As a result of the recent inspiring and militant action by academics and lecturers, university bosses have come to the table with a new offer. But UCU members should be wary of this attempt to demobilise their struggle.
There has been an important development in the UCU pensions dispute. Following 14 days of strike action, mass protests and a wave of student occupations, the bosses have promised a new, independent valuation of the USS pension scheme, with involvement by the UCU.
This partial retreat shows what joint action between students and staff can achieve. However, the fight is far from over.
This proposal is only a truce. There have been no fundamental concessions. Now is not the time to pull back, but to push harder.
Crucially, there can be no question of calling off planned strike action over the exam period. Instead, the remit of our strike should be broadened to encompass all university workers and the entire student movement. We must then turn our forces against the government, who are determined to marketise the Higher Education (HE) sector.
Remain on guard
As a result of the UCU’s historic strike action, Universities UK has abandoned its attempt to impose a massive pension cut. This is a significant accomplishment, but we must remain vigilant. We have not come this far through peaceable dialogue with the bosses.
The UCU has assured the membership that it aims to achieve terms “broadly similar” to the present set-up. We have also been promised full transparency over the new valuation process.
However, the ‘independent’ valuation only promises a “pension comparable with current provision whilst meeting the affordability challenges for all parties, within the current regulatory framework.”
The meaning of this small-print could be defined benefit (guaranteed return), with far higher contributions. In other words, a pension cut that would hit starting and casualised academics hardest.
It could also mean a slightly more favourable form of defined contributions (measuring the value of pensions against the stock market – the proposal that started this dispute in the first place). It could even mean making the scheme more affordable through mass sackings, or other draconian, cost-cutting measures!
The union bosses are celebrating the fact that USS will be left untouched until April 2019. But this was always the plan!
Also, the valuation is timed neatly to coincide with the planned date for Brexit, when the stock markets will likely take a plunge, justifying another conservative valuation of the risk contained in the USS’s assets. This will put us right back to square one.
It is clear what the bosses are trying to do. Having failed miserably to force through their ultimatum – and with their second ‘agreement’ with the union leaders thoroughly defeated by the workers – they are taking a step back. They are offering a fudge in order to allow them to regroup and rethink the next attack. The objective is to diffuse the strike; to give the bosses breathing space.
Proof of this can be found in the fact that UCU’s elected negotiators were apparently not allowed to influence the proposal before it was sent to the membership. It was written by the UUK, signed off by UCU general secretary Sally Hunt, and elected representatives only laid eyes on it an hour before its circulation. In short, it was rushed through undemocratically.
This revelation, coupled with the appalling deal the UCU tops cobbled together just weeks ago, proves we should have no confidence in our current leadership to fight for our interests.
The recommendations of the independent ‘expert panel’ will be passed to the UCU’s Higher Education Committee: the same people who tried to sell us down the river a fortnight ago with an insulting ‘compromise’. This rotten deal consisted of a pension cut, rescheduling classes for free, and defined contributions after three years.
The unspoken implication of this new olive branch is that the UCU call off planned action for next term. We should reject this flat out. It is imperative the strike continue to keep the pressure on both the UUK and UCU negotiators. We have not come this far only to be betrayed at the last minute.
The status quo is broken
Recently, the slogan ‘fight for the status quo’ has caught on among some UCU members. This means retaining USS in its current form. Some lecturers are proposing a ‘no detriment’ clause be added to the new deal to ensure this.
But the fact is, the status quo is not good enough. Ultimately, attacks on HE through cutting lecturers’ pensions, outsourcing staff, massive student fees, and cuts to bursaries all reflect the same process: the marketisation of education. This, in turn, is demanded by the organic crisis of the capitalist system.
That is the ‘status quo’, and winning this or that dispute will not fundamentally change it.
The UCU is preparing for 14 further days of strike action after the Easter holidays. An upcoming strike across the University of London by outsourced workers will be the biggest of its kind in history. There is plenty of basis for joint action between support staff and academics next term.
The NUS should also coordinate its members to hit university bosses with an unprecedented wave of student-and-staff action. A pair of motions sent by the Marxist Student Federation to the NUS will, if passed, commit the national students union to fighting outsourcing and continuing to support the UCU.
If we demobilise now, we squander all this potential to fight for much more radical change.
Students and workers have shown that their collective strength is enough to make the bosses tremble. For the first time in the UCU’s history, we have forced the bosses to move. We have also increased our membership by 38 percent, and forged new links of solidarity with students and other education workers.
Let’s keep up the momentum, and take the fight to the Tory government – and to the rotten economic system they represent; a broken system under which education will never be safe.