We are now at the end of (the first) 4 weeks of an industrial dispute between the Universities UK (UUK) and the University and College Union (UCU). I thought it useful to reflect on the dispute for the benefit of anyone interested, particularly my students.
In summary – the dispute should be seen in a wider context in terms of:
- stakeholders (staff and students);
- time (longer term trends and issues); and
- scope (university governance, fairness, representation and even the philosophical standing of Higher Education).
I provide a list of actions that interested individuals (particularly students) can take depending on their point of view.
Of course all opinions are my own and not the University’s (nor indeed UCUs).
I am trying to keep this blog as neutral as I can – this is not a piece of advocacy. Of course I have my own opinions which I am happy to share but I am hoping that my discussion of the issues is useful in providing a rounded perspective, whatever your views.
And I am generally using the term ‘dispute’ rather than ‘strike’ to encompass the wider actions including those ‘short of a strike’ plus of course the ongoing negotiations and examination of the issues.
The dispute is not really about pensions
Of course it is, but the pensions dispute provides what we might call a proximate cause. Much has been written about the rights and wrongs of defined benefit pensions, some of it highly technical. But to dwell on this would be, I think, to miss the wider point.
The dispute has provoked unprecedented (in my experience anyway) engagement: both in terms of participation (numbers) and intensity (feelings). In my view (highly subjective!) the issues go well beyond pensions both in terms of time and scope. In terms of the former, resentment has been building for some time over issues like casualisation of contracts, previous cuts to benefits, increasing stress and workload of the job and so on (note the level of resentment is related to perception which remains real whether or not the perception is justified). In terms of the latter, staff are, I think, wanting to have more of a voice in how things are done. Many see the University moving in a direction that they feel uncomfortable with and one that is not in the best interests of students and society. Indeed, there is a current groundswell of activity seeking major changes to University governance (at @UniOfBath the Professors for Change are pushing for fundamental reform) and the strike is part of that.
The strike is not about students…
As a Director of Studies I care very much about the student experience. So it is very distressing to receive an email like this:
“… [I know the] purpose of the strike [is to try to] to annoy students as much as possible….”
Of course this is not the intention. In one of the UCU missives I have seen, the explanation was that strikes are intended to
“make it easier for management to do the right thing than the wrong thing”.
But there is no doubt that students will be inconvenienced, or worse, by strike action. The question is whether who can best resolve this. UUK would argue that if UCU stopped striking then the problem will be solved. UCU would argue that if UUK engaged with them meaningfully then the problem would be solved. In the meantime, students are stuck in the middle.
So what can we do? Well, as Director of Studies I have met with the academic representatives and held two informal briefings to explain the situation, to hear students’ concerns and to answer as best I can. I understand that many other Directors of Studies are doing the same, and ‘extraordinary’ Staff Student Liaison Committees have been convened. The University has produced some guidance to students and is working to put in place appropriate mitigation to ensure that no student is unfairly disadvantaged by the situation (at time of writing, the most recent guidance was issued on 16 March). UUK for its part has its own guidance for students. UCU meanwhile has been engaging with students both formally through its website, and informally, through leaflets, updates (this for PG teaching Assistants) and many conversations on the pickets.
… the dispute is about students
Actually, the dispute is about students, but not in the way that my correspondent believed.
Many UCU members would view the dispute as part of a longer term drive to support working conditions for academics and to ensure that we continue to offer a world class education for undergraduates and postgraduates. In this sense it is indeed about the students, but in a long term context – the students of tomorrow if you like.
Given this, I have been surprised (and rather impressed) at the level of support from current students in Bath and nationally. Even the Student Union Vote which was overall against the strike, showed 41% in favour (54% against). And while the strike has been on, many students have joined the picket lines and of course there is an ongoing student occupation outside the Vice Chancellor’s suite with accompanying demonstrations.
Nor is this unique to Bath – over the country, there were student occupations at 15 institutions (then Nottingham joined, and others – at time of writing there are 22) . All timed to coincide with the UCU strike. All aligned with the UCU strike. And all supported by striking academics.
Less confrontationally, there have been a series of ‘Strike On, Teach Out’ events @UniOfBath (and elsewhere). This events bring staff and students together in a shared space to discuss the future of the University.
So there is a wider movement here. And it binds staff and students.
What action should I take?
And so what action should you take? This section is particularly aimed at students, if you are a staff member or interested member of the public then please interpret to suit.
