The university is going on strike. Employees of The University of Edinburgh, following a vote by the University and College Union (UCU), have backed 14 days of action in protest against changes to the nationwide university pension system. Proposed reforms to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) that controls pensions will leave staff significantly worse off financially. The protest embodies more than this one reform – it is a stand against the increasingly strict and exploitative working conditions of the academy. As a student body, Edinburgh is prone to inaction, however this can no longer continue. Students of the university must voice their support and stand in solidarity with fellow members of the institution.
University staff members are unquestionably justified in combating the continued degradation of their financial and working security. Under proposed changes, the USS will be shifted from a ‘defined benefit’ scheme to a ‘defined contribution’ scheme based on stock market investments. This replaces guaranteed incomes for staff with a pensions fund which is endemically insecure and vulnerable to fluctuation: by some estimates, lecturers will be £10,000 worse off a year. The strikes in Edinburgh aim to highlight many of the other increasingly challenging conditions of working at the university, such as the maximum 30-minute payment rule for marking essays.
Criticism has been levelled that strikes will cause major disruption to students and their education, particularly those in final year entering a critical assessment period – but this is misplaced. To argue so places the interests of students wholly above those of staff members, who currently endure high-pressure, low-salary contracts. In the same week that the new principal was appointed on a salary of over £340,000, employees have yet again found their living standards targeted by marketized cost-saving strategies. Instead of blaming those who protest, we must refocus our anger on those in power who structure the working conditions that have engendered discord.
It is worth stating the fundamental fact of strikes: taking collective action is a last resort taken under extreme circumstances. It is not the fault of strikers that they are forced to take industrial action in order to highlight and fight against malpractice. Strikes do not just affect students but pose a huge risk to the staff members who sacrifice days of pay. Students must not buy into the victim-blaming rhetoric which lays the fault of collective action at those brave enough to take a stand against their exploitation.
The university encompasses so much more than the undergraduate student body that many of us are limited to. It is a broad organisation that incorporates the people and city surrounding it. It is not just a marketized service, but a dynamic, evolving entity. It is not just a dispenser of education, but a source of expanding knowledge, and a livelihood for many. We must look beyond the privileged view that the university exists to serve students’ needs, and recognise we must support those who support us.
Instead of complaining about its impact on our lives, it is critical we consider why employees are taking action. The strikes are supported by both Edinburgh University’s Students Association and the NUS. It is on a history of unionised, collective action that workers rights were secured, and we must take our part in continuing to stand for this cause.
From a colonial curriculum to luxury accommodation, there are many issues to be tackled at the University of Edinburgh. But the wellbeing of students will not be secured by sacrificing staff to encroaching neoliberal business practices within education. Through voicing our support, through joining protests, we can unite in solidarity and ensure justice for the people of the academy.
Image: Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr