This blog was written by Students for Global Health member* Joanna Marsden on 22nd February in response to the UCU pension disputes. *But does not necessarily reflect the views of all members.
Over the coming weeks the University College Union (UCU) has planned multiple strikes days, cancelling lectures and research. These strikes come at the end of months of talks and a ballot of union members resulting in an 88% (1) vote in favour of strike action. But why do these dedicated people, who spend so much of their free time supporting us through uni, spend their evening marking our essays (who hasn’t received a grade back at 6pm on a Saturday?), and devote their lives to pursuing cutting edge research, feel the need to take, what appears on the surface, to be such extreme action? It is to due to changes to their pension that will hugely affect individuals’ financial security, and are deeply unfair.
Currently all academics working for some of the UK’s top 64 (2) universities are part of a defined benefit pension scheme run by the USS; the proposed changes convert this to a defined contribution scheme. This would see a typical lecturer loose £10,000 a year (2). For someone approaching retirement, financially unprepared for a change to their pension, this could lead to severe insecurity in old age. The new scheme also changes how pensions are structured. Previously, contributions were paid into one pot, pooling risk. The new scheme individualises pensions and links them to the stock market, which could go up, or could go down, producing uncertainty in how much one can expect upon retirement (3). But most importantly, these changes would shift risk from being collectively pooled, to the individual.
These changes would not only unfairly affect current staff, who have dedicated years of their lives to educating generations of students. These changes will affect the sustainability of our world-renowned universities and research. Academia and teaching seeks out the brightest sparks, to impassion future generations, and conduct the cutting edge research upon which our economy relies. However, successful graduates have hundreds of attractive career options, many, in the private sector, highly paid. A fair and secure pension goes some way to discounting the financial disadvantages of academia, by giving long-term security. Pension changes will mean academics need to save harder while working, to ensure security in retirement. This risks long hours with poor pay driving staff, and potential future staff, to leave an already stressful profession. Furthermore this contributes to the increasingly privatised nature of our education system. The introduction of tuition fees has encouraged students to see our education as a commodity; we pay for it, extract it and leave. However it is so much more: our universities shape who we are, they challenge our views, peak our interests and broaden our horizons. Privatising pensions just adds to the commodification of education.
But what is the reason behind this? The argument is that the current scheme is running a £7.5 billion deficit. This deficit is calculated on the assumption that every contributor (university) stops paying in simultaneously and immediately (4) (“Test 1”). This assumes that Oxford, Cambridge and tens of other exceptional establishments go bust tomorrow, and even if this unthinkable scenario became a reality, which seems unlikely, given these are some of the UK’s most internationally competitive institutions, the government would almost certainly step-in, as they have done with other industries such as the banks.
This is an argument about stability of employment, which is crucial to good health and wellbeing. These pensions were changed just a few years ago, and are changing again, reducing job security to dedicated staff that our society should value highly. The UCU took this action as a last resort, feeling they had no other choice. It will disrupt advancing research. People will not be paid, but it will show management and decision makers how important an issue this is, and lecturers are prepared to make this sacrifice to protect their and the livelihoods of future educators. We as students are in a unique position of power. We need to appreciate this as not an attack on us, but the only way lecturers can send a message to management about how important this issue is. If we as students support the lecturers, who support us through our degrees, we can show management a united front and send a powerful message.
Read more from both sides of the story at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43140729