Week’ from a few weeks earlier, which I had missed due to having a nasty flu. The envelope in my pigeon hole contained a mindfulness colouring book, a pack of crayons, and a University ‘KPI’ wellbeing mug. The basic idea of the mug is that I should take regular breaks, have a cup of tea, and hold the hot mug in my hands while the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of Cardiff University’s Way Forward strategy are gradually revealed to me – the hot water turns the black mug into a colourful display of KPIs. (This is a real object and not a figment of my imagination).

My personal favourite KPI is that the staff survey results should show that ‘71%’ of staff think the University is a ‘great place to work’. I became momentarily fascinated with the specificity of the number. 71. Not 70 percent, or 72 percent, but 71 percent. As I drank from the mug, I wondered how many breaks it would take for me to fully internalise the University KPIs and motivate me to aspire to achieve them.

It became apparent to me in this moment that working in universities is increasingly coming to feel like working in a real life sitcom. You do not even need to make up the comedy any more. It is as if the comedy, and the tragedy, of academic life is embedded in the very objects and rituals of university life, which simultaneously embody the values of corporate management. Did the person who came up with the idea of the KPI mug seriously believe in it? I thought that the inventor was either a genius or insane or some marvellous combination of both. When I brought my KPI mug to the picket line, my colleagues could hardly believe that this object actually existed. They were simultaneously horrified and looked shocked in disbelief.

None of the corporate values which have become so visible during the strike are new to me. I had completed a lengthy ‘Leading Teaching Teams’ training course which, rather than teaching us how to lead teaching teams, basically aimed to turn academic staff into corporate managers who will voluntarily disseminate University policy into academic Colleges and Schools, with the help of psychometric measurement tools designed to evaluate our leadership styles. Much of the strike has subsequently involved making fun of the patronising and often ridiculous initiatives invented by University management to convince staff and students that everything will be ‘okay’, or even better, that everything is gradually improving all the time, as long as we emulate corporate business practices.

In the situation comedy that is working and studying within ‘HEIs’, most of us staff and students are treated like children, who need to be taught how to best manage and look after themselves. We can, in turn, use humour to ridicule the powers-that-be, and this is a key tool in our fight for different ways of working and studying in universities. But, in a serious sense, we cannot maturely think about our mental health (or otherwise) without simultaneously thinking about what is happening to us – cuts, debts, competition, inequalities – and what we are doing to each other as we attempt to live our lives within unliveable situations. Neglecting to mention the social and economic situations in which we are living means denying the basic contexts which give rise to our feelings of ‘wellbeing’ in the first place.

University managers’ responses to the current pensions crisis reflect a commercial spirit and ethos. Our employers want students (and non-striking staff) to ‘keep calm and carry on’, in proper British tradition, during this unprecedented period of disruptive action. Keep your heads down, stay quiet, and carry on, as if nothing is happening. Ideally, be ‘mindful’. But staff and students are increasingly realising the somewhat Orwellian qualities of the discourse used by university managers. It is worth paying close and critical attention to the language that is being routinely used within our neoliberal universities and particularly during the context of strike action, especially when employers and union representatives become enrolled in (social) media wars.

Our employers say they care deeply about ‘the student experience’, which all too often appears to mean that they are making massive investments in new building projects (‘capital expenditure’), gambling extremely large sums of money on the stock market, and charging exorbitant rental fees for student accommodation. Managers say they want to avoid or minimise the disruption on students caused by strike action, that they are protecting students’ interests, so that the ‘learning outcomes’ of modules and degree schemes can be satisfied. Our employers seem to be working very hard to give the impression that students’ studies have not been disrupted to such an extent to warrant compensation – whether financial or academic.

Meanwhile, ‘The University’ seems to refer to some place ‘over there’. ‘The University’ comprises the managers who really care about ‘our’ students. ‘The University’ is not ‘us’ – teaching and support staff and students. ‘The University’ is rather somehow radically different and other than ‘us’ – separate and distinct from our activities. At a Student’s Union-organised Question and Answer session about the strike, two Pro-Vice Chancellors were introduced as representatives of ‘The University’, whilst two striking lecturers were described as representatives of the UCU (University and College Union). The Twitter hashtag #wearetheuniversity has been a rallying cry to those of ‘us’ who want to critically question such assumptions. We have been asking questions such as ‘where is ‘The University’ and who represents its best interests’?

And the Westminster government’s ‘Office for Students’ (OfS) could not have been titled in a more Orwellian way. The board of this new ‘independent regulator’ of English Universities consists of only one student. For a while, the OfS comprised no student representative, but instead representatives from business and industry, tasked with the job of ensuring higher education in England provides the best ‘value for money’.

The introduction and raising of tuition fees, along with the accompanying idea that students are simply customers seeking the best ‘value for money’ from their courses, has meant that university lecturing staff and students have been pitted against each other, in an increasingly hostile and brutalising corporate environment. Casualised and precarious staff, especially postgraduate research students, Graduate Teaching Assistants (‘GTAs’) and part-time teaching and lecturing staff feel this violence most acutely. Critics have variously called the environment of UK higher education ‘academic capitalism’, the ‘neoliberal university’, or the ‘corporate university’. The large majority of us suffer from this brutal corporate environment, whether we are aware of the causes of our collective misery or not.

The strike is exposing how the UK university system, through being marketised, is being pushed to its breaking point. The pensions strike has publicised worldwide, and to the embarrassment of University Vice Chancellors, the all-too-often ‘hidden’ injuries of academic capitalism, as discussed by Ros Gill, and the toll they take on university workers and students alike (9). When viewed from outside, British universities are looked upon as canaries in a coalmine, or guinea pigs in a massive experiment. The question is to what extent can education, educators, and students be turned into commodities – to be bought and sold in the educational marketplace? The strike has demonstrated in a very public way the fundamental limitations and problems of the ‘business model’ of the university system – its injustices, inequalities and contradictions. The strike has exposed a reality that, when widely publicised, will be deeply embarrassing to those University Vice-Chancellors who model themselves on being Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), responsible for the ‘world-leading’ reputations of their globalised institutions. Will the pensions dispute be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the corporate university?

The strike has prompted many staff and students to together engage in the explicit project of revisioning and re-imagining, or at least glimpsing, possible alternative futures for higher learning. Many strikers and their supporting students are critical of the idea of the university as a business, and instead understand higher education as a public good and public service – a basic right that all people should have equal access to, not just the elite few. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, higher education is understood as demanding critical thinking and asking difficult questions about the world in which we are living. This includes the world of higher education, which itself is part of ‘real life’, despite what people in our anti-intellectual culture may commonly say.

Universities are like a microcosm of the wider society and embody many of its inequalities, contradictions, paradoxes, and hypocrisies. Universities themselves often fall short of the standards set by their own critical academic research, scholarship, and teaching. But this is not a reason to give up on the idea of a university education as a public good. If we want higher education to have a future in the UK, we must challenge the elite privatisation of universities, and find new ways of valuing higher learning, educators and students alike – along with those who support and facilitate teaching and learning – in a more just, democratic, and caring way.

The strike exposes and puts into sharp relief what and how we value when it comes to higher education. The strike may also prompt us to critically reflect on what have become our taken-for-granted cultures of competition and how we might start to cultivate cultures of greater care and equality within the academy. We urgently need to talk together about these themes and about the university and its future.


