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Workers Are Waging a Historic Battle for the Future of Higher Education

Starting tomorrow, the UCU is balloting workers at 152 universities in a landmark battle over pensions, pay and conditions – it will be the biggest industrial fight in the union's history.

Before February 2018, my union had never been on strike in universities for longer than a handful of days. But when university managers tried burn our pensions to the ground, members took inspiring and unprecedented strike action across four weeks.

Employers were trying to close the defined benefit element (a pension based on salary and length of service, rather than how much you have contributed to the fund) of the USS pension scheme, which gives our members in 69 universities a secure, guaranteed retirement income. I was an industrial relations lecturer in Sheffield at the time, standing firm on freezing picket lines and delivering strike day teach outs alongside thousands of my comrades across the country.

Through that massive strike, and similar national action again in 2019-20, we stopped employers shutting down defined benefits, and forced them to climb down, something that, to my knowledge, no other union has managed to do when forced with the closure of a DB scheme. Needless to say, we didn’t succeed alone.

Both strikes enjoyed huge political support from the then-Labour Party leadership, across the Opposition benches, and in the Lords. And, most crucially, we saw massive solidarity from students. Wherever there was a UCU picket line, there were students out not only boosting the strike but taking the kind of secondary action we can’t due to anti-union laws.

I believe that UCU has balloted more members for industrial action than any other union during this pandemic – even before we take these UK-wide higher education ballots of around 80,000 members into account. Not only that, we have comfortably averaged over 50% turnout.

Facing reckless employer disregard of risk assessments at the height of Covid transmission, our members in prison education and at universities balloted to force bosses to take their health and safety seriously. Educators at 49 prisons across the country then went on strike.

University staff have been battling hard, too, against vindictive redundancies and the scourge of casualisation. Chester UCU faced the threat of 86 compulsory redundancies earlier this year. They recruited, organised, built density, and reduced compulsory job losses to zero.

Royal College of Art (RCA) staff will tomorrow enter their third week of a strike against precarious contracts. And in colleges, our members have recently been on strike for three weeks for fair pay and conditions, having faced a 30% real-terms pay cut over the past decade.

From Monday, we are balloting members at 152 universities across the country for industrial action over pensions, pay, and working conditions. This is the biggest industrial fight we’ve ever faced as a union, but there’s nothing especially radical about our demand that education staff should have good, secure jobs in a sector that fulfils its essential function of furthering the public good and enriching society.

That notion is only controversial for the university bosses and government ministers who have overseen the managed decline of higher education over the past decade: taking an axe to public education by degrading pay, slashing pensions, and entrenching precarious employment across the sector. They have run down universities, institutions with wonderful potential to serve the public good at every level of society, so that they are ruled by and for the logic of the market.

We, of course, like so many students and young people, want a totally transformed education system that is decommodified and democratised. One of the single most popular policy commitments in recent British political history was Labour’s support for scrapping tuition fees and introducing direct public funding for higher education.

But the first step in the struggle for better universities is stopping and reversing over a decade of employer attacks on our members. This isn’t only about defending our material interests, but protecting universities from the bosses who would sooner trash the sector than treat staff and students with dignity and respect.

Sadly, higher education is in a grimmer state than many realise. There is still a common assumption that academic staff especially are well paid and comfortable. The truth is that pay has plummeted by over 17% in real terms over the past decade, and employers continue to respond by insulting us with below-inflation pay offers.

Workloads were already untenable, with many staff working 7-day weeks as standard. They have spiralled out of control since the pandemic began, with four-fifths of university staff struggling with sky-rocketing workload and associated poor mental health.

Degraded pay and unmanageable workloads are both profoundly discriminatory in their impact. Shamefully, the racial, gender, and disability pay gaps in higher education stand at 17%, 16%, and 9% respectively, while BAME women, LGBT+ and disabled staff are all much more likely to experience high workloads and resultant stress.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is the scourge of casualisation – the dirty secret that underpins Britain’s universities. One-third of staff across all academic jobs are on fixed-term contracts, amounting to almost 75,000 staff, while 44% of teaching only staff in universities are in temporary posts. Several thousand academics are on zero-hours contracts, while over 66,000 are excluded from the main staff record as a result of being on ‘atypical’ contracts.

This is far from a ‘reserve army’ of labour: without precariously-employed staff, universities would collapse. Those on atypical contracts do up to one-third of teaching in many institutions. Given precarity is the default mode of work and life for so many working class, and particularly young working class, people in the economy today, our fight against casualisation is part of a much wider struggle.

Against this background, one of the few things that makes working in higher education a salvageable prospect for young people and those early in their careers is the chance of a decent pension. Outside the public sector, USS is one of the few defined benefit pension schemes left standing – as retirement income, like so much else, has been ravaged by the whims of the market.

Yet university managers are doing their best to trash pensions, too. Cuts to USS since 2011 have already left the typical member of staff £240,000 worse off, and now, employers are trying to force through a 35% cut to guaranteed retirement income.

In their determination to relentlessly attack the livelihoods of our members and run universities like businesses, Vice Chancellors are ‘managing’ the higher education sector like vandals. This regime governing the UK’s universities harms students and staff in equal measure. That was clearer than ever during the pandemic, when many students were brought back to campus under false pretences, only to be locked up in their halls of residence.

For universities reliant on income from tuition fees and rent, thanks to marketisation, students were seen as cash-cows – with their wellbeing at best a secondary concern. Students fought back with inspiring protests, rent strikes, and occupations, always making clear who was to blame: super-rich Vice Chancellors, not hard-working staff. And UCU was proud to stand with and support them.

Our demands – for pension cuts to be revoked, a £2.5k pay uplift to be implemented, and for national frameworks to tackle casualisation, workload and equality issues – are simple. But winning them is crucial to the future of universities, and crucial for our movement.

In October 2018, six months before my election as general secretary, we only got 8 branches over the 50% turnout threshold in a pay ballot. By the following winter, more than 70 cleared the hurdle. Now we need to raise the bar again, and given the scale of industrial action our members are voting on from tomorrow, we need the whole movement behind us in this fight.

For the next three weeks, I will be travelling around the country to help branches maximise the turnout and the YES votes in our ballots – and then I’ll see you on the picket lines.