For 14 days in February and March, the university will come to a standstill as tutors and lecturers take to the picket line. The Student spoke to various academics and members of the University and College Union (UCU) in Edinburgh about their motivations for striking, their concerns about taking industrial action, and what students can do to get involved.
At 61 universities across the UK, members of the UCU voted in favour of strikes to protest proposed changes to pension schemes. Universities UK (UUK) has proposed reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) that would replace the ‘defined benefit’ scheme with a ‘defined contribution’ scheme.
The switch would mean that formerly guaranteed pensions would become dependent on stock market performance. Lecturers are estimated to each lose £10,000 a year as a result of the changes. UUK claims that the current pension scheme is not sustainable in part because of a £17.5 billion deficit faced by the USS.
The UCU members voted in overwhelming majority to strike, with around 88 per cent of respondents from the University of Edinburgh voting in favour. Both the UCU and academic staff emphasise that industrial action is being taken as a last resort.
“[The UCU] do not want to take strike action: we want to continue talking, and reach a negotiated agreement. As academics, we care about our students and most of us who are planning to participate in strike action do so with a heavy heart. It is UUK’s intransigence which has brought us to the brink of such radical action,” a University and College Union Edinburgh (UCUE) Spokesperson told The Student.
The claim of a USS financial crisis has been the subject of public debate. The UCU argues that the USS’ £17.5 billion deficit has been artificially inflated. In an open letter in The Guardian, over 153 academics from universities across the UK, including nine from the University of Edinburgh, argued that USS finances are secure.
These academics say that the attack on pensions must be viewed as part of a growing trend in which university management prioritises the financing of buildings and campuses over academics.
This financialisation has been condemned by striking staff such as Sophia Woodman, Chancellor’s Fellow in Sociology: “There are much broader issues that it raises around the business model of the university which I think is contrary to what educational institutions should be for. It is also contrary to the legal status of this university, which is a charity. I’m participating because of these broader concerns, not just about pensions,” Woodman told The Student.
With the upcoming strike exclusively about the proposed changes to pensions, a staff member of the School of Social and Political Science argued that bringing up other concerns, such as the university’s reliance on casualisation contracts, would dilute its impact.
Not all striking staff members are confident about the efficacy of industrial action. Striking staff member Hugo Gorringe, a senior lecturer in Sociology, expressed reservations about the methods being employed.
“We are not a sausage factory where downing tools affects the profits of the industrialist. When we down tools it has always meant doing that work at a later date rather than not doing it,” Gorringe told The Student.
However, the UCU and other university staff members assert that immediate industrial action is necessary to produce results. “It’s important to strike hard,” an academic from the School of Social and Political Science argued, “I feel real conflict about the fact that our action does impact students, and it’s not your fault what’s happening. Unfortunately, striking is the only kind of pressure that we can bring to bear on the university, enough pressure to make it work.”
Many students have responded to the news of potential lost class time with requests for financial reimbursement, using Twitter and petitions to call for compensation for lost contact hours.
One academic who requested to remain anonymous suggested that such responses have validity: “I don’t like the fact that students are treated like consumers, I hope [students] don’t too,” they said. ”But, since students are, this would be a reasonable ask; students are paying a lot of money for education, and they will not get everything they are paying for.
“Other organisations, for example, train companies, when strikes affect commuters they offer a refund for season ticket holders. If students start requesting fee refund that is a perfectly reasonable request and it will put the kind of pressure on the university that we need to see.”
Some staff expressed wariness of viewing students through the prism of consumerism, noting that it could lead students to disengage from campus issues. Staff members stressed that students can be simultaneously angry and involved.
A spokesperson from the UCUE branch advised: “For those who are angry, then we share that anger, and ask them to direct it at the Senior Managers who make the financial decisions (the Principal, the University Secretary, Professor Charlie Jeffery, Vice-Principal for Learning and Teaching).”
Many university staff members also urged students to join them on the picket line. The UCU has provided further materials and advice on actions students can take, from a template of an email to send to the university, to more practical advice on the strike days.
These strikes centre around the attack on pensions, but they have drawn attention to brewing frustration about the University of Edinburgh’s investment in its brand over the needs of staff and students.
The spokesperson from the UCUE emphasised this: “the University of Edinburgh is one of the largest institutions with the USS scheme. It is also one of the richest. It could lead the way by speaking out against the proposals, rather than hiding behind the excuse that they are doing this to protect less financially secure institutions.”
Image: Dave Pickersgill