pay and pensions: the ucu strike
The eight-day strike action requires student support to bring into effect real change and secure a better future for universities
by Lewis Duncan
1st December 2019
Illustration by Grace Han
The strike action taking place this week is a regrettable but necessary action for the future of our universities. Proposed changes to pensions that see teaching staff left worse off by an estimated figure of £240,000, and wider dissatisfaction with the casualisation of work, has prompted lecturers and PhD teaching assistants to strike for a period of eight days. Quoted in the Guardian’s editorial, the head of the University and College Union (UCU) Jo Grady said that Universities UK have “learnt nothing from last year’s action where this sort of behaviour solidified strikers’ resolve and angered students.”
Before attending the picket on its first day I read around the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which is the body that controls university staff pensions - but after a Wikipedia deep-dive and reading various articles, I’m none the wiser. Nor did I quite understand the term casualisation. This left me concerned. Will my peers find the strike doubly frustrating when, on top of a week without lectures, we can’t quite grasp the issue at hand?
At the picket, I was provided with a concise version of the pension changes and quickly convinced of the importance of the strike. Moreover, I haven’t heard anything particularly negative about the strike from fellow students; so either we recognise the importance of university staff exercising their right to have a voice, or we are relieved to finally be granted a reading week. But we should be aware and active, standing with Courtauld teachers who are among the 400,000 members in the SSU scheme, a scheme that has been criticised for its offshore investments in tax havens and investments in tobacco and fossil fuels.
Staff pay a certain amount into the pension scheme in order to receive a lump sum upon retirement. To put recent developments simply, increased payment to the USS fund is required for the scheme to stay afloat, but this will see teachers receive less money due to unforeseen market conditions and the fact that they are paying that bit extra. An increase brings the defined payment up to 9.6%. The unions have called for the payment to be capped at 8% and for employers to meet any additional costs. Now paying on average £40,000 more to the USS scheme but being left £240,000 out of pocket by the time they come to retirement.
Either way, pay, equality, casualisation and workload are the clear concerns for those working in the sector, and the strike demands change. In an email to all students from the Courtauld Branch of the UCU it states ‘100,000 teaching staff on casual contracts report that they are only paid for 55% of the work they do.’ Speaking to PhD staff I listened to their grievances about dismal pay for TAs (if they are even offered a teaching position), workload, and the anxiety over extreme competitiveness finding work after they complete their PhD - if they complete their PhD. There is an increasing tendency for university staff to be strained and for universities to be treated as a business. Is there much hope?
Arguments over equality, working conditions and stress are perhaps too generic. There is a duality with the intangibility of the above in contributing to the fundamental university dynamic between lecturer and student, and the specificity of payment, pensions and working hours. University administration is taking the easy route to student satisfaction - tangibility. This means investment in property like new facilities and accommodation, which sounds a little like Courtauld Connects. Meanwhile teachers are losing office space, and see a fall in salaries. That said, it is still somewhat difficult to wrap my head around the strike and having the tempting age-old ‘I’m paying for this shit!’ - then it must be even more difficult for those of us who are international students or BA1s new to the university system.
Millennials and Generation Z, we are a selfish bunch - but we are also active and dynamic. In Hong Kong protests by students are being executed with precision and effect. In the last few months hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest a variety of pressing and critical issues that concern our generation.
If we don’t support our lecturers then we are the ones worse off. Without equality and a sacrosanct academic community in a university we jeopardize our own futures. Whatever comes from this strike, even if we are only more aware of the issues, it contributes to an appetite for change. It is important to recognise that through support and communication with those lecturers we are seeking to gain knowledge from, we in-turn improve our own experiences at university.
This is pertinent at the Courtauld as a relatively small institution, where we already struggle with the idea of community among students. And now we have, must also address community between teaching staff and administration. A combination of community and communication would be a healthy next-step. But we risk getting caught as sound-bites on a spider's web: putting the human back in humanities; people before property. So, to cut-though the crap, the hype and the ennui of a week without foundation lectures on Chinese art, attend the picket and at the very least read the leaflet.
Lewis Duncan is a first BA student and a staff writer for the Courtauldian. After studying sculpture for a year, he wants to write about current artists and art in the city, capturing some of the art scene’s energy for Courtauldian readers. He will also be looking closely at his main interest, architecture. Having lived in London all his life, he knows the built environment can be difficult to navigate, but by sharing experiences, he believes we can unlock the city.