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The USS Strike: pensions are the trigger, but the strike is about discontent with academic working conditions in the UK

Note from the LeftEast editors: this article first appeared in Serbian on the comradely web portal Masina and was kindly translated and adapted for LeftEast by its author.

#SaveUSS rally Cambridge. Credit UCU facebook feed.

The biggest strike in the history of British higher education started last Thursday. Lectturers and researchers at around sixty British universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter and Imperial College London, will discontinue work for 14 days in the course of the next four weeks.

Members of University and College Union (UCU), the largest higher education union in the world, representing some 11 000 employees, decided to take industrial action after failed negotiations with the umbrella organisation representing 65 British universities, Universities UK (UUK). As Rory Archer, a post-doctoral research fellow at University College London, stated for, “The strike will have serious consequences for higher education in the UK”. The outcome of the strike might set a norm for the reforms expected to hit the public sector in Britain following the post-Brexit fall in GDP.

The immediate reason for the dispute between UCU and UUK are the changes the latter proposed to be made to the Universities’ Superannuation Scheme, USS, a private pension that fund most of the university employees rely on.

While the existing so-called defined-benefit scheme involved a guaranteed retirement income, the proposed defined-contribution scheme would cut future pensions and make them more open to stock market movements. UCU claims that it would leave younger employees as much as 40%, or, in other words, £10 000 a year, short upon retirement.

UKK justifies such a drastic move with a dire need to overcome a deficit of £6.1bn in the USS. Finance restructuring and cuts might also be motivated by recently leaked estimations about the damage Brexit will incur to the British economy. Financial magazines such as the Financial Times even accuse university employees as being somewhat spoiled by allegedly not having had to deal with any austerity measures so far.

The Union and left oriented media, however, interpret the outlined changes as a part of a general trend of diminishing employee existential safety and labour rights that have long plagued British higher education. Toni Prug, a Zagreb-based researcher who recently defended his PhD thesis at Queen Mary University of London, stated that: “The working conditions in British universities have been deteriorating for decades, affecting everyone from the outsourced janitors to the Heads of Departments pressured to the breaking point by piling-up administration and the useless chase for academic credits”. Prug explains, “While assistant lecturers could have counted on a steady job in the long run up until some fifteen to twenty years ago, these days they almost exclusively get hired on a short-term basis, receiving pay that often doesn’t cover even basic expenses, and are expected to work longer hours than stated in their working agreements. Coercion and bullying are not rare”. Archer agrees: “ While pensions are the immediate trigger, for many people, the strike is also informed by discontent about working conditions and developments in UK higher education more broadly. Most lecturers are worried not only about the narrow issue of their own wages and pensions but about the consequences of marketisation in universities. “

Since Tony Blair’s government introduced tuition fees in British higher education for the first time in 1998, scholarships have risen nine times, amounting to more than £9000 on average. The steep rise in student fees and the number of students enrolled, however, hasn’t been followed by a rise in income or job security for employees – in fact, in the same time span the percentage of precariously employed skyrocketed from 15% to over 50% of all university workers (around 75 000 at this point), while their real wages stagnated for over a decade.

As Steven Parfitt comments in Jacobin, the proposed changes leave the university workers with obligations, all the while cutting into their guaranteed rights and switching the risk from the employer to the employee.

The “axing” of pensions seems to be over the top , judging by the mass support to the decision to go on strike showed by UCU members (with as much as 87% of votes in favour), and the willingness of already precarious employees to make themselves more vulnerable by getting involved in the industrial action. As Archer said: “ Those on temporary contracts are predictably in a tougher situation than those on permanent contracts – if they strike they lose pay and put the renewal of contracts at risk.“

#SaveUSS rally Leeds, credit UCU-Leeds facebook feed.

A post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds, Mariya Ivancheva, expressed her concern for what she believes to be a lack of discussion of the possible ways to protect the most vulnerable strikers, and “lack of voice given to the precarious workers”. She states she has joined the strike while being aware that she will “pay” for it multi-fold: beyond losing wages, this might incur costs to her short-term project, unless she takes up a double burden of the piled-up workload when the strike is over. She is also concerned that people in similar positions might jeopardise their relations with their Principal Investigators (which forms the life-line for research staff in contemporary academia), while having no guarantee that they will stay appointed in the university sector, or even in UK when their fixed-term contracts expire. Still, as Ivancheva underlined: “I strike, because striking is an important way to show solidarity within an ever more split, fragmented, stratified profession where higher and lower ranks of people are pitted against each other. I can only hope that once the pension dispute is over, permanent faculty members will reciprocate the gesture and prioritise the fight against casualisation in higher education”.

Th solidarity among differently positioned actors is arguably the most astonishing part of the events that are no less than dramatic compared to similar strikes. During the last few decades industrial actions in Britain have been few and far between, never lasting longer than 24 hours, while 575 000 teaching hours are expected to be permanently lost in the next two weeks. Already 70 000 out of a million students, expecting to be affected by the industrial action, signed a petition demanding reimbursement for lost classes. Interestingly enough, the political goal of the petition seems to be to put universities, and not the lecturers and researchers, under pressure.

The student unions have, in fact, publicly supported the faculty members (see also). According to research, as much as 63% of the students are in favour of the strike, with only 3% being against it. Apart from sympathising with the strikers, and being worried over their own future as potential university employees, the students have also been irritated by the universities for some time already, in the wake of the leakage of information about their vice-chancellors’ unrealistic salaries, and because of seemingly unneeded investments in capital infrastructure (fancy buildings and facilities) one can see in UK universities.

Looking at these developments from the Central and Eastern European (CEE) (semi)periphery, there’s much to relate to, and a lot that escapes immediate understanding, stemming from the fact that the context (or, better said – contexts) is at the same time similar and very different.  Neoliberal management of institutions of higher education was introduced to post-socialist countries under the guise of a “normal”, and “natural” order of things, from which state socialism and Yugoslav self-management had been somehow “wrongly side-tracked”. The difficulties the population experienced in the first few years of post-socialist transition (in the early nineties) were solely blamed on structural changes that in fact came with an economic crisis comparable to the Great Depression (and, in the Yugoslav case, a bloody war for succession). It took some time for the shocking deterioration of working conditions and loss of job security in any industry (starting from manufacture, and including academia) to be recognized by any part of the general public as the systemic consequence of neoliberal management, and not as an exception to it. The shrinkage of the public sector, the commodification of education, and the loss of pension security in academia (and elsewhere) indeed happened all over CEE (at a different pace, and with national specificities, obviously), but was easily presented as the “natural” course of dismantling the socialist state, which for some time safeguarded those trends from critique and contestation. Auto-racist explanations relying on the images of backward, poorly modernised societies who need to be corrected contributed to this, especially in the poorer economies in the south, closer to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; and so did a thorough purge of socialist theories and theoreticians from the academia. However, cases showing that a contestation of the dominant worldview and of dominant institutions is possible keep popping up. In Belgrade in 2006 and 2013, Zagreb in 2009, Skopje in 2015, Tirana in 2015 and again recently, as well as elsewhere, students defended their economic and at the same time political right to a non-commodified university with one and the same slogan: “knowledge is not an exchange good”.

Still, one economic crisis after another hit the region: the early transition depression, followed by deindustrialisation, and then the world economic crisis. Deindustrialisation crippled most of the CEE economies. Today, post-socialist countries are the only region in the world with shrinking population, due partly to low birth-rates, but moreso to emigration. This brings us to two very important points at which CEE differs from the UK experience: one – the salaries and pensions in academia are already intolerably low in many parts of the region, breaking people’s backs and morale, and two – it is hard to struggle for economic rights in drained-out economies that don’t need experts who will in many cases have to leave the country anyway.

This is why people from East and Central Europe have a good reason to keep their eyes open to the developments in Britain. The significance of the outlined political struggle ranges from the narrow importance for each individual involved, to broad international significance. It’s the world’s largest higher education union fighting for workers’ rights in in one of the most influential core economies of the global capitalist system. The rest of the world, including its peripheries, is certainly witnessing the development of models which will be imposed on it, and models from which we will be able to draw conclusions. Namely, the strike will most probably prove to be a valuable lesson on organising and engaging precarious workers, and also on the possibilities, limitations and weaknesses of coalitions bringing differently positioned social actors together on the basis of solidarity. Equally significant is the fact that economic and social models forged in the core countries in similar struggles have been – and still are – adopted and/or imposed in the developing countries, following the logic of modernisation and progress, and with the helping hand of international institutions and organizations. This is what makes, as Prug puts, “every single strike in the core countries important”.

Iskra Krstić is an independent researcher from Belgrade, with a focus on critical urban studies. She is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade. She graduated from Faculty of Architecture and the Faculty of Political sciences, UB.  Krstić is an author at