The University and College Union (UCU) got support from students on February 28th.

Largest university strike ever in the UK — what are the reasons?

University staff at 64 universities in the UK are striking against a proposed change in their pension scheme that could make them lose up to 10.000 pounds a year in retirement.

University staff at 64 universities in the UK are striking against a proposed change in their pension scheme that could make them lose up to 10.000 pounds a year in retirement. The employer organisation, Universities UK (UUK), wants to abandon the current pension scheme, which grants a guaranteed retirement income in favour of a riskier system that is subject to changes in the stock market (and less costly to the employers). According to the University and College Union (UCU), young lecturers would be worst hit with some losing up to half of their pensions.

The negotiations between the UUK and the UCU have not led to an agreement. The UUK claims that the proposed changes in pensions are an economic necessity. The UCU refutes this idea.

It is the staff at 68 universities founded before 1992 that are subject to the proposed changes because they are members of the so-called Universities’ Superannuation Scheme. In contrast, staff at institutions that became universities after 1992 will not be affected as they do not belong to the same scheme. This explains why not all universities are involved in the strike action.

In the universities affected by the potential changes the support for strike action has been almost unanimous: in January 88% of the UCU members in 64 out of 68 universities voted in favour of strike action. As a consequence, 14 strike days were issued for February and March. The first strike day 22 February received plenty of media attention as all the largest media outlets covered the strike. The strike is the largest university strike ever in the UK. The UCU estimates that over 1 million students are affected by the strike.

According to Professor Jane Holgate from the University of Leeds the dispute in itself is specifically about pensions but Holgate adds that

— People have been having great conversations in the picket lines. We have had the possibility to speak to each other in a way we normally don't because we are so busy. But what is interesting is that it has unleashed a series of frustrations that people have about working in the higher education sector. Staff are concerned with the increasing workloads, the increasing level of administration they have to do, and the increasing levels of managerialism. In a sense, what I think has happened is that the dispute has spread out from pensions to the whole marketisation of higher education. The students have been forced to become customers paying up to 9.500-pound tuition-fees per year. They have understood that they are being exploited and that their lecturers are being exploited. We are overwhelmed by the degree the students are backing the strike and joining the picket lines. I want to send my solidarity to the striking university staff in Finland! We are dealing with the same issues because of the neoliberal climate we are operating in. Good luck to you all!

Professor Andreas Bieler from the University of Nottingham in a similar vein points that the employers miscalculated the degree to which the students would back the strike. Bieler adds that

— I think there is also a miscalculation from the employers regarding the wider changes in the British society including the recovery of the Labour Party, and the movement of getting rid of the tuition-fees.

Bieler’s assessment is that these wider societal developments where neoliberalism is increasingly contested have given the strike a wider societal backing than otherwise would have been possible. According to Bieler, even the Conservative ministers responsible for education have more understanding towards the strike than what normally would be the case.

— I think we in the UK and Finland fight similar fights, my regards to Finland is a regard of solidarity! Bieler concludes.

At the time of writing (3 March) it is still unclear how the dispute will end. The UUK and the UCU will continue their negotiations 5 March.

Rolle Alho
Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki Visiting Fellow at the University College Dublin

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