USS strike: academics are wrong to walk out

The university strikes are a militant campaign that attacks the very heart of learning as the union propaganda makes clear, says John Marenbon

March 2, 2018
Strike placards

British universities have been under threat for decades as, regardless of which party is in power, the government’s control machine has gone into overdrive, interfering in every aspect of their life.

Funding is in chaos, with students racking up unbelievable debts, while scholarship, research and scientific investigation are threatened by a tick-box model devised by uneducated bureaucrats.

To these woes there is now added another, far more immediately dangerous enemy: trade union militancy.

With academic pensions as a conveniently appealing cause, the academics’ union, the University and College Union is masterminding a strike to stop university teaching on 14 out of 20 days during February and March.

The victims will be not only the students, but also – especially if the strikers’ demands are met – the universities themselves.

University strikes, until now, were barely noticeable, at least in Cambridge. A few lectures were cancelled or rearranged, some examiners replaced; colleagues who took part in the strike were regarded as amiable but over-ideological eccentrics. Life went on for the most part as usual.

But this time all is different. Lectures have almost entirely ceased in some faculties; extra-curricular seminars and talks by visiting speakers have been cancelled or moved off university premises; senior academics brave the cold on the picket-line, eager to put their armchair socialism into practice – as the union’s website claims, picketing “is an enjoyable, sociable and sometimes even sunny experience!”.

Although students are denied lectures on philosophy, history or mathematics, the union wants them to show up to "teach-outs" on vital topics such as "How UK policy fuels war and repression in the Middle East" and "Neoliberal Capitalism versus Collective Imaginaries".

For the militants running the so-called industrial action, the revolution has come. Two weeks into the strike, ordinary academics have been cowed into acquiescence.

Those who continue teaching are all but forced to do it surreptitiously, with an ashamed, apologetic air, as if they were engaged in some crime.

Expression of opposition to the strike produces an even sharper gasp of surprise and disapproval than open support for Brexit.

But all who care about teaching and learning, and about the universities that exist to protect and promote them, ought to oppose and condemn the strike.

Academics should not strike, especially when the aim is, as here, a bad one.

It is wrong for academics to go on strike: by striking, they deliberately injure their students. Just as the rail unions make the passengers suffer in order to put pressure on the companies to settle whatever the cost, so injuring students through strike action is the academic strikers’ aim. They make no secret of it. They want, as they will tell you, "to make the students sue the universities" and to do so they must harm the students’ studies and their lives. And they are succeeding.

In Cambridge, for instance, it looks as if in some faculties, almost half a term’s university teaching, that is, almost a quarter of the whole year’s teaching (since there are few lectures in the final, exam term) will be lost.

Moreover, it is a far worse thing for academics to use students as pawns than for train drivers to use their passengers in this way. The academics are their students’ teachers: they stand to them in a relationship of trust, protection and authority, under the aegis of the higher authority of the discipline they are practising.

To destroy this relationship – and all the more, to do so from self-interest and greed – damages the universities and desecrates academe itself.

The universities face further damage if the strike succeeds. The union’s posters announce that university teachers’ pensions are to be axed, cut by hundreds of thousands of pounds. They want to suggest that universities have decided on an arbitrary and immense cut in overall remuneration.

The real story is different. Employers are not planning to pay less for pensions. Rather, the problem is that the university pension scheme (USS) is legally bound to pay out more to cover its existing pensions – based on a fixed formula – than its assets allow.

Like other pension funds, the USS must stop the risk of further debt if it is to remain solvent. So it plans to change to a scheme of the sort used for most funded pensions, where the value of each person’s pension is based on exactly what has been put into it by the employer and employee.

But the UCU opposes the reform. It demands that the USS continue with the present arrangements, and so gamble recklessly with the scheme’s solvency, and it gives the dubious justification that the USS’ assets are worth more than they admit, and that market conditions will perhaps change.

The UCU’s proposal not only risks its members’ future pensions. It puts the whole UK university sector in danger, since the USS is underwritten by the universities’ collective assets and, in a pension crisis, these could disappear into the black hole of its debts.

The universities would probably survive, but without the wealth that gives them still some measure of independence and so enables them to flourish as world leaders in science and humanities.

Even today’s level of underfunding in the USS pension scheme is a smouldering threat to the best UK universities and their endowments. The strikers are proposing to throw oil on it and fan the flames.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and honorary professor of medieval philosophy This piece was originally published on the Politeia thinktank website and is republished with permission.

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Reader's comments (12)

