I love working with students and I have always been willing to be comparatively less wealthy and secure than friends working in the private sector so that I can do this. So of course, like many of my colleagues, I don’t want to go on strike and ruin student education. I also do not want to lose 14 days of pay, meaning I will need to borrow money from friends and family to be able to keep my home and pay my bills. I care about my students’ education and feel deeply conflicted about taking any action which compromises it. Students might well ask if that could really be true, and if I feel that way, why am I willing to do it? After all, it is my decision, and it is in my power not to take this action (although by doing so I would be undermining the democratic vote taken by my union). This is why I would like to explain my position.
Why I am going on strike anyway
Like many of my colleagues, when I voted for strike action on this issue of academic pensions, I thought we would be striking for a day or perhaps two in line with previous action. When the announcement of 14 strike days was made, I was devastated. But for those who say they understand our point of view but think we should find another way to make our point, please remember that if we walk away from our union and what they ask of us, we have no-one to protect us or our rights as workers.
I studied for seven and a half years to qualify for an academic job, like most of my colleagues. I worked in three jobs during my PhD to get there. I was able to find enough teaching work to support myself for two years after I finished my PhD, although I was mainly hourly paid and struggling to make ends meet, with no benefits or pension. Unlike the friends I graduated with who had gone on to work in the private sector, I had very little money to spare and could not afford the same kind of lifestyle as them. Whilst they started putting money into their pensions in their early 20s and were already building up some security, I did not start having enough money to be able to do that until around 10 years later. When I received an offer for a permanent position, I was about to walk away from the higher education sector because I could no longer face the stress and anxiety of never knowing whether I would be able to pay my bills or where I would be working the following term. Even though that was a tough time for me, again I was lucky. Many academics now work for five years or more on precarious contracts with no benefits before getting a permanent post, and some never do.
The opportunity to be able to start building a pension, to finally qualify to pay a mortgage, to only have one work email address to deal with, to know month to month and year to year that I would have enough to live on, was a huge relief, and of course, a huge privilege. Of course, it was my choice to keep going in higher education; I could have left and pursued a less precarious career with higher wages and better benefits. Given how long it took me to get to a secure point in life, for me personally to be told that my pension is likely to be reduced by around £10,000 a year (or around £208,000 less in total) was a terrible shock.
But there is more to it than this. Employers are maintaining that in some ways this new pension scheme is better because we will have more choice and freedom as individuals to decide where to invest our pension pot when we retire. In reality, very few of us want this so-called freedom. We are not investment experts who know how best to work the stock market, and the idea that our livelihood in retirement will be determined by how well the market is doing on the mandated day on which we retire is terrifying.
But again there is more to it than that. As a lecturer who tries to encourage students to critically examine the society we live in, my employer is forcing me to accept the further neoliberalisation, financialisation and marketisation of university culture against my will. This is the same culture that led to the introduction and increase of the tuition fees paid by students; the fees I marched against even as my own time in education was ending. In a letter to my MP, the Vice Chancellor of Sussex University legitimised the change to our pension by saying he did not think it was fair for young students to pay huge fees to support wealthier and older people (such as myself). This is the same rhetoric that is being used across the UK with the aim of dividing students and staff. I hope you can see that in a situation where lecturer pay has decreased by 14.5% in real terms since 2009 whilst Vice Chancellors’ six-figure salaries have risen, your fees are not all going towards our wages or pensions. Furthermore, Vice Chancellors are maintaining that our pension scheme has become unaffordable, but this is based on research with a dubious methodology that has been broadly criticised.
Why I think you should support me
I would like to ask my students to think critically about the information they are receiving from university management, as well as commentary on the strike on social and other media. Read the critiques of the methodology that has been used to back up the idea that the universities can no longer afford to guarantee our pensions. I understand that students are angry and frustrated that they are being forced to suffer and lose their contact with lecturers. But I would like to ask you to think about why you value that time in the first place. I hope it is because you value our specialist knowledge, you trust our guidance when, for example, it comes to telling you what a sound methodology is, and that you think you can learn something from us that will be of value to you. If you trust and value our ability to be critical thinkers and evaluate situations, please consider trusting also that we are have evaluated the consequences of our actions on you as well as for ourselves. I personally do not want higher education to progress any further in its decline to a service industry where students are forced to behave like consumers, and where working in them becomes even more precarious than it is now, leading to brilliant people walking away from a career that simply isn’t worth it any more.