(Photo: Steven performing his pensions rap)

(*) I have worked as a university lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University for the past 15 years. I am a 40 year old married man. When I retire in the year 2046, aged 68, I am due to receive a pension of £21,000. If the changes proposed to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension go ahead, my pension will be cut to £9,000. This is equivalent to a 60% wage cut, because a pension is deferred wages. We pay into our pension pots every month to guarantee us a livelihood in old age. USS is the largest private pension fund in the UK, with over 60 billion in the pot, £2.1 billion paid into the scheme each year, and £1.8 billion paid out. Despite the healthy status of the scheme, USS executives claim the scheme is in deficit. But this is no straightforward ‘deficit’. The size of the deficit shifts dramatically in size depending upon the valuation methodology employed. In September 2017, the fund was reported as showing a deficit of £5.1 billion. Two months later, in November, the deficit was estimated to be £7.5 billion. Universities UK (UUK), the group of employers claiming to represent ‘the voice of Universities’, are attempting to push through changes to our pensions which have been shown to be deeply problematic. Their proposal to change the USS pension from a ‘Defined Benefit’ to a ‘Defined Contribution’ scheme has been strongly criticised by leading experts for containing problematic assumptions. The employer’s original proposal predicted a 4.4% yearly pay rise for university staff, that staff will die quickly, and that the pension scheme should be ‘self-sufficient’, in the event that universities (like companies) might ‘all-go-bust’ tomorrow. Experts have claimed that the USS has a ‘phantom deficit’ because the valuation of the scheme is based on a problematic way of modelling and predicting the future.

We are fighting to defend our right for a fair pension, and protect us from pension poverty, by demanding our employers protect our current pension scheme and conduct an independent, academically robust, and transparent examination of the pension scheme, its valuation methodology, and underpinning assumptions.


(2) ;









Members’ revolt sinks bosses deal and strengthens strike

Striking university workers woke up on Wednesday with an increased sense of their own power, having spectacularly rejected a management deal through a series of mass meetings and mobilisations which left Universities UK dismayed and the strike emboldened.

The previous day had begun with national news bulletins proclaiming their strike was on the verge of collapsing under a deal which had been agreed between their union leadership and management on Monday.

But the deal – released to members by the UCU on Monday afternoon – generated an enormous backlash from the moment it went out. By Monday night, 5,000 union members had signed an open letter calling for it to be rejected. Messenger and WhatsApp groups of strike activists instantly began discussing the offer and planning against its acceptance.

Many members were furious with a deal they saw as offering very little concession by management. Following a meeting of over 100 members, the University of Liverpool UCU branch put out a statement on Monday evening that read: “Members in our branch and across the country did not join one of the most impressive shows of collective solidarity in the face of restrictive trade union laws for a compromise offer that does not guarantee them decency in retirement.”

A coalition including individual UCU branches, UCU left, rank-and-file group Notes From Below and student solidarity bodies declared their intention to gather outside UCU headquarters in London where the deal was due to be voted on by a meeting of branch delegates.

On Tuesday morning however, the level of determination among union members to reject the deal became even clearer. Picket lines broke off early so that striking workers could meet and vote on the offer. In some areas, these meetings were the biggest the local branch had ever hosted. In several cases, the rooms were too small for the hundreds who wanted to attend so they had to hold the vote outside instead.

These effectively became open air rallies with home-made placards – made by striking academics the night before – held aloft stating their opposition to the deal. At a huge outdoor meeting in Cardiff, strike committee member Andy Williams spoke against the proposal:

“They are deducting full strike pay, they are making us reschedule all of our teaching and they are telling us not to complain about that. If we reject there is no doubt from now on that our strike will be a more difficult strike, but we thought it was going to be difficult in the beginning. We never imagined we’d get such political, student and support among ourselves in the strike so far. I think if we reject we will be surprised again.” The meeting voted almost unanimously against the deal.

By lunchtime, the scale of the revolt was overwhelming. Out of the 64 UCU branches involved in the dispute, every one that had held a vote – 45 in total – had rejected the deal by huge margins. Already, thousands of academic workers across the country had involved themselves in this process one way or another. In Sheffield, it was reported that the vote was 350 – 0 against acceptance.

Meanwhile, outside the meeting at UCU HQ a huge crowd had already amassed demanding that the strike continue until nothing less than the current pension arrangement was put back on the table.

