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The Picket Line at Elmfield – 2018. “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”

It looks almost certain now that I will be on strike along with colleagues across sixty UK Higher Education Institutes for eight days between Monday Nov 25th and Wednesday Dec 4th. It’s stressful and depressing that so many of my colleagues and I feel compelled to take this action.

I don’t want to strike. I want to teach and research. But I am prepared to strike again for the second time since February 2018. Below is my rationale for why I struck in 2018. Alas most of it still applies today. I may yet post my thoughts on 2019…depending on whether I get the time.

23 February 2018.

A rare return to FaceBook <note for 2019 students – Facebook was a popular social media website> in solidarity with colleagues across 64 Higher Education Institutions along with whom I am striking over the ‘USS Pension Scheme’, which btw one tweet referred to as the ‘worst starship name ever’.

At first, I simply assumed the USS pension scheme was suffering the same demographic issues troubling society more generally. I.e. that fewer workers were paying in whilst ever more long living retirees were taking out.

Even I, a mere qualitative scholar in the humanities could see the maths here was problematic and so, to paraphrase one of Jack Nicholson’s lesser films – ‘something’s gotta give’ (Meyers, 2004). That something being the shift from a Defined Benefits to Defined Contributions pension scheme.

Yes, like the polar ice caps, European Integration and audio cassettes, such generous pension entitlement was something from a bygone era destined only for the history books. But cursory discussion with colleagues, attending a couple of UCU meetings, reading the news and some of the twitter revealed this not to be the case. As such, I’m on strike because I am outraged by (in no particular order):

1. The myth of the supposed £6bn deficit and dubious logic of the valuation underpinning the changes being imposed on us by UUK on the casting vote of the JNC’s independent chair.

2. The UUK leaked papers showing key figures were pushing to change the scheme in advance of the valuation suggesting its’s a pretext.

3. The ridiculous modelling of risk/stress test which is predicated on the entire UK HE Sector simultaneously going bust.

4. The opaque nature of the UUK consultation that overcounted Oxbridge colleges, whose own staff reject the way their institutions voted.

5. The loss of up to £10k a year in my pension just as I start contributing to a pension – cuts so bad and unnecessary that the Financial Times criticised them, as has Essex’s Pro Vice Chancellor whilst at Newcastle, their Pro Vice Chancellor ‘absolutely supports’ the Strike Action.

6. UUK already took a pensions holiday which cost £7billion > does that number sound familiar?

7. USS already took cuts compared to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme in the ’92 institutions, so where next if we give in/lose here?

8. The high salaries at the top tier of university management and also USS itself where the boss got an £82k pay rise for a total annual remuneration of £566k

9. The never-ending capital expenditure programmes when in reality without our (indebted) students and staff (in that order btw) there are no universities. See here > neoliberalization, marketisation and/or commodification of Higher Education.

Contrary to (some of) the press my academic starting salary was not £34k. I spent four years variously as a Student Support, Admin, Teaching Assistant and Invigilator. Often, I combined various roles at the same time, whilst doing full time research, trying to complete in 3 years, network and publish – still trying that last one btw.

I earned approx. £13 an hour but often only getting paid for 6-15 hours a week term time, ALWAYS IN ARREARS, without full employment rights and without having a pension.

And I was/am and recognise myself to be one of the lucky ones. Lucky because I had these roles plus stipend, fee waiver and the support of my amazing partner and so made it from PhD to Early Career Researcher. Too many cannot, and do not > see here the explosion in mental health problems across all levels of academia.

Yes, this was all my choice. This is my vocation, and yes, I am now on a very good salary as a University Teacher in International Politics and Security Studies at the fabulous Dept. of Politics at University of Sheffield. But this role is a fixed term 10-month contract, the one before was 3-months and if I’m lucky the next one will be anywhere from 6-18months. I honestly don’t know when or where I will get a permanent job and when I do my probation could be in excess of 3 years.

Like many academics I have moved twice for work/study, commute between cities and am prepared to move around the UK for work. And if I don’t publish and jump through the REF hoop then my career will likely never progress > see here 125 applicants per lectureship. Yet the reality of most ECR teaching heavy roles is that you have precious little time to write/publish.

So yes, after the two years of low paid work pre-PhD, the 4 years of my PhD and approx. 1 year into who knows how many potentially precarious years of ECR life I feel like I have earned my income and the pension plan I was promised. And which is still sustainable/ financial viable.

In amongst all this I would like to emphasise that my point here is not that academics are ‘victims’ who ‘suffer’ or are ‘worse off’ than others in society to the point where we deserve special consideration. Times are and have been tough for a lot of people for a long time. My point is that our career is deliberately a challenging one but we’d quite like to focus on the challenges we (and our students) set ourselves rather than the one being imposed upon us presently.

I don’t want special consideration. I loathe race to the bottom rhetoric and the pitting of public/private sector employees against one another. I want fair pay, terms & conditions and a decent pension for all ( ‘many not the few’), and in this case that means UUK doing something about bullet points 1-9.

I regret the disruption this action is causing my students but as the saying goes > ‘Lecturer Working Conditions are Student Learning Conditions’. Being on strike means forfeiting up to 14 days-pay, something few of us enter into lightly and many at great cost > see here casualisation, zero hours contracts, precarious short-term contracts.

Our intention is to get UUK back to the negotiating table – something 17 University Pro Vice Chancellors are also calling for – to respond to our concerns and do a better, fairer deal. We might not win the fight with this strike but if we do not strike we will definitely lose.

To read the thoughts of those more eloquent than I you could do worse than…

Graham Harrison (09/03/2018).  A tale of two univer(cities)

Catherine Pope (05/01/2018) Why pensions matter (and why you really must vote to save USS)

Waseem Yaqoob (16/02/2018) Why we strike

Anon. (19/02/2018) Why I don’t want to go on strike

Sam Marsh (22/02/2018) USS strike: staff walkout is only way left to stop unnecessary pension cuts

David Huyssen (22/02/2018) Twelve Tweet Take Down