The strike: a message for my students

This is a very scary situation. The university system has long exploited our good faith, and now seeks to repay us by savage cuts to our welfare in retirement, of about £10,000 a year on average. This is equivalent to a major salary cut now, after years of our salaries falling in real terms. Yet the empirical basis for the cuts remains unclear, with poor-quality modelling of future scenarios. The vote by the universities which sparked the strike appears to have been unfair, giving Oxbridge colleges with 300 students the same weight as universities with 50,000 students. I’ve never felt so worried about how little universities care about us. The whole thing is extremely troubling and genuinely scary. For more details, see here.

students support strikeIf dedicated lecturers in DPE (the Department of Political Economy) have chosen to strike, you should realise that this is a very, very, very serious matter. I know your education is important to you, but it is important to us as well. Most of us love to teach, and choosing not to do so has been an agonising decision for many strikers. (Our salaries will also be cut by £1000 or so for striking.) But the people who run Universities UK, the umbrella organisation for British academia, have not been taking us seriously.

If we do not stand up collectively now, many people will leave the UK academic system, or academia entirely, and future students will suffer. DPE students are members of a community over time, and the threat to our livelihoods is challenging the future of this community – not just 14 days of your education this term, serious though that is.

A significant majority of current students supports the strikes. Whether or not this includes you, I hope you will try to see things from our perspective, consider sending us a message of support, and write to the university to encourage them to reopen negotiations. You can find a link for how to do that at the end of this article.

But all of us hope that the universities will see sense, the strike will be called off, and your education will continue as before.

Why so many UK academics are striking

Like many UK academics, I’m striking because of the astonishing attack on our pensions by Universities UK, after poor governance of our pension scheme. Exeter pensions

This will hugely affect our welfare in retirement – about £10,000 every year on average to academics and many professional services staff (more in my case).

We’ve asked for our views to be addressed; this strike is our last resort. At KCL, the strike will be on Feb 26-28, March 5-8, March 12-16, and March 19-20. We’re all hoping it will be over soon, of course.


Who is under threat?

Despite newspaper rhetoric, it isn’t just lecturers who are scared by the proposed changes: also threatened are the pensions of non-teaching research staff, many professional services staff, and huge numbers of potential academics (including TAs and current students!) who may not want to become academics as a result.

So, crucially, if the proposed attack on our pensions happens, many people will leave UK universities, and the education of students will suffer further.


Why are we striking?

There’s great accounts by my colleague Alice Evans in the Guardian, by Waseem Yaqoob in the LRB – see especially the paragraph beginning “The rationale for the changes is dubious” – and by David Smith on Twitter. UPDATE: The Observer puts the pension cuts in broader perspective (although I myself am not too bothered by high pay for Vice-Chancellors).

The indefatigable Mike Otsuka has carefully charted a series of errors and faulty claims by Universities UK, including the questionable role of Cambridge colleges – significantly inflating the apparent support for the move that instigated the strike – and Universities UK’s false claims and incoherent position. As he puts it, “You break it, you own it”. Mike’s work in uncovering the problems and errors deserves immense credit. It’s clear how badly managed our pensions have been (see e.g. here – and this revealing BBC article).

The National Union of Students supports the strike, as does a significant majority of students.


How will this affect my students and colleagues?

I will spend the time doing my own research at home. (Technically, I shouldn’t do work that the university pays me for, but research is the only thing that gives me a sense of well-being right now; I’m doing it for me, and so I’m in a better position to move to a university in another country if things continue to go wrong in the UK.) UPDATE: I hadn’t intended to join the picket line, but I’m wavering.

USS Pension SchemeMy striking will mainly affect my admin role (Director of Education in my department).

I’m not teaching much this term, but I won’t hold office hours during the strike, read draft dissertation chapters, answer student emails (except if my personal tutees have emergencies), or answer emails involving the university or administration. A lot of meetings and emails will then have to be packed into non-strike days, further affecting students who want to meet or who need me to answer emails.

(In addition, I won’t work weekends again. I’ve just had 37 days work with only 2 days break, including a 21-day nightmare of continuous stress with no break. Not working weekends again is unrelated to the strike; I just don’t want to live like that any more! So I won’t be dealing with my email/admin backlog at weekends.)


What should students do?

Some people say that if students cross the picket-line, this disrespects striking academics and rejects our position. I don’t myself agree with that.

Personally, I would prefer students to go to what lectures and seminars they can, and complain. (The first part of this is not the official union position, of course!) UPDATE: Why? Because students are paying so much for their education, are often intellectually engaged with their courses, and don’t want their assessments to be affected (and potentially their job prospects as a result). Not going won’t make a difference, except to them, and going doesn’t show disrespect, in my view.

UPDATE: It would also be nice if students sent strikers a message of support, and showed some empathy about the scary situation we are facing.


What should Universities UK do?

Universities UK can’t win – they should get back to the negotiating table immediately. Many universities already want to do so (e.g. Newcastle, Essex, Warwick, Birkbeck).