Update: 16 March 2018!

March 2018: The strike is off - for now

UCU members voted to accept the latest proposal which emerged from the negotiations, 64% to 36%. This mean no more strike action in the immediate future.

The accepted proposal contains a number of promises to University staff. If these are not met staff may feel that they need to strike again to ensure they are treated fairly.

All the background you want, and continuing updates can be found at: USSbriefs.

My analysis of collective intelligence in the discussion of the strike on social media here.

The strike: a quick introduction

What is happening?

Over 42,000 University staff at 64 Universities have been on strike in February and March. This means that they have not been working, and won’t be paid for days they miss work.

Future strike days are planned if the dispute is not resolved. When back at work many staff are taking “Action Short of A Strike” which means that they don’t do work not specified in their contract.

The strike has forced a number of concessions from employers. Striking staff are currently discussing the latest proposals, released on 23rd March, before a vote on whether to reject or accept them. Here’s one view about the proposals.

Why are University staff striking?

Short answer: Because of proposed changes to the pension scheme, called USS, which covers many University staff, particularly those at older UK Universities.

What are the proposed changes

The proposed changes are to change both the amount of the pension, and to the way it is calculated. Currently the scheme is a ‘Defined Benefit’ scheme, which pays out a guarenteed amount when you retire. The proposal is to change it to a ‘Defined Contribution’ scheme, which does not pay out a guarenteed amount. Additionally, the best guesses are that if the proposed changes go through the scheme will pay out a lot less.

Both the reduction in the amount of pension and the change to the way the pension works matter. Many staff argue that the difference in amount makes the difference between being able to live comfortably in retirement and living in poverty. The change from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution changes the way risk due to economic changes is managed by the pension fund. The proposed changes move risk from the scheme (which has to pay out even if the investments don’t grow) to the individual employees (who will get lower pension payments if investments don’t grow).

What is disputed

The key to understanding the dispute is not just that University staff are being offered less and demanding more, but rather the University staff dispute the need for changes to the pension, as well as the nature of the proposed changes. To understand why we think the proposed pension changes are not just unfair, but unnecessary you need to learn a bit more about how the health of the pension pot is evaluated, as well as how UUK is governed.

The parties: who is in dispute

Who is in dispute

  • UUK - Universities UK, a body which represents Universities, and the pension fund (USS) which Universities and their employees pay into

  • UCU - The University & College Union, the trade-union representing University staff

  • Vice Chancellors (and other titles) - the heads of individual Universities and colleges where staff are striking. These people are members of UUK, but may not agree with the position it has taken.

  • Individual staff, lecturers and non-teaching staff who are at Universities covered by the USS pension (at some Universities most staff are in a different pension scheme, so at these Universities these staff are not on strike, even though they are represented by the UCU).

  • Students, undergraduate, master and PhD students are all affected

  • UK government, including pensions regulator - changes to pension schemes can be caused by changes to government policy on pensions, and any changes to pensions must be acceptable to the pensions regulator

Staying up to date

Lots of the analysis and news about the action has happened on Twitter (I’m not just saying this because I like twitter: see this piece in the Times Higher Ed USS strike: social media has collapsed the case for pension cuts)

Here is a selective list of people to follow

You may also want to check out these hashtags

Arguments against the strike

Everywhere else has already downgraded their pensions

One argument is that University staff have always been paid less than the private sector, and this has been compensated, in part, by the pension. In recent years University staff have had pay rises under the rate of inflation (so, effectively, pay cuts). One reason these have been accepted without much grumbling is the perception that there is a compact : University staff accept less pay in return for a good pension scheme.

Another argument is that Universities are not companies, so shouldn’t have the same attitude to risk. In other words, the Higher Education sector, as a national asset, cannot go bust in the way a private company can. Indeed, half University staff are in a a government backed pension (those in new Universities, which are not strike) ).

Finally, the argument that someone else is disadvantaged doesn’t mean you should be to. If you are getting mugged on Pontefract high-street and call for help you wouldnt be pleased to hear “People are being bombed in Syria, cheer up”. This is “race to the bottom” logic - everyone ends with the worst possible deal.

University staff would also like to see good pension deals for everyone in society, not just themselves. Opposing pension downgrades in Universities can be part of opposing pension downgrades everywhere.

The strike hurts students

Striking staff are those who have most direct contact with students, who are most passionate about teaching and supporting students through their time at University.

Nobody takes decision to strike easily - we’d all much rather be teaching than striking - but we’ve been forced to a point where we have to act.

If Universities can’t pay their staff in a way that enables them to one day retire then it is going to make every aspect of University worse for everyone - including students.

Yes, teaching hours are lost this academic year, but the benefits of properly compensated staff will be felt by students for generations.

The National Union of Students recognises this, and supports the strike.

Both staff and Universities will work to minimise the impact of the strikes on students once the strikes are over - including any adjustments in grading which are needed to compensate for missed teaching.

The current pension plan is unaffordable

The future health of the USS pension is contested. One set of official figures suggest that the fund doesn’t have enough money to pay out without reform (is “in deficit”). But this deficit is not a simple matter of adding up all the asset held by the scheme - it depends on assumptions about how long staff will live, what will happen to the stock market, whether any Universities will close down, etc. Other estimates suggest that the USS pension has enough assets to support pay outs without reforms.

The details of how these valuations are made are technical and beyond the scope of this website. If you’re interested there is a collection of links on the USS valuation page.

Obviously an unaffordable scheme is unsustainable, and University staff want a scheme that protects them in retirement as well as people who will be recruited to work at Universities in the future.

Striking staff are calling for a transparent review of the value of the USS pension, so everyone can agree on the foundation for any reforms.