London Student

Were you actually expecting your exams to be marked this year?

Widespread strikes now seem inevitable after academics’ pensions disappeared – so what can us students do?

When you go to university there are certain expectations – things that you know will probably happen regardless of what else goes on. The on-campus club night will probably be a bit shit, your rent will cost more than you want it to, and the ‘two weeks for feedback’ rule will be shamelessly ignored by your lecturer, who will easily wait a month to mark your work before getting it back to you, but at least they’ll mark it.

Well, not anymore.

In July of this year the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme), which is the largest pension fund in the HE sector with over 390,000 academic holding pensions with them, released their annual accounts. What these accounts made clear is that there is now an annual shortfall of around £12.6bn, £7.3bn higher than 2014. When measured using proper accounting principles, this number soared to £17.5bn; the largest of any British retirement fund. So large, in fact, that it has now been picked up for investigation by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee.

In layman’s terms, everyone has paid into the pensions funds, but for one reason or another a large amount of that money is no longer there. So either this gets fixed, or in about 10 years time a whole bunch of academics are going to try to retire only to find out that there’s no money left.

What the academics still wearing jorts will be like come retirement

There are a number of stakeholders in this issue, the three most important being Universities, academics, and Students’ Unions.

Popularity for Corbyn’s pledge to end tuition fees has made any discussion of raising them politically impossible.

For universities, the question now looming is how they can solve this problem. The easiest way for them to fix it would be to raise tuition fees for students and to use the money to plug the gap, but in the current HE climate this is impossible.

The widespread popularity for Jeremy Corbyn’s election pledge to end tuition fees has made any discussion of raising them politically impossible, and many Vice Chancellors would struggle to convince themselves that it was the right thing to do morally, let alone convince their board of governors.

Universities, and the UK Government, need to find a fix for this issue and they need to do it soon, but of course it is not as simple as just clicking their fingers. The money has to come from somewhere, but trying to whip up 12 DUP deals overnight is as impossible as a task as you might think.

The prospect of strikes is now inevitable

For academics, the question that faces them is simple; when do we begin our industrial
action? University and College Union (UCU), who represent academics on every campus in the UK, have been gearing up for this fight for a while now. The prospect of strikes is now unavoidable, but unfortunately for students missing a few 9am’s because your lecturer is on a picket line isn’t the worst thing to come – UCU has a nuclear option up their sleeves; not marking your work.

If UCU choose to call a marking strike in late December 2017/early January 2018, then universities will find themselves in the precarious situation of asking third year students, who at this point will have been waiting almost two months for feedback on their January exams/assignments, to fill in the National Student Survey. Watch how quickly university Learning and Teaching committees get on board with the idea of an NSS Boycott when it looks like they’re about to slide 20 places in the league tables.

For Students’ Unions, the question they face is ideological; do you stand in solidarity with striking lectures, or do you stand up for the students who have been unfairly affected? Both arguments have merit.

Earlier this year, fractional staff at SOAS University won concessions from the university management after conducting a successful marking boycott. One of those involved told LS that the support of the students played an important part in achieving the overall result. Support from the students kept the departments on board, which ultimately led to the victory.

Get on that picket line comrade

For those in favour of solidarity the case is simple; the union movement is built on supporting one another. Students either bear the cost of fixing this problem with higher tuition fees or they go without their feedback for a while – so get on that picket line comrade. We have a duty to stand with our lectures, our partners in education, and defend their right to a good pension, and the fastest way to solve this problem is to show that lectures and students are united in their call for a fair solution.

A banner supporting the SOAS staff’s strike action hangs outside the university

Or will students be the ones ultimately paying for it?

For those on the other side of the debate, it goes something like this; why should students be punished for this? Whether it’s higher tuition fees or months without feedback, everyone else is passing the buck and the students are the ones ultimately paying for it, so how does solidarity help us? We exist to represent students, not overpaid lecturers, so you stand on your picket line, comrade, and we’ll sit in the board room and convince the university to employ some external markers to get this work done.

Both of these options are flawed, but, unfortunately for SU Officers, this issue is one that you really can’t sit on the fence for – one way or the other you’ll be forced to take a side. You can expect SU Exec Committees, SU Councils and probably even trustee boards to be spending the next few months deliberating over this one.

So there it is. When you go to university there are certain things that you can expect to happen, but unfortunately for students this year having your work marked isn’t one of them. Through no fault of their own, final year students at universities across the UK will probably have no idea whether or not they’ll be getting a degree, and all because a pension fund they’ve never heard of has lost quite a bit of money.

Still, at least we still get 50% off Spotify Premium.

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Joe Cox

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