“We still have the nuclear option” – UCU leaders discuss strikes and what next

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SCAN spoke to Julie Hearn, President of the local University and College Union (UCU) Branch, and Sunil Banga, Pensions officer, in an interview where they raised the prospect of the “nuclear option” of a summer marking boycott, attacked the current Lancaster University Student Union sabbatical team for forgetting “historical solidarity” and urged students to support their striking lecturers.

The union officers were optimistic about the scale of the strike, and urged students to get involved in supporting their academic staff:

“It’s all to play for. What we have got here is the biggest strike in university history. We’ve got a very strong mandate for it. At Lancaster we had the highest turnout in England of members voting for industrial action. People have got to a point where they are fed up of feeling their working conditions are under attack. There’s a real determination to fight this – they may possibly have underestimated us.”

Sunil Banga slammed the claim made by the University that the employers would continue to contribute 18% to pensions as a “misrepresentation”, claiming that employers would pay a real term rate of 13.25% after the reforms.

“The USS Chief executive Bill Galvin admits it, we have raised it with Paul Boustead (HR Director at Lancaster University. I don’t know why these statements are being put out which are so apparently false, misleading, misrepresenting. What they are failing to tell people in the fine print is that what’s going into our pension pot from that 18% is 13.25%. The rest is being kept aside!”

We asked if the UCU branch wished the Lancaster University Students Union would come off the sense and support the strikes, and the answer for Julie Hearn was a very strong yes:

“The reason I say yes is because the clue’s in the name – it’s a student union, there’s a natural affinity between students and staff. What’s been created since the marketisation of higher education is the echelon of excessively paid senior management. It’s their interests that are distinct from students and staff, so we’ve always campaigned for free education.”

“I personally in 2010 went down to the London demo, with the three coaches that were put on by LUSU at that point. So I don’t know what would have happened if that had taken place with this current sabbatical team. They might not have even put on one coach. It needs to go back to NUS policy, and understand the historical solidarity between student and staff unions.”

“Students are very sadly caught between two visions of university. So the underlying vision is one of education, of opening up your mind, of coming out with a much wider worldview… Then you’ve got the competing vision of education as something that they sell to you, something that you buy.”

The UCU has recently launched a media barrage attacking Vice Chancellor pay, using hundreds of freedom of information requests to reveal details of remuneration committees. SCAN asked if they believed this was conducive to the negotiations over the final resolution to the pensions issue.

“I don’t think we’ve launched any attacks, I think the word attack is misplaced because that would suggest we’ve done something – we’re not the ones paying ourselves two hundred, three hundred, four hundred thousand pounds. What we’ve just done is made that public knowledge. And we think its useful because it give a more honest picture; how can this group of vice chancellors say to their staff we think its acceptable to do away (with the USS pension scheme).”

Denying that the UCU solution of higher employment contributions might lead to higher student fees in the long term, the branch leadership branded the deficit a “fabrication”, based on the zero-probability event of the collapse of every UK University.

“What UCU says is hang on, look at all these valuations, there is no deficit. Are we going to start trashing our pension scheme based on a complete fantasy, a fabrication? You are asking the most educated section of society to go along with that lie. We aren’t going to. There is no deficit, and so you don’t need to raise student fees.”

The union representatives confirmed there will be picket lines at the entrance to the University, where the union members will confront working union members in a “non-intimidating” way and remind them of their obligation to come together. They warned of the intergenerational inequality aspect of the strikes:

“What they’ve done is they’ve come for our pensions every time there’s an evaluation. Every three years there’s a doomsday scenario and they chip away at it. This time they’ve gone for the jugular. And that’s where we said right, this is where we go for 14 days.”

What if that doesn’t work, we asked.

“If that doesn’t work, then we go for a marking boycott over the summer exams. That’s our nuclear option. Because there’s nothing else worth fighting for.”

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