I really can't think of a good introduction for this post. It's a very contentious topic, certainly, and it has led to consequences far beyond what I could have thought possible. In the interim, I suppose I can plug my appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live on 22 Feb 2017 (on the "Drive" program, at 5:07pm onwards), where I answered a couple of points made by Professor Catherine Pope of Southampton University. But let's crack on with it. Firstly, I do sympathise with the lecturers and agree that the UUK's proposal is a bit iffy. But there are several major problems I have with the strike action.
Students are being used as collateral damage
The tuition of students (which we have actually paid for in advance, don't forget) is being withheld and causing not only a strong legal case that a service has not been provided for which one has paid (a viewpoint shared by Universities minister Sam Gyimah: "I expect all universities affected to make clear that any money not paid to lecturers - as a consequence of strike action - will go towards student benefit including compensation"). I am losing just under 10% of my contact hours for the entire semester, and I've emerged relatively unscathed: some people are unlucky enough to be losing 25% of their entire tuition for the semester. Final year students in particular are being made to feel the pressures of the few lecturers. Universities have either dumbed down their degrees or students may not be able to graduate. I myself have an assessed presentation (which is still going ahead), but no lecture to base it on (as everyone else does).
Sally Hunt has claimed that if the dispute isn't resolved, the next round of strikes will be in exam periods. Is this really what UCU thinks of students? That our degrees are worthless?
Striking has legitimised violence and militancy
It's always disheartening to see my university in the newspapers (both print and online) for all the wrong reasons. And whilst, to their credit, lecturers, or at least the ones I have seen, have striked (struck?) peacefully, militant students, who claim to be acting in support of the strikers, have run amok on campus, and they don't seem to agree on who the real "enemy" is. Is it Adam Tickell? Is it UUK? Ask students and they come up with different answers. I know who is behind these militants at Sussex (names I will not mention here) but it hardly surprises me as to who they are - I won't comment any further for fear of
being accused of having too much to think libel action. And moreover, no striker has been able to answer the question of where the line is between appropriate action and inappropriate action.
- Is storming into a lecture (and in so doing, crossing your own picket line) appropriate?
- Is blockading public transport appropriate?
- Is bullying students who need to use campus for non-academic reasons (such as first years who live on it, or those requiring counselling, for example) for unavoidably crossing the picket line, even when they support you, appropriate?
- Is downright stupidity appropriate ("the library is crossing the picket line, study in Falmer House instead", but that's crossing the picket line too...)?
No one seems able to answer these questions.
I know the Student Union voted to support the strike action, but I do not think that condemning such militancy would be going against that mandate. I haven't decided on whether to endorse Frida Gustafsson for re-election yet: I feel she can be weak in a crisis, although I like the general direction she is taking the SU in. I feel she needs to condemn the militants. Now. Additionally, I feel that if more strikes go ahead, the policy should be up for re-vote as it would be for a different period of strike action.
Students - even if you support these strikes, I urge you not to join in with the militants (Sussex Supports our Lecturers). This sort of behaviour is straight outta da winta of discontent. Innit.
UCU has lied to its members
- Professor Pope put to me on BBC Radio 5 that the UCU's report was done by an "independent body". No it wasn't. The report was commissioned and financed by the UCU and carried out by First Actuarial - a firm whose business model is to produce reports financed by the client. Naturally it's going to produce a report that its client wants to see. Why else does the Labour Party often commission reports from the TUC and the Conservatives from the CBI? Because they know they're going to get an answer they agree with.
- The figure quoted, that members will lose up to £200,000 in retirement, is quoted without any indication of the assumed level of investment return. This is not dissimilar to the "£350m for the NHS" figure that was contentious in Brexit - the figure is true, but only just if you include ALL benefits, not just pensions. The £200,000 figure is for a lecturer above £100k per annum on salary - a minority of lecturers.
- "Employers will pay less towards USS pensions." No they won't. UUK's proposals include a commitment to 18% employer contributions until March 2023.
- UCU claim UUK were over-represented in negotiations. The Joint Negotiating Committee, effectively arbitrating the negotiations, have made it clear this is a downright lie.
- The arrangements are up for discussion again in 2020, and are not fixed as UCU claims. Indeed, UUK have said they would like to reintroduce DB in these talks.
- UCU deny the claim that there is a deficit within USS. The Pensions Regulator and PWC have confirmed (independently, and I actually mean independently) that this is a lie, and the deficit does exist. And no, whilst it may not bankrupt people immediately, when you are short one week you have to economise the next. This is the reason for so-called "austerity". See the debt bombshell on the right-hand side of this page (unless you're viewing this on a mobile)? That's why the government have had to tackle their deficit. And so should USS.
- "Existing benefits already built up will be affected." Nope. These are protected by law, so cannot be changed.
- And finally, the last whopper of them all, the claim pensions will be cut by 40%. Not only is this a contentious claim by a bankrolled report, but even said report says only brand new staff will be affected to this degree. For someone with 20 years’ service who is due to retire in 2027 having started on a wage of £33,518, they would see a £1,600 a year (10.5%) cut - according to said very own report. So the notion that people with 30 years' experience will lose 40% is a lie. (Yes, I know this is not good either, but as I said, I sympathise, because no proposals on the table look to be good for lecturers at all.)
UCU's proposals are even worse than UUK's
UCU's own proposals would mean a cut in take-home pay for its lecturers. UCU's proposal is for employees to increase their contributions to the pension pot from 8% to 10.9%, a cut in accural rate from 1/75th to a bizarrely low 1/80th (1.25%), and employers to increase their contributions from 18% to 23.5%. Let's dismantle this policy.
- For a lecturer, this means their real take-home pay will be cut. If their salary is (say) £50,000, increasing the pension rate means more taken out of it (as per tax) before it reaches the wallet. Members will have to increase their contributions by 35%.
- Employers have had their contributions increased by 28.5% over the last 10 years by having their contributions increased by 4 percentage points over this time frame. To ask them to pay even more is unaffordable.
- Reducing the accural rate will mean fewer benefits for lecturers in retirement.
- This will add about £500m to the cost of pensions; Sussex alone, for example, will cost an extra £5.5m per year.
I hope this clarifies my position on these strikes. I hope all sides move on negotiations. We cannot go on like this - opportunistic militancy must stop.