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Higher Education Strikes and Disruption – Spare a thought for vulnerable students

Spare a thought for vulnerable students
"for students armed with very few rights in precarious employment, imagine telling an employer that you cannot do a shift because an examination has been rescheduled. Imagine doing this twice or three times. They cannot resign in protest; if they lose their job all could be lost. But they too want radical change"

The last week saw the latest round of what is rapidly escalating strike action by university lecturers. This action is now sustained, escalating and unprecedented. The extraordinary scenes outside UCU headquarters on Tuesday were the manifestation of a social media tornado that has not been seen before. But more worryingly is the effect on examinations and support for vulnerable students in the coming weeks. The usual tactic of management making overt threats to staff to diffuse the action has backfired spectacularly. Attempts to divide students and staff have also failed as more and more students join the dispute with sit-ins becoming commonplace. The expectation of students and parents demanding something be done seems muted in the face of increasing protest. Everyone, apart from the overpaid university bosses, knows that the system is broken. However, some are seeking a way out via a back door through fear that it may harm their positions and pay. The Cambridge vice-chancellor announced today in the Times that: “Turning universities into businesses caused strikes”. The tide is turning and surely more is to come. The well-worn tactic of punitive action against staff will surely fail when  exposed in the full view of their students at this time. The university managements must back down and lick their wounds upon reflection. Crocodile tears will not suffice.

But spare a thought for vulnerable students; the student dilemma should not be set aside.

On the one hand students see that change is necessary. High costs, fees and poor support are sources of deep rooted dissatisfaction for many. The pensions issue has become a handle that they can hang their coat of many grievances and general dissatisfaction on. Their experience of University tells than that scrapping the pension is the next inevitable step to privatisation and that they will be the losers. They also want a better future and are willing to make sacrifices now to achieve a better end. The #reclaimouruniversity campaign on social media, simmering for some time, sprung into life this week. Direct student action flared up across the UK and even at Trinity College Dublin where a major sit-in is ongoing. 

On the other hand, many poorer students are also very vulnerable during the protests. Due to low maintenance loans that do not cover living costs, they are suffering in damp-ridden, sub-standard accommodation with punitive part-time jobs and financial worries. We should not turn our face from their plight. Preparing and planning for crucial assignment deadlines and examinations whilst scheduling in work-shifts is difficult enough. Normally it is just about possible with classes and examinations timetabled accurately in advance. Now the uncertainty of delays and rescheduling looms. Yesterday UCU called upon external examiners across the sector to resign their positions in protest. They can legitimately do this and, if it takes hold, there will be severe delays. But for students armed with very few rights in precarious employment, imagine telling an employer that you cannot do a shift because an examination has been rescheduled. Imagine doing this twice or three times. They cannot resign in protest; if they lose their job all could be lost. But they too want radical change.

Universities need to step in urgently. Previous attempts by UCU representatives to ask universities to put the pay docked during the strikes into student hardship funds was usually met with derision (I have direct experience of this). Yet now the money involved is increasingly substantial and it cannot be allowed to go to line the pockets of the managers’ through bonuses. It is imperative that the university employers use the money saved to directly support student hardship at a critical time in their lives. The protests will escalate and will not go away easily. But more can be done to help those that need help now.

Student dissatisfaction is rising to eclipse the UCU action

On Saturday the Scottish Labour Party passed a motion that fully supported the action by lecturers and UCU. It was proposed by student activists in Edinburgh and Dundee and the fierceness of their rhetoric in debate was electrifying. Further impassioned pleas by young activists regarding poverty and student housing in later motions galvanised the conference. It all pointed to a general dissatisfaction in what they were being expected to tolerate. They will take no more. Something was coming together in Scotland that was likely to eclipse the UCU action on pensions. Sit-ins in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow commenced this week to back the UCU #NoCapitulation campaign that was seeing student action across the UK.

By Monday, on the face of it the situation had changed. The media reported a resolution. UCU, in negotiations with the combined employers, Universities UK, had reached a compromise ‘deal’ that partly saved the defined benefits scheme for three years whilst an independent review took place. But close inspection of the ‘deal’ unleashed a torrent of fury. It was no good and everyone agreed. Student activists seized upon this as an opportunity to let off steam.

On Tuesday the Higher Education Committee of UCU met to consider the ‘deal’. But in a very short space of time the #NoCapitulation social media campaign had condemned it to the waste bin. No one seemed to be in favour. Parallel meetings of UCU members across the universities voted down the ‘deal’. The genie was out of the bottle and is being blown to the four winds by increasing student protest action.

The roots of the pension problem are deeper that the pension scheme itself

This strike involves UCU members in the older so called ‘Pre-92’ Universities campaigning to save there defined benefit pensions in USS. This has been simmering for several years and comes on the back or earlier strike action where the employers partially backed down from their position of having a no defined benefit pension. The roots of this go deep into 2011 when a hole in the pension pot was first discovered. It supposed that if every institution went to the wall then, on the grounds of a valuation of pension scheme assets based upon government bonds and gilts, it would fall far short of meeting its commitments. The reality is that the pension is invested more professionally and in a variety of funds that are doing well and growing. There is no actual deficit – only a supposed one based upon a very unlikely scenario. This is just a convenient excuse used by employers to scrap the defined benefit scheme in favour of a cheaper defined contribution scheme. In 2015, after industrial action in response to an attempt to scrap the defined benefit scheme, UCU members agreed by ballot to mitigate the situation by accepting a defined benefit pension calculated on a final salary up to £55K pa (increasing in line with inflation) and a 5% cap on the inflation indexed pension payments. Although this was offset by increasing the accrual rate (that defines how much of the fund is added to pensions for every year of service) from 1/80 to 1/75, it was the final red line for many. Many did not like the deal then but backed down. Now, after the employers tried again to scrap the defined benefit pension, and in the face of strikes, they ‘conceded’ with an offer that asked staff to pay more for a defined benefit pension based upon up to £42K pa final salary. But then added insult by reducing the accrual rate to an incredible low of 1/85. Then they piled in by seeking an inflation indexed cap on pensions payments at 2.5%. The current inflation rate is 2.8% against a government target of 2.0%. Any future sustained inflation could virtually wipe out the pension with no fall-back position. The upshot is that staff were expected to pay a lot more for less pension and then throw caution to the wind by hoping that inflation remains low for many years to come. This added injury to insult.

The UCU Higher Education committee had no choice and decided it was pointless to seek a ballot on the ‘deal’. They rejected it.

The general dissatisfaction with the situation in Universities in the UK is deeper than the current dispute. It is more profound and damaging than most outside observers can comprehend. Overpaid managers pretending to be ‘leading’ are moving away from reality that exists for their staff and especially the poorest students. They reward themselves for cutting costs and increasing the number of staff delivering teaching on temporary contracts. Many are not in the USS pension scheme. The career trajectory of younger staff could see them on temporary contracts for many years before they reach the holy grail of a permanent job. By then they may only accrue a few years of pension and retire with little to show for it. Add inflation to the mix and you have an insecure, dissatisfied workforce.

However, the pension scheme costs are uncertain and a clear barrier to private investors coming into the sector. If the universities were to be led by private commercial concerns then the USS pension scheme would have to be scrapped in favour of a cheaper defined contribution scheme. The managers would then pay themselves even more to mitigate the effects to themselves. But the cat is out of the bag, the horse has bolted and the chickens have fled the coop.

Now we wait as the effects of further action bite. UCU are seeking further talks as a matter of urgency.

I hope they seek support for vulnerable students as part of this.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years unbroken teaching.


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