As Director of Studies I would advocate that students ensure they understand the mitigation process, in particular as it related to industrial action. Other actions available to students are as follows (I am trying to keep this blog neutral, so I am advocating neither for nor against any, though of course I have my opinions).
The Bath SU has a series of actions specifically aimed at @UniOfBath students whether they support the dispute or not. I have written my own take on this below:
- Putting pressure on senior management to end the dispute.
- Here’s a link from UCU to send a preformatted letter to the VC (you select your own University)
- Evidence would suggest that this has had some effect, with vice chancellors from many institutions (Essex, Newcastle, Cambridge) issuing statements that significantly modify their previous positions. Sheffield’s VC visited the picket line! Even @UniOfBath has issued a statement which is a break from the previous position of “no comment”.
- UCU also advocates that students sign a petition to put lost pay (from striking staff) into a hardship fund for students.
- Putting pressure on the union to end the strike.
- You can email UCU stating your support or opposition for the dispute and/or strike.
- From what I can see, while this has clearly not shifted the union’s fundamental position, it has resulted in some interesting and perhaps illuminating exchanges on the UCU forums.
- Alternatively if you support UCU, you can (if you are a postgraduate teaching assistant) join UCU for free as a student member –ucu.org.uk/free
- Asking your lecturers to make allowances for strike action.
- Most lecturers I have talked to would be unwilling to reschedule lectures from the strike – this would effectively be working for free, as UCU explains here. However, all lecturers I have spoken to are sympathetic to student requests and will do what they can to support you – this includes supporting any reasonable case for mitigation for example.
- All lecturers I have spoken to are very happy to talk to any affected students, to hear their concerns, and to suggest an appropriate course of action.
- You can also tell your lecturers whether you support or oppose their action.
- Complaining to the University.
- There has been a petition aimed at claiming compensation for lost fees, although the @UniOfBath website appears to explicitly rule this out: the Regulations for Students 2017/18, item 3.8
- As I said above, UCU also advocates that students sign a petition to put lost pay (from striking staff) into a hardship fund for students. The University is considering this request.
- Complaining to the government
- Interestingly, the Chinese Embassy seems to be advocating something along these lines, calling on students to “press their demands through legitimate channels” though your reading of what this means may differ from mine.
- One possibility: UCU members have launched a petition calling the UK Government to guarantee the USS pension scheme. If you think this would be a good idea, you can sign the petition here I think it may be open only to UK residents.
- Joining staff on the picket lines – UCU would argue that the stronger the show of support, the quicker the strike will end.
- At time of writing, the main strike has finished, though there is more strike action planned for the assessment period
If you are an affected student you may wish to consider those actions outlined above and decide which of these actions you feel is most appropriate for you to take.
.. and for the record
Briefly, a few facts. I have presented these in a succinct and objective manner but happy to take any comments or corrections.
UUK are proposing to remove the so-called defined benefit, an arrangement that means that academics and other University staff get a pension proportional to their average earnings while working. UUK would prefer a defined contribution scheme, where the money is invested on behalf of the staff member.
On 12 March 2018, a proposal was put forward. In Bath there was a Branch Meeting (13 March) at which all views were solicited (a wide range of perspectives, including those arguing for the proposal and against further strike action). The result was that the proposal was overwhelmingly rejected, with a resolution to continue strike action.
Similar outcomes were recorded at almost all other institutions. The outcome was therefore that the proposal was rejected by UCU as a whole.
Bath then convened another Branch Meeting on 16 March at which the following resolutions were passed almost unanimously:
The exact details for further industrial action are not yet decided, though it is of course possible that an agreement will be reached before Easter. The possibility of this happening will depend on a number of factors, and there are a number of ways in which students, staff and even the public can influence the outcome (see above).
STOP PRESS: As I was writing this blog this came in:
and UCU have responded:
So the situation continues to evolve.
This blog is not about the technicalities of the dispute, which is referred to on the @UniOfBath website, and the case for reform is set out in a blog by UUK. For those interested in following the debate, this blog from @SellaTheChemist contains a lively discussion of the technical and philosophical issues (with some unusually thoughtful exchanges in the comments section). There is an even more technical discussion from Michael Otsuka here and more recently here
A recent piece in the Financial Times which is generally thought of as a reliable publication:
(I think these 2 last pieces underline my point about the wider context).
At risk of repeating myself, my main reflections are
- The dispute is not (just) about pensions
- The dispute is – to my surprise – uniting staff and students
- However it resolves, the dispute will, I think, be part of fundamental, longer term changes to Higher Education globally.