Why students should be supporting the UCU strikes

The University and College Union (UCU) has recently called for strike action for 14 days across three weeks in response to the dispute over the USS pension scheme. Changes to the current scheme amount to a significant pay cut for lecturers, especially those working on non-permanent contracts.

All this seems absolutely horrendous for the lecturers and teaching assitants. But why should students care?

The UCU representatives at King’s College London have provided an FAQ document on why exactly students should be joining the strikes.

Put simply, the institutional structures that have instigated this pension change largely go unnoticed. And these structures impact students.

Seb Franklin, a lecturer from the English Department at KCL, tells London Student: “This is a bigger fight for the future of public higher education.”

Universities are usually public bodies. Private universities do exist, but higher education in the UK traditionally sits within the public sector.

And this tradition is under threat, as universities are now required to generate profits and surplus in order to function and survive.

The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework is one of the policies emerging from higher education regimes that depend on profits to function.

This policy removes student number caps that are clearly designed to force some universities into bankruptcy, clearing space for an increased number of private providers. It can be seen in, for example, the mental health epidemic plaguing universities and a clear shortage of staff to deal with this issue.

“I encourage students to join the strike in solidarity with university staff,” Franklin tells LS, “who are faced with ever-increasing workloads while pay and working conditions get steadily worse. Restrictive laws around industrial action mean that it is impossible for us to strike over anything not directly related to clearly defined aspects of our working conditions.

A similar strike was organised in 2018 and succeeded in forcing the representative body Universities UK to revise their position on the pensions scheme. This retained additional pension benefits without any additional costs.

Franklin says: “The 2018 strike was successful, or so we thought. After the new recommendations were published, USS promptly rejected them and Universities UK did nothing to support them. Since the value of our pay has fallen by more than 20% in the last 10 years due to below-inflation pay rises, the pension scheme has now become unaffordable for many staff. This essentially amounts to a decision between being able to pay rent now or in retirement. As a result, UCU members are left with no choice but to go on strike again.”

Image: Will Durrant.

Editor at London Student

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