“My lecturer reads off a PowerPoint’’
“My lecturer never replies to my emails’’
“I never get proper feedback’’
“My lecturer is always quick to reply’’
“My lecturer is so helpful’’
In your and anyone’s University careers you will no doubt hear the full combination of a multitude of reactions to lecturers both positive and negative. Yet fundamentally, without these academics, without their persistent, unerring, selfless, drive to not only further their own knowledge but the knowledge of people like me and you, we wouldn’t have the world class standard of education that we have in the UK today.
Now this is of pivotal importance as within this article I will take a look at the dispute between the University and College Union (UCU) and the Universities UK (UUK) over lecturers’ pensions, which, as of Thursday the 22nd, has resulted in a striking period. These strikes could potentially last up to a month or longer if there is no resolution; lecturers and staff from 65 different UK universities have opted to strike in the hope that they can prevent the proposed drastic cuts to their pensions.
Organisations and bodies participating in the dispute
Currently lecturers contribute 8% towards their pension fund while the employer, in this case the Universities, contribute 18%.
To put it plainly the dispute is between the UUK and the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), who manage the lecturer’s pensions, and those representing the lecturers, UCU
The UUK and USS argue that
- The pension fund is currently 6.1 billion in debt
- The debt has increased by a third in the last 4 years
- If it continues to increase the current contribution rates as aforementioned will increased from 26% to 37.4% of pay
The USS and the UUK, supported by a Joint Negotiating committee, have proposed that the pension plan should change from a defined benefit system. This system is used currently and is one that provides members a guaranteed income after they retire. The movement away from a defined benefit scheme would see pensions subjected to the mercy of the stock market.
The UCU have argued that this would on average decrease pensions of lecturers over £10,000 a year. Further still, they argue, with support from an analysis of the proposed changes by independent experts First Actuarial, that lecturers
- Starting work today could be £208,000 worse off over the course of their retirement
- Lecturers would also be £385,000 off than if they had worked in their nearest post ’92 Polytechnic University
I’m not an economist so the financial ins and outs of the dispute are therefore somewhat of a headache for me. However, to put it simply the UUK are proposing that due to the deficit within the current USS (lecturers’ pensions), it should move from a defined benefit system to a system of fiscal tightening and reliance on the stock markets: a move the UCU argue is a risky and damning blow to their financial long-term security
The real issue here is not the economic aspect of the strikes but the political effect. It is the further attempt at the marketization of our higher education system, a marketisation restructure that has seen student tuition fees rise to 9,250 pounds a year while the maintenance grant has been scrapped, all while University Vice- Chancellors and senior board members make more and more money each year. The Vice- Chancellor of Belfast has seen his salary increase by £14,000 in 2017; meanwhile, the Universities Pension boss has seen an £82,000 salary increase. This is a much wider issue than just the strikes; it’s part of a broader movement.
The broader issue here is about whether or not we want our education system to become a part of the capitalist machine: i.e. a machine like any private company that competes for our money and attempts to maximise, in this case, the Universities’ profits. I, for one, find this to be a constant political struggle I have within myself. I have to be honest I am not a person who was born a die-hard socialist or knew from the moment they joined their first school council they were a free market neoliberal. My opinions and beliefs, frankly, change on the daily; I’m very much susceptible to others’ opinions and I’m welcome to being educated. This is why I study Politics at University in the hope it will give me a well rounded expanse of knowledge which will help me to, eventually, make an informed decision about where on the political scale my allegiances lie. Therefore, I feel that I can perhaps give an impartial view of both sides of the industrial action that has hit over 65 of our Universities and affected over a million students, myself included.
In this case, I don’t think that the education should be subjected to the forces of the market. It is not a bank or an industry: it should be a set of institutions attempting to lay down a path for young people to learn, graduate and to impact on society positively. The taxpayer should pay for education – it is an essential service just like the NHS or the Armed forces. These essential services (on the whole) have not been subjected to market forces and neither should our education system. Civil servants have the best pension schemes and that’s how it should stay. Marketization has now caused severe problems within the University system. It is one thing raising tuition fees for students and increasing interest rates to 6% on student loans. But threatening the financial security of those who give up any hope of a massive salary by sacrificing their time to teach and research is frankly disgusting. Perhaps I am being naïve and hoping for a system which would work perfectly. Even so, I would have to say I am just arguing towards a fair system that is within reach of us. Originally the Tony Blair labour government introduced the fees because ‘Universities were at their breaking point’. However, this should never be the case. The world has no hope if we are afraid to properly fund higher education and instead leave it in the hands of the capitalist machine which we have seen is susceptible to violent and catastrophic failure.
To conclude, I believe in and support the University lecturers who have chosen to strike, as their financial security and long term commitment to education is of astounding importance to us all. The University system should not be marketised. It should be a public service, one whose sole aim is to educate and not to capitalise.
By Harry Lown