It was a strategic error, on their part. Universities UK and USS thought they could score an easy win, but they started a revolution. The pension thing was the straw that broke the camel’s back, apparently, and it has triggered the greatest wave of staff-student mobilization the sector has seen in decades.
What did they think lecturers would do while on the picket lines for three weeks? Chat about the weather? Snack on cucumber sandwiches? And what about students? Were they going to stay at home and sleep?
Hardly. For starters, we learned a few things. We learned that there is no “deficit” in the pension fund; in fact, there is a surplus. We learned that the whole thing is a ruse to justify offloading financial risk onto pensioners so that universities can get cheaper credit to buy new buildings – which has somehow become the raison d’etre of higher education in the UK. We learned that richer universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, were instrumental to this scheme. We learned that women are going to be hardest hit by the pension cuts. We learned that pension bosses make obscene amounts of money, in excess of £1.2 million per year. And we learned that UUK and USS are opaque and anti-democratic.
But we’ve also been thinking way beyond pensions. Pensions are the last thing on our minds now. What we’re really after is nothing short of reclaiming our universities from the banal and reductive logic of neoliberal capitalism - including the uberization of lecturers, the CEO-ification of managers, and the customerization of students. Because really, what’s at stake here is the public university itself. Across the country, staff and students are forming groups, sharing ideas, discussing strategy, even staging occupations toward the goal of making our universities fairer, more caring, more democratic places. We’re not content to weed around the edges of this broken system. We’re going straight to the heart of it.
Demands are snowballing. Everything is on the table. Some of us have found inspiration in a list of ideas posted by Jacob Bard-Rosenberg from Birkbeck. I’ve reproduced some of them here, and added others that seem to be gaining traction. This list is only partial, of course – and it’s just the beginning.
• Reject the proposed cuts to pensions. More specifically, demand an immediate re-valuation of USS. There is zero reason for this process to take 3 years.
• Abolish tuition fees, and restore adequate block-grant funding to higher education. Public universities should be publicly funded with progressive taxation.
• Democratize university governance. Open the Academic Board (and the vote) to all academic staff, including post-docs and fractional workers, and extend the powers of the Academic Board to include the right to review decisions made by the Council and the Vice Chancellor. Once we have meaningful democratic power over university management, we will be able to enact much of our broader vision, including many of the points listed below.
• Include service staff on university management committees all the way to the top, including those on the lowest pay such as cleaners.
• Demand transparency at UUK and USS. Subject UUK to the Freedom of Information Act, and require USS to publish its valuation reports and methodology. Bring UUK/USS salaries in line with normal salaries in the HE sector.
• Demand that all university staff receive annual pay rises in line with inflation as a contractual right. And introduce reasonable fixed pay ratios between lowest-paid workers and highest-paid managers.
• Demand an end to outsourced labour; bring all university staff in-house and guarantee them equal working conditions (pensions, holiday, sick leave, etc).
• Demand an end to zero hours contracts in the sector.
• Refuse to take part in REF and TEF, which show no evidence of improving research or teaching and which create destructive competition and hierarchies.
• Refuse to publish anything held behind paywalls (the knowledge monopolies of Elsevier, Springer, and Co. must be ended). Set up free online alternatives where necessary (as anthropologists have done with Hau and Anthropology of This Century).
• Refuse to publish books with academic presses where books are so expensive only institutions can purchase them. Set up alternative presses where necessary (publishing is now remarkably cheap).
• Refuse to take part in league-tables, which create destructive competition and hierarchies.
• Demand a student-staff ratio cap, so that increases in student numbers are matched by new academic hires.
• Demand an end to PREVENT, and an end to the use of lecturers as a surveillance mechanism against students who are not UK citizens.
• Allow departments to review the use of marks and time-bound exams, which often narrow the meaning of learning and trigger unnecessary anxiety for students.
• Ensure that students have access to adequate and affordable accommodation.
• Abolish the position of Vice Chancellor and replace it with an internally elected role in service of democratic bodies like the Academic Board and Council, paid like a public sector worker rather than a corporate CEO.
After the pensions dispute is over, the status quo will no longer be an option. Our employers are kidding themselves if they assume otherwise. Ideas are proliferating like a thousand butterflies. What once seemed impossible now seems imminent.