What is the UCU strike about? – A student’s viewpoint

This post is aimed at everyone, who is as confused about this situation as I was few days ago.

While I am writing this post, there is still 50 hours left for Universities UK (UUK is an advocacy organisation for UK universities) to change their minds and continue the negotiations with UCU (University and College Union – a British trade union) about the academic’s future pensions schemes (more precisely USS -Universities Superannuation Scheme, one of the largest private pension schemes for universities).

I was informed by the university staff about the plans of starting strike action a week ago. The lecturers simply said their pension is going to be significantly decreased and they are not happy with it. Some briefly mentioned about this fact during their lectures, one of them even put a poster up during the coffee break. Unfortunately, the information showed to us was very vague, the poster hardly readable from a projection and I still knew almost nothing. Shortly after, I realised that the action will take 14 days in total over a period of  four weeks. Two days in 1st week, three days in 2nd, four days in 3rd and a whole 5th week. Lecturers are requested to not reschedule any sessions, check work emails or do any academic work related to teaching.

Take a look at the amount of stress this country is putting on foreign students throughout the last couple of years. Firstly, we had the whole unpredictibility of Brexit which has been followed by the requirement of additional insurance for EU students, together with the rumours about not being able to come back to The UK from summer holidays without it… followed by the increase of already high university fees, followed by the complete chaos regarding the terms of application and funding for postgraduate studies of EU students. And now – we are facing a whole month of no lectures or any kind of academic support.

No lectures most days. No meetings with the supervisors regarding my 3rd year project until a week before the deadline (which I hope is a joke). This is what I paid my £9k this year for.

It’s utterly shocking that when I do not come to compulsory lectures or seminars, the university has a right of kicking me out of the course. Why? Because without attending lectures we do not use the full potential of what the university course and we are (supposedly) not able to learn the material ourselves. Nevertheless, in case of a strike – a month of no lectures is not a problem, we can prepare for upcoming exams ourselves. Apparently ‘our education won’t suffer’ they said. Strange.

Despite paying for my course I am forced to attend all the lectures. The same rule is not applied to the academics who can cancel their lectures whenever they want.

So what’s the deal?

After doing some research, I found out that the USS has an unsustainably high financial deficit already (£7.5bn). If nothing is done – the estimated deficit will grow to £17.5bln. That’s why UUK proposed changes, which have been opposed by the trade union.

Basically, UUK wants to swap a current so-called post-employment defined benefit plan with a defined contribution plan. The existing one requires employer to promise a specified amount of money on academic’s retirement based on their earnings, age, academic performance and other factors. The newly proposed plan works in a way that both employer and employee contribute towards a pension fund, so the employees get whatever amount they collected over the years of work + the returns on pension scheme investments. (1, page 207)

Academics calculated that the new option is likely to leave them with less money – so they did not agree on the new plan. UUK refused to negotiate and in return the union voted in favour of a national strike.

The real reason for starting a strike action is cleverly hidden on UCU website (2). The pages are full of FAQs with no valuable information, cute videos and colourful posters. It took me ages find out some useful facts, which to be fair do not sound as bad as the media and academics are showing it to us. I had to go through a long pdf version of RS 102 The Financial Reporting Standard to find out what is really going on with those dramatic pension cuts.

Time for a bit of reflection. I pay a ridiculous amount of money to be able to study in The UK. It was my conscious decision to study here, I knew if I applied for a good scientific course, the possibilities and opportunities opening in front of me in future will outweigh the initial costs of my studies. I took a risk of investing into my degree (always something may go wrong and I will end up jobless with -£27k + interest on my account) hoping that one day it will pay off. I know already that if I want to have some money left for my pension, I need to work twice as hard – firstly, to repay by student debts, secondly to save or invest.

I believe, that academic members of university staff are very wise people and their decision to work at the university was also their own, conscious choice. They understood from the beginning of their career that going into academia will delay their start of salary-based jobs. They were completely aware of the fact, that on average they are going to work for fewer years that their peers pursuing other carrier paths. I also assume, they know that the population is getting older in The UK, thus there is less people to work for the older generations which results in deficits in pension schemes. It’s worth highlighting, that they do not strike because someone takes their own money away (this would be a fraud, legally charged). They strike because someone is telling them: there used to be some additional money to be given to you as a benefit, but this money is now gone and we cannot give it to you, so we suggest a new way of saving for your pension.

A fair and completely legal way, which is the best possible option so far.

What was trade union’s answer?

They put their suggestion forward that the university should contribute a bit more to their pension, so the decrease in their benefit is not as significant.

UUK did not agree on UCU’s proposal.

Yes, this is it.

In my own opinion, this strike causes the most damage to us – students. Nothing was discussed with us. We would like to be involved in such decision-making process, since we pay for every working day of university at least £60 (calculation based on: 1year = 3 terms, each about 10 weeks long, thus ~£900 lost over 3 weeks of strike). Even if some academics are not technically the members of the union, they still support their colleagues, so practically whole uni is going to malfunction for a month. We probably won’t find out until last moment if our lectures happen or not, which will cause a massive confusion over the period of 4 weeks. If the lecturers have an issue regarding not the teaching but their own pensions they should resolve it on legal terms with their employers – so thousands of students, who paid thousands of pounds for this semester are not going to be affected.

Let me know, what is your view on the strike?

Ewelina