It's interesting that this sort of view on the pensions strike almost always comes from late middle-aged men who have years and years of protected defined benefit contributions behind them. Attitudes like this threaten to return the academic profession to being the preserve of the independently wealthy.
Bah! As a late middle-aged man can I say I am busy on the picket line. My experience is that the younger academics seem to have forgotten the necessity of organised labour. Those of us who have lived through the period from 1979 to the present have had the benefit of seeing the ongoing rollback of workers rights and can be quite motivated. We don't all turn reactionary as the joints begin to creak.
Note that the author is also at the richest college at the richest university in the U.K. It is nice that he uses his position of power and privilege to preach against strike action, which is being taken by many of the most vulnerable in the profession - including those on temporary or insecure contracts (often women who have taken career breaks due to maternity) - to defend themselves against poverty in old age.
The idea that strikers are deliberately manipulating and injuring their students is deeply insulting, as well as dismissive of the time and effort they put into their teaching (a load that, let me point out, can be much, much higher than Marenbon is required to do at Cambridge). Students are neither gullible nor manipulable: they are adults who can read and think for themselves, and some have come to the same conclusion as their lecturers. If anyone is uncomfortable with the picket line, then so be it: it is ok to be put out of your comfort zone from time to time—or to deviate from the lesson plan—so that you can reflect on, voice, and defend your opinion. That is also "education"—it is learning to be a responsible citizen. Finally, Marenbon really should have taken the time to address the concerns strikers have raised over the USS valuation, and detailed why it is that he believes the methodology to be sound (I assume he does, given his position). That would be a much, much better use of his voice and time. Marenbon is shaming academics for pointing out that they have livelihoods to protect—families to feed, old age to insure, and in general, lives to be lived in reasonable comfort. Propaganda... Militants... Ha! My first-years would know better than to use inflammatory words such as those. I can only conclude Marenbon just wanted to ruffle some feathers.
John Marenbon: you don't get it. This strike is not about a few militants, but about many thousands of hugely concerned academics, admin staff and students who are genuinely worried about the future. We have reached a watershed moment with regard to pay and conditions, but also in terms of the relentless marketization of the university sector which serves ordinary staff and students so badly. Perhaps you have been insulated against the worst of that at Cambridge, but others are not so lucky. THE: when will you publish more articles in support of the UCU's action and engage in real debate about core values at the heart of this dispute? You are losing readership because you come across as being in cahoots with management and insensitive to what so many academics and university staff are living through.
I'm not a union member but have been treated with the utmost respect by those on the picket line .We have discussed the issues but at no point have I felt threatened or coerced. As has been the case in most of the media reporting of the strike, the fact that the pension changes affects support staff as well as academics has been ignored. I note the professor's background is in medieval philosophy so it is no suprise his thinking is from the dark ages.
You have published this piece of drivel but not the actual facts behind the so-called USS deficit. Shame on THE and shame on the author who claims to be an academic but did no research before choosing to support UUK's lies.
I think it is very clear that there is a funding deficit in USS, although views and measurements of the amount of the deficit will vary significantly. There has also been a deficit for some considerable time - the estimated deficit at the annual valuation update of 31 March 2016 (i.e. before the alleged “manipulation” of assumptions in 2017 took place) was reported by USS's actuary as £10billion up from £5.3billion in 2014 at the last valuation. From the updates on the current valuation on USS’s website: • £5.1bn (September 2017) – the initial outcome of our updated funding assumptions, on which we consulted with employers via UUK. • £7.5bn (November 2017) – the deficit position arising from the trustee taking a more moderate approach to investment risk in its funding assumptions (as a result of the response from employers via UUK to the September consultation). • £6.1bn (January 2018) – the deficit position arising from the benefit reform proposals carried by the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) in January. The “FR102” measure (an accounting measurement that is intended to require a single, consistent economic basis for all corporate reporting related to pension scheme funding) produces a deficit of £17.5billion. Even on the, what I understand is the “preferred” UCU result at September 2017, there is a deficit of £5.1billion. I am a committed supporter of DB pension provision, but I believe that trying to argue that there is NO funding deficit actually damages the argument amongst the wider audience. In any event, whilst the argument against the JNC benefit change proposals seems very much to be focused on rubbishing the USS valuation and the (lack) of existence of a deficit, the deficit is not the reason given for the need to review benefits and/or contributions ( “The existence of a deficit – faced by two-thirds of UK defined benefit pension schemes in January 2018 – does not affect our ability to make sustained investments over several years, aligned to our rolling five-year investment targets. “ “But it is clear that the outlook for future investment returns has changed since the last valuation: much lower prospective investment returns across the majority of asset classes have seen the estimated cost of accruing future defined benefits – in their current form – increase by a third. Lower future expected returns have to be offset by higher future contributions, reduced future benefit promises - or a balance of the two. This is the factor that has been the most influential driver of the benefit reforms recommended by the Joint Negotiating Committee.” It is the cost of future accrual which has prompted the need to review benefits and/or contributions, and not the deficit.
Interesting to note that at Cambridge the strike is supposed to have affected ONE QUARTER of a year's teaching. Perhaps students at Cambridge are the ones who should be asking whether they are getting value for money.
A shocking article, devoid of integrity. This strike is about the destruction of pensions, but it is also about the damage to the ethos of what the university should be about. Is the author happy with the marketisation of higher education, the dreadful insecurity in the lives of many fractional appointees and ECRs? Many lecturers are on temporary contracts teaching ever larger classes and pressured to publish in three/four star journals to progress to a decent salary. The earliest contributions to pensions don't even start until age 30 in most cases. And students are obliged to begin their careers loaded witth debt. You don't have to be militant or late middle-aged as I am to feel that the trends of the past twenty years must be challenged. Enjoy your privileged existence in Cambridge, you're clearly happy.
Well, Marebon, now that the strikes in Higher Education have forced UUK to shelve their plans to destroy academics' hard-earned pensions, I assume you will forgo your pension and donate the proceeds to the UCU strike fund. Otherwise you are a total hypocrite.
Striking is a human right. This article, and others like it, is effectively accusing people for exerting a human right and trying to discouraging others from doing this . Just replace 'strike' with 'vote' and the toxicity of this language is evident.