Inside, almost all delegates had arrived. One after another, they got up to report that their branch had ‘unanimously’ or ‘very strongly’ voted to reject the deal in emergency mass meetings held either that morning or in some cases the evening before. They commented too on how many emails and messages they had received that were in opposition to the proposal. Many spoke about specific parts of the deal that were so unacceptable to members, including the rescheduling of classes where locally branches had been fighting hard to resist this.

By the time Sally Hunt appeared before lunchtime in front of the crowd, the national mood was abundantly clear. It was too late for the deal to be presented as a credible option. It was already dead. The delegate meeting withdrew the offer from the table and no vote was held because in the end there was nothing to vote on. The only vote that mattered was the one that had been delivered by ordinary members who had successfully mobilised to maintain their strike.

National news outlets – expecting the strikes to be cancelled – were caught unawares and forced to report the opposite. Universities UK announced in a statement that they were ‘disappointed’ that the deal had been withdrawn.

A further 14 days of strikes that had already been announced but would have been called off had the deal gone through were put firmly back on the agenda by the UCU. Attention has now turned to when the exact dates will be and what the next round of strikes will look like.

UCU left has launched a petition demanding that nothing less than the current pension status quo is accepted. Several initiatives have been set up with the aim of developing the strength of rank and file organisation. Having fought so successfully for the continuation of their historic strike, members have been vindicated but they also know there are further battles to come.


Union members react with anger to proposed deal

Photo credit Jonny Jones

Members of the UCU union were expressing their determination on Monday evening to reject a deal reached earlier in the day by a section of their leadership and Universities UK. The deal was heavily criticised by members as soon as it was released by UCU. Many vented their frustration online, furious that the it fell far short of what the strike has demanded so far. They pointed out that this was because the deal:

  • Accepted the bosses case that the scheme was financially unsustainable and raised the amount of money workers would have to contribute each month into their pension. At the same time, the rate at which employers pay into the scheme would fall.
  • Forced striking workers to reschedule their classes that were missed during the strike, effectively making them work unpaid whilst also totally undermining the point of strike action.
  • Only lasted 3 years, in which time so-called experts would be invited to come and present inferior pension schemes, something that completely goes against what people have been on strike for.

In one open letter –signed by 5,000 union members within hours – it said “In three years time we will be demobilised and pressured to accept a worse deal. In our opinion we should keep going and throw UUK’s offer out all together.” In another statement released by University of Liverpool UCU, it stated that a meeting of 100 members earlier in the day had unanimously rejected the deal. It said: “Members in our branch and across the country did not join one of the most impressive shows of collective solidarity in the face of restrictive trade union laws for a compromise offer that does not guarantee them decency in retirement.” Within hours, #NoCapitulation was trending on Twitter. One user wrote “I was feeling a tad unstrikey at the weekend. I am feeling very, very strikey now. #NoCapitulation #ucustrike” The branch secretary of one UCU branch involved in the strike simply stated ‘massive sellout!” on Facebook.

However, this was not a done deal. Even the BBC headlines on Tuesday morning that made out the strikes were about to end had to acknowledge that the agreement needed to be ratified by a meeting of union reps that day, as well as any decision on halting strikes. The meeting – to be held in UCUs London offices – quickly became the focus of union members’ anger, with hundreds committing themselves to demonstrate outside in protest at the proposed deal. Student groups which had been set up to support the strike also threw themselves behind what appeared to be an overwhelming desire to carry on the fight in defence of a decent pension.

As the morning rolled on, stories poured in of huge meetings of striking university staff rejecting the deal. One rep in Cardiff put the atmosphere like this: “We’ve had picket lines this morning outside buildings where there hasn’t been one before. People are turning out more because they’re so angry about the deal.” The hall booked for the meeting was too small for the hundreds who wanted to attend, so they held it outside instead. Workers held aloft their placards, some had been made the night before and simply read: ‘No’.

The strike has unleashed a level of industrial struggle and solidarity not seen in decades. The mood of the strike has been very upbeat and workers rightly think they can win. Pushing a deal that falls so far short may have provided an already confident strike with further opportunity to strengthen the organisation of ordinary union members and their supporters.