On 22nd January 2018, members of the University and College Union (UCU) across 61 universities overwhelmingly backed a strike against reforms proposed by the employers’ organisation Universities UK (UUK) to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, a private pension scheme for universities and other higher education institutions.
The proposed reforms will result in the average lecturer losing £200,000 in retirement, or about 40% of their current expected pension, as the scheme switches to a “defined contributions scheme” whose returns will depend on what Students Union UCL describes as “stock market gambling by fund managers”.
Following the failure of negotiations between UCU and UUK, strikes have become a near-certainty. UCU has announced four escalating waves of strike action between February 22nd and March 8th, for a total of 14 days. Lecturers and other academics will be refusing to work during those days, and will not reschedule missed classes. Students across the country thus face disruption to their education, and the NUS and student unions like the Cambridge University Student Union have been mandated by their members to support the striking academics.
This strike will take place against the backdrop of the rising cost of higher education in the UK. Ever since tuition fees were introduced in 1998, tuition fees have been rising. Home and EU undergraduate students, with the exception of EU and Scottish students in Scotland, pay up to £9,250 in tuition fees each year, although some universities have allowed their students to continue paying at the previous £9,000 fee cap. Postgraduate and non-EU international students paying more than that. Assuming an academic year of 40 weeks, every week of university costs us over £225 in tuition alone.
Currently, no proposals have been made to compensate students for the cost of this strike. Almost a million students across the UK (not counting the Open University) thus stand to lose nearly three working weeks of education to this strike, at a cost in excess of £675 per student. In total, this is a loss of over £650m.
As members of UUK, the universities facing strike action are collectively responsible for the strike. UUK is controlled by the Vice-Chancellors of each university, not the academics whose pensions are being affected.
Its proposed pensions reforms are unjustified; the “notional deficit” they propose to correct is based on an implausible scenario where all pre-1992 universities shut, simultaneously, and leave pension funds devoid of income to pay out future pensions. Universities have also spoken out against these reforms, with the University of Warwick’s senior management calling them unnecessary and the University of Oxford calling attention to the use of unreliable statistics to hide the extent of benefits cuts. Furthermore, there are signs that this pension “reform” may be the first step towards further cuts to education, which could mean universities cutting staff and downsizing departments.
In this scenario, it is unfair to expect students to cross picket lines or do anything besides stand with striking academics, who are defending themselves against unjustified threats to their livelihoods and standing in the way of attacks on the education system we benefit from. This strike has thus left students between a rock and a hard place: we either have to cross the picket lines of academics fighting to defend our education, or sacrifice hundreds of pounds’ worth of tuition fees, paid for dearly by our own labour or that of our parents.
This is a choice that students should not have to make, and it is a choice we do not have to make. The alternative is this: as students, we should be given a refund for each day of strike action. Rail companies like Northern Railway and Southern Rail already offer refunds to commuters who decide not to travel on strike days. Airlines may also offer compensation to travellers whose flights are cancelled or delayed due to strike action. Such refunds benefit both travellers and workers; travellers get their money back if they cannot or choose not to use the affected services, and strike-breaking by travellers or workers is less likely. Refunds thus focus the impact of a strike squarely on employers and offer consumers the freedom to stand with striking workers rather than cross a picket line. While students are not consumers per se, it is unfortunate that the current model of higher education nonetheless treats us as consumers.
The current government’s Teaching Excellence Framework plans to increase competition between universities and allow them to raise fees, promoting a market within education. International students, in particular, are treated as sources of revenue, with universities aggressively marketing themselves to international students and subsequently abandoning them when they are unable to pay their fees. There is thus a case for a refund for days where our education is disrupted by strike action; since education is being treated like a service, students should not be forced to either break a strike or pay for services we do not receive.
The responsibility for this strike falls on the shoulders of UUK and the universities that make it up. It does not fall on the UCU, who are merely defending themselves from swinging and unjustified cuts to their pensions and standing up for education. Neither does it fall on students, who have done nothing wrong in this scenario, but are now being given the choice either to turn against academics and our own interests or to lose hundreds of pounds in the exercise of our conscience. Thus, unless UUK can take action to resolve the dispute and prevent the strike, universities must do the right thing and refund students for each day of classes disrupted by strike action.