This is why I would like to ask students to think about the larger context of this dispute and the issues of precarity and overwork affecting education professionals today. With over half of academics in the UK now working on hourly paid non-permanent contracts, as the Guardian put it, university management are increasingly adopting a ‘Sports Direct model’ for their workforce. Academics in the UK and beyond regularly work on evening and weekends to fulfil their workloads. UK education professionals and teachers work on average 11.9 unpaid hours a week. At my own institution, in the last staff experience survey, large percentages reported being unable to deal with their workloads and not feeling valued by their employers (although I can’t cite the figures, because the results have mysteriously been removed from staff intranet pages). Nonetheless most are dedicated to student welfare and education, and if we can’t do everything we need to in order to provide this we will use our evenings, weekends and holidays to make it happen — even though we don’t feel valued or supported. It may or may not be a concern to you that education professionals are also experiencing unprecedented mental health problems and many struggle to maintain families, friendships and relationships.
At the moment, you are likely being told that your university cares about your education and that management will do everything they can to make sure it is not disrupted because of the strike; that it will be ‘business as usual’. But a university is a place where staff and students engage in a two way process of learning, research and enquiry. Students and staff ARE the university. The business will still be running, but if there is no two-way, mutually engaged work happening then this is not a university to my mind.
It is within the power of the university to return to the negotiating table and have the strikes called off. Even those who do not support lecturers taking action can probably see that this would be a good thing right now.
Be aware that the university managers whose salaries you fund are intimidating your lecturers because they want us to be too scared to take action. In addition to voting to take strike action when we know we will not be paid for the days we withdraw our labour, we also voted to take part in action short of a strike.
Action short of a strike can include ‘working to contract’, when academics agree to only work normal working days and not take on additional voluntary duties. Our employers know that if we only work the hours we are paid for, vital tasks like marking your assignments (enabling you to complete your degree in a timely fashion) may not take place according to schedule. They know this because they also know that our goodwill leads us to work beyond our paid time so that you can finish your degree. They are therefore taking this opportunity to remind us that they are legally allowed to pay us absolutely nothing — to keep 100% of our pay — if we take part in action short of strike and only work to contract. They know that most of us would not be able to maintain earning nothing for an extended period, so they are just reminding us that ultimately they can break us and they don’t have to take our views into account.
I feel powerless, vulnerable and scared. But I also know that students, whose views university management do care about (remember that your feedback determines their ranking and government income), have a lot of passion, huge capacity for independent thinking and the critical skills to see what is happening in their universities. That’s why I think my students are fantastic, and why I believe they will refuse to be duped into thinking that this strike is a selfish action undertaken by people who just don’t care about their education and their success in life. The opposite is true; in fact we probably care about it more than you know.
If you don’t support me
I understand and I don’t really blame you. And don’t worry: whether or not you support me, as soon as the strike is over, I will continue to spend my evenings, weekends and holidays helping you to achieve what you deserve. I will mark your essays at Christmas and do my research on Sundays, and in the future when you need a reference from me to help you get the job you want, I will stay up late at night to make sure it goes in on time. I will spend time with you going over your CV years after you have graduated, because whatever you think about my pension I still want you to succeed. But if these pension cuts go through, there will be fewer and fewer people like me in the system to support students going forward.
What you can do if you do support me
Please write to your Vice Chancellor, the Vice Dean for Education, and your MP (if you have one) to tell them that you want the strike to be called off, and you know that they have the power to make this happen. Please use the skills you have already learnt in articulating your position, organising and managing others, and learn from your peers elsewhere in the UK. Students, not managers, will be the ones who ultimately determine the outcome of this dispute; and I for one will love them all the more.