University and College Union to vote on new pension strikes

Image courtesy of: Kent Union

The University and Colleges Union (UCU), in conjunction with multiple other unions, are balloting on strike action on November 1st.

There are two reasons for the ballot.

The first is an echo of 2018’s strikes; the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). This is the largest pension scheme for higher education staff in the country.

Contributions staff are expected to make have increased up to 9.6% as of October 2019, but the amount they get in return is diminishing. Analysis by First Actuarial found the average USS member stands to lose £240,000 in retirement.

Another reason is the issue of pay inequalities. The real terms value of pay in higher education has fallen by 20% in the last decade, and the average pay gap based on gender and ethnicity in higher education stands at 15.9%.

Casualisation means that academics, teaching and assistant teaching staff are on increasingly precarious and insecure contracts – where 71,000 academic staff in the country find themselves.

Employers, in the wake of 2018’s strikes, offered a 1.8% pay rise, but this has been rejected.

This rise is far below inflation as real terms wages have been plummeting for some time, particularly in the South East.

The unions core demands are simple; a total end to zero hours contracts in higher education, a legally binding commitment from universities to close all discriminatory pay gaps, a pay rise of 3% or £3,349 (whichever is more), and the minimum wage for all higher education staff to be £10 an hour.

Dr. Owen Lyne, head lecturer in School of Mathematics, Statistics and Actuarial Sciences, and Branch Secretary for University of Kent UCU, has said that the USS scheme could work for both the university and the staff.

He said: “it’s in Kent’s interest to get this positively resolved”.

A recent national offer to the unions would have employers cover a limited amount of the USS contributions for staff, but would also impose a two-year strike ban on all higher education unions.

Dr Lyne added: “almost all of the unions have said the employers’ offers fall short”.

Between 2015-17, industrial action won the introduction of Guaranteed Minimum Hours contracts for most lecturers.

Dr Lyne said employers and Human Resources departments seem to find these requirements “cumbersome”.

He added: “we said: ‘we have casual stuff who are vulnerable’ and the university says ‘we can deal with that, we’ll sack them’”.

“Our working conditions are your learning conditions”.

The role of a students’ union is “inherently political”, and the union “overlooks the overlap in UCU and

Kent Union membership”, in regard to Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs).

One unnamed GTA said: “academia is not a kind of machine; I really believe our working conditions affect you directly”.

They added that the failure of the university to deliver substantive change for staff in the wake of the 2018 strikes, combined with the absurd pressure of doctoral workloads, has served to discourage many staff from taking part in further industrial action.

Dr. Lyne added that the Trade Union Act 2016 – which requires a ballot to have at least a 50% turnout to be legal – “encourages members not to vote” and is “anti-democratic”.

The GTA shared Dr. Lyne’s disappointment with Kent Union, “we need to involve students”. He said he understands why students see it as an inconvenience, but “if you strike, strike. Disrupt the system”.

Kent Union has since created a petition, where students can “shape Kent Union’s stance”.

The post explains in brief the cause of the strikes, and mentions the mixed student response to the strikes of 2018.