Should our lecturers be on strike?

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Toby Atkinson – Yes

It may seem strange at first for any student, particularly a third year student hoping to graduate at the end of the year such as myself, to be writing in support of the actions of staff such as strikes and boycotts and to call on other students to themselves express support. Surely I should be angry at staff for threatening my academic future and for wasting the money and time that I am putting in at university? Here I am going to explain why I do not take such a position and why in fact I implore those reading this piece to similarly support staff action.

First of all, it is necessary to understand how this whole dispute has come about. In short, the employer organisation Universities UK (UUK), which our university is a member of, has proposed a number of changes to the current Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which provides members of the Universities and College Union (UCU) with their pensions. These changes have been met with vehement opposition from UCU members as they would do considerable damage to their pensions, wiping off thousands of pounds from the pensions they have worked so hard for and contributed to. As noted in recent issues of the Times Higher Education Supplement, independent research into the consequences of the new proposals have shown the UCU’s fears to be well grounded, with a guaranteed real decline in the value of the pensions if the changes go through. With all this in mind, it is pretty understandable that staff are angry and have voted to use strike action and boycotts to challenge UUK’s proposals.

Staff at university, as much as we berate them at times over issues such as contact time, do work pretty damn hard, especially when we consider the fact that the current Higher Education system is one increasingly underfunded by governments, whilst at the same time there is a relentless drive towards the production of more and more research and demands for improved teaching provision. After going through such a charged and stressful climate during their employment, staff honestly deserve a decent retirement, and UUK’s denigration of the pensions they need for such a retirement is frankly disgraceful. As a result, on the sheer principle that people deserve a decent retirement in return for their hard work, we should be backing our staff.

Some of you reading this are probably thinking “what’s the point in supporting staff over their pensions as I’m unlikely to ever see a secure one?” The thing is, though, that such a future is not inevitable, and if we are willing to fight for a better one then we can win it. So rather than seeing it as staff not deserving decent pensions because the current economic set up seems unlikely to provide us with ones, we should be supporting staff in challenging employers to provide decent pensions and campaigning more widely to ensure that such pensions are available to us as well in the future.

Finally, it may sound a bit clichéd but student and staff solidarity can make a difference. To turn against staff would only play into the hands of university employers, enabling them not only to defeat staff, but also to undermine efforts to create a more just higher education system. If we at Lancaster can put pressure on the University management to in turn pressure UUK to end this attack on staff, then this dispute can be brought to a close swiftly and in the most morally just fashion. Not only would we as students show the managers of our university that we believe in the value of our staff, but we would also demonstrate our collective power and willingness to stand up to harmful policies.
With all this in mind I hope you support staff in this dispute and I hope to see you all on the picket lines!

Annonymous Author – No

Industrial action by UCU academics around the country is now underway, and we have no idea when it’s going to end. However, I daresay you are none the wiser as to the results of the action than I am. If the pension authority ‘won’ and refused to withdraw their radical changes, then the lecturers are probably making plans for another demonstration. If, on the other hand, the lecturers ‘won’ and the changes were revoked, the pension authority is probably just concocting another cost-saving proposal. Either way, the marking boycott is clearly a waste of time.

Academics’ refusal to set or mark exam and coursework papers at 69 universities around the country was driven by big changes to their pension schemes. Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that these adjustments were not made on a whim. The pension fund in question, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), is thought to be operating at an 11-figure deficit, partly because of its investments going bad and partly because of the high proportion of academics ‘maturing’ now. In other words, when the fund was established back in 1975, the USS board never imagined that they would one day have to start paying out the generous pensions they had promised.

And it’s no secret that the old scheme is generous. Academics had always received a ‘defined benefits’ pension based on their final salary (averaged out a bit). That means a lecturer retiring after 30 years’ service on a £40,000 salary would get a tidy £15,000 a year and a further £45,000 in tax relief. For comparison, a state pension gets you no more than about £5,900 a year. Many lecturers are now complaining that the lavish pension was one of the few reasons for ever going into academia, but frankly I’m surprised that so many of the nation’s most qualified academics just went along with such an obvious fiction. Of course a pension scheme that open-handed is unsustainable!

The superannuation scheme has registered a deficit for years now, and there are very few alternatives to decreasing pension payments. One of them is increasing employer contributions by more than half, which would throw universities’ austerity-bound finances into turmoil. Another solution is increasing the workers’ contributions, but UCU would be just as reluctant to sacrifice anything more from lecturers’ salaries. What’s more, if the USS board doesn’t find a way to plug this deficit sharpish, then the Pensions Regulator is going to step in with a utile recovery plan beyond our worst nightmares.

The new scheme proposed by the USS is probably the best lecturers are going to get. Under the changes, if we take a lecturer who starts out with a salary of £20,000 and steadily increases that to £40,000 over 30 years, that lecturer would earn £11,250 a year in retirement. That’s not quite as much as many academics had hoped, I’m sure, but remains high above the earnings of the average pension holder. Even so, some academics are complaining that this drop in pension benefits is somehow stealing their hard-earned savings. Let’s be clear: the new system is only being introduced on top of existing pension benefits. If you’re retiring from Lancaster University in a year’s time, this scheme hardly even involves you.

On the plus side, the new scheme provides a bit more flexibility than the last. USS members now have the choice of increasing their contributions by 1 percentage point and having that match-funded by their university, which effectively increases their pension accrual rate. Lecturers earning below the £50,000 mark may even end up slightly better off this way. In vague retaliation, UCU have done the only thing they can do: contest the size of the deficit. They criticised the USS for presuming high inflation and low growth in their model, but given the remarkable bouts of stagflation in recent years, that’s probably a safe bet.

To sum up, the pension authority’s hands are tied, so the lecturers’ inadvertent punishment of about 2 million students won’t have gone down well.

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