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“We’d prefer to teach”

From 1-3 December, through bright, cold, and rainy weather, academic and administrative staff from the University and College Union (UCU) went on strike. The LSE branch is one of the 58 universities that voted to do so, and its members have been picketing and marching throughout the week.

If you’ve been on campus at all during that time, you can’t have missed them. Their fight is twofold – proposed cuts to pensions are the headline issue – but UCU members are also striking over the “four fights” of “falling pay, the gender and ethnic pay gap, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads”. I followed the strikes, speaking with organisers and strikers. This is what I learnt.

Firstly, why is this happening? The most obvious answer is pensions. Peter Skrandies, the branch membership secretary, told me in a personal capacity: “The proposed changes to the pensions system mean that on average members stand to lose up to 35%…of their pension income.” That figure of 35% is based on analysis conducted by the UCU, but their employers, represented by Universities UK (UUK), have worked to undermine it. On 8 November, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University told a press conference that the cut to pensions would only be between “10 to 18 percent”. Michael Otsuka, an LSE professor on the UCU’s negotiating team, emphatically rejects this claim. His modelling shows how the proposed cap on inflation protection could make the cuts far deeper given current market forecasts. Even if the UUK’s figure were true, however, numerous staff interviewed stressed that it would still greatly affect them.

But are changes necessary? The dispute is over the value of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a pensions fund worth £85bn. When the financial markets took a downturn in March 2020, the scheme’s risk trigger led to a new valuation of the fund. This is the fundamental point of disagreement: the USS’ trustees and the pensions regulator argue that the scheme will not be able to meet future commitments to contributors, hence the need for cuts. The UCU disagrees. It argues that the valuation was excessively pessimistic owing to when it was conducted; “they did that evaluation at the worst possible time, at the height of Covid,” as Peter put it.

This isn’t the whole story. Pensions are important, but “what really gets me out here every day are the four fights,” said a striker who asked to remain anonymous. Here, solidarity between staff is essential. Junior staff will be those most affected by the proposed pension changes, as they will be making a higher proportion of their total pension contributions into a less generous scheme. They are also those affected by casualisation: the practice of employing staff on temporary contracts as opposed to making permanent hires. The result is a precarious work environment, lower pay, and limited options for career progression. Speaking from the picket line, an associate professor told me that she is “really concerned about the early-career researchers”, as “the conditions of pay and work have been dreadful for these last two years”. The UCU’s demands recognise this: £2.5k flat pay increase may not be essential for more senior staff, but for those at the bottom of the pay scale, it would mean an increase in salary of 14%.

This emphasis on justice extends further: the strike also hopes to address the gender, ethnic, and disabled pay gaps for university staff. Marginalised voices were central to last week’s strike action. The teach-out included events such as “Extractivism and Coloniality in Knowledge Production”, and “Feminism and the Political Struggle”. At the latter event, a speaker described to the audience that “central to this UCU strike are questions of gender, race, and class inequality…it affects early career members more than it affects people of my age”. In keeping with the theme of solidarity, a delegation from QMUL arrived to show their support mid-way through the speech.

The mood was summarised by one striking academic, who told me: “I want to fight for the university as a place that does the politics that we espouse”.

The position of students is somewhat conflicted. As consumers of education, missed learning is obviously a detriment. Despite this, the strikes have had broad student support. Notably, the LSESU voted to support this industrial action. “It’s incredible!” said Jo Taplin-Green, LSE’s UCU branch chair, which was a sentiment echoed by all strikers interviewed. Although such votes of solidarity were not replicated across all London universities, polling by the National Union of Students (NUS) finds 73% support for the strikes amongst students nationally.

A key rallying cry for students and staff alike is that “our working conditions are your learning conditions”. When asked how she felt about classes being cancelled, Elizabeth, a student on the picket line, told me: “It’s a small price to pay if you think about what’s at stake – [proposed changes] will really narrow the field of who can be an academic. That’s a far worse prospect than me missing class for three days”.

Peter also shared this belief in a common ground between students and staff, citing student loans with high interest rates as symptomatic of a wider malaise in academia. “What’s the point of an education?” he posited. “Is it only to prepare you for the job market?” Despite a sense of disappointment at the direction of higher education, the support of students has been a source of hope for many of those striking. “I’m optimistic because my students are amazing. Every day I walk out of the classroom, and I feel energised by them,” an anonymous striker told me.

The most pressing question is what happens now. Negotiations are difficult because of the fundamental disagreement over the USS fund’s value. Presently, Jo is hopeful that LSE would be receptive to strikers’ demand for manageable workloads – a local, achievable change. From a sector-wide perspective, she stressed the importance of individual universities “putting pressure on the employer body…that’s why it’s so important that every branch comes out”.

The UCU is currently re-balloting at universities that missed the 50% threshold legally required for industrial action, with plans for another wave in the spring. “We’re expecting more strikes next year.” Jo told me, “Really crucial is February for USS, which is when decisions are made around the pensions.” If the UCU is able to credibly threaten further industrial action, a settlement becomes a more realistic possibility.

“We’d prefer to teach!” was the refrain of many on the picket line, emphasising their reluctance to cancel classes. “We’re doing this as a last resort,” Peter said. On the final day of the strike, I asked Jo whether she felt hopeful. “If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be here. It’s December. It was freezing yesterday. Who would want to be outside?” But she added: “We’ll take action for as long as we need to.”

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