by Ali Mitib, BA Law and Politics
Members of the Union of Colleges and Universities (UCU) at 61 institutions across the UK have taken strike action against proposals by Universities UK (UUK) that would see a reduction in the pension income of up to 60%. Action was approved in a vote by 54.5% of SOAS UCU members. It has taken the form of UCU members refusing to conduct lectures or tutorials on strike days.
Despite the icy weather conditions, which dipped below, picket lines have been present at the entrances to all SOAS buildings with the intention of encouraging students to show solidarity and empower the strike by not using university facilities during working hours.
On strike days the Students’ Union has voted to close the JCR shop and the Bar, services which provide a large amount of revenue to the SU. Furthermore, the SU has voted to extend the closure for the entire duration of the strike.
Carrie Benjamin, SOAS UCU Fractional Rep, said: “The picket line represents radical solidarity. This is a wonderful spacial exchange. It’s not just us sitting around and asking people to not cross the picket line. It’s a place to exchange and challenge the path that higher education is taking. There are amazing acts of solidarity here. There are people from other universities, student standing out here in the snow.”
On strike days it is estimated that up to 500 students have been crossing the picket line to attend their teaching hours and use the university facilities.
Sai Englert, a Graduate Teaching Assistant, said: “Overall the students have showed solidarity. Some students have decided to cross the picket line and not respect the strike. Ironically people have done it while saying ‘I support you’ but not doing the one thing we asked them to do in terms of supporting us. I think we are talking about a minority. I think a lot of people are voting with their feet and just not coming at all and finding alternative ways of meeting up and studying.”
These tactics are aimed at demonstrating to SOAS Director, Valerie Amos, that the students and staff stand united in solidarity against the proposals of UUK. SOAS UCU members hope that Amos will then use her influence as a member of UUK’s 24 member board – the main decision-making body of UUK to remove the proposal from consideration.
UCU estimates that under UUK’s new proposal to conduct changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) , a typical lecturer would lose around £10,000 a year in retirement. Fears have been raised by academics and students alike that this will lead to lecturers leaving academia due to the lack of guaranteed pensions.
The proposed changes by UUK would see the end of defined-benefit element of the USS which guarantees UCU members a guaranteed level of pension income in retirement. Under UUK’s proposal to adopt a ‘defined contribution’ model, the return for members would be dependent upon the performance of the USS in the stock market. In this scheme, a member can decide how to invest the joint contributions and can purchase a pension (annuity), access a cash sum or both on retirement. The potential instability of this model was central in motivating UCU members to undertake strike action.
Following the first five days of strike action, on February 28 UCU announced that it had reached an agreement with UUK to conduct “further talks to try and end the disruptive strike action currently affecting 61 universities”. These talks will begin on Monday, March 5 and be mediated by ACAS, a conciliation service.
UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt expressed optimism regarding these talks. She said: “We are pleased the employers have agreed to more talks. UCU tabled proposals which provide the basis for settling this damaging dispute. We have listened not just to our members, but also to the many university leaders who have contributed ideas.”
She added: “UCU has been impressed by the ideas of many vice-chancellors who have intervened in the dispute. Our proposals for long-term reform reflect an attempt to reach a consensus around the challenges we face.”
UCU has stated that despite this agreement, the strike action will continue. Speaking from the picket line, Carrie Benjamin, SOAS UCU Fractional Rep, said: “It would be detrimental to call off strike action before we have an agreement that this shift to a defined contribution scheme is no longer on the table.”
On Monday 5th March, the SOAS SU, Unison and UCU released a joint statement regarding the on-going strike.
“While we are pleased that Universities UK are due to commence negotiations with UCU, through the mediation of ACAS, today Monday 5th March, there can be no doubt that even this would not have been achieved without the pressure brought by the solidity of the strike action thus far. We emphasise that any weakening of the industrial action before an acceptable settlement is reached can only result in such a settlement becoming far less likely.”
While all parties would like to end the strike, it is clear that UCU will not call it off until they are satisfied with the proposals put forward by UUK. At the time of going to print, it is confirmed that strike action will continue from the 12th to 16th of March.