If the UCU strike achieves its aims, we’ll be worse off

The costs of the UCU’s pay and pensions demands make the fights for lighter workloads, greater gender and ethnic pay equality, and less workforce casualisation impossible, says Alexander Douglas

三月 13, 2020
Strike placards

Since November 2019, the University and College Union has called a total of 22 days of strikes over several issues affecting employment in higher education. I have great respect for my colleagues who went on strike, and I participated in the action last year out of solidarity rather than conviction. But the truth is, I am not merely indifferent to this strike: I oppose it.

The UCU called this strike over five different issues, making it rhetorically difficult for anyone to oppose it. The common refrain is: if you don’t strike, you can’t change anything. This assumes that things can only change for the better. Looking past the rhetoric and into the structure of the demands, I believe that satisfying them could make things worse. I blame this not on the members but on the organisation and leadership of the UCU.

The strike was really two strikes called to run concurrently. One concerned pensions; the other concerned the “four fights”: pay devaluation, workloads, gender and ethnic pay inequality, and workforce casualisation.

Compared with the pensions-focused strike in 2018 with its clear objectives, this strike has been called by Oxford professor Amia Srinivasan “a howling protest against the ongoing destruction of higher education”.

But behind the howling protest hides an irresponsible and counterproductive strategy that threatens to exacerbate the very conditions being protested.

UCU’s negotiators recently released a statement outlining their compromise demands after three weeks of strikes. Reading it, you will notice that there are only two demands that require a clear financial commitment from the universities.

The first is that universities should pay as much as required to keep employee contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, a pension fund that covers many higher education workers and academics, at 8.4 per cent. The other is that the entire pay spine – the higher education salary scale – should be increased by 3 per cent.

On the rest of the issues, the demands involve no financial commitment. This is a serious strategic mistake.

Gender and ethnic pay inequality is an urgent problem. The gender pay gap, for example, stands at 15.9 per cent. Closing it will add significantly to staffing expenses for the universities, since it will involve lifting the pay of those disadvantaged. This is a reason not to spend limited funds on other things less urgently needed.

Casualisation is another urgent and related problem. Many academics, disproportionately women and ethnic minorities, are kept on a series of fixed-term contracts, preventing them progressing up the salary scale. This exploitative practice is a cost-saving measure for the universities. Universities can respond either by downsizing or by creating more permanent positions. Their response will depend on available funding – another reason not to divert funds to less urgent needs.

Pay and pensions are much less urgent demands, especially since the higher the salary, the higher the benefits. Someone on £60,000 does not need to earn £61,800 next year.

Better-paid academics do not need their pension contributions capped at 8.4 per cent. To achieve this, universities might have to pay 25 per cent contributions or more, even while lower-paid employees not on USS receive as little as 3 per cent. People tell me: “It’s not a race to the bottom!” No, but the more you take for the middle and top, the less is left for the bottom.

A responsible union leadership would acknowledge this and prioritise its demands. UCU’s leadership refuses to do so. It uses rhetorical tricks to avoid admitting any financial constraint.

Here are three examples:

1. Universities are said to have abundant cash reserves, but these are assets held to hedge against financial risk. Running them down would be financially irresponsible and would drive up borrowing costs, making it harder, not easier, for universities to fund pay and pensions.

 2. Leading up to the strike ballot and after, UCU repeatedly claimed that our pay had fallen by 20 per cent in real terms. This is a narrative of abundance. If the universities had profited from a 20 per cent pay decline, they would have much to spend elsewhere. But the 20 per cent figure was based on vigorous statistical massaging. A straightforward arithmetical error, pointed out by Mike Otsuka, a professor in the department of philosophy, logic & scientific method at the London School of Economics, added 5 per cent to the figure all on its own.

Otsuka argues that a decline of 5.5 per cent is a more realistic number. Given that university income, which comes from fixed grants and fees, doesn’t keep up with inflation, a 3 per cent pay rise looks like a serious financial strain once the false abundance narrative is out of the way. Satisfying it in addition to a very large pensions commitment is unlikely to leave enough to address other issues.

3. The UCU reports that: “Compared to seven years ago, the percentage of expenditure spent on staff has fallen by 3.35%, but the percentage spent on capital expenditure has shot up by 34.9% over that period”. This makes it sound as if at least 34.9 per cent of the budget is spent on capital – “shiny new buildings” is the catchphrase – whereas it could have been directed towards staff.

Here is another narrative of abundance. First, it involves a serious arithmetic mistake. As a percentage of total expenditure, spending on capital has only increased by about 1.1 per cent. Moreover, the analysis ignores returns. Investments are not approved unless they can be shown to have positive net present value, for instance by yielding a return greater than their cost. Thus they do not use up income; they increase it.

One of the UCU’s negotiators, Sam Marsh, released a video in which he subtracts capital investment accounted in instalments (depreciation) from total expenditure, to show how much income could have gone to staff pay and pensions had the investments not been made. This treats the investments as having zero net return.

Distortions and misinformation are not the trademarks of a responsible union leadership. If the strike achieves its stated aims, a pay and pensions deal will be struck that is costly enough to make the other objectives of the strike financially impossible.

This would betray members who sacrificed and went on strike for those objectives – largely the younger, poorer and more precarious. Worst of all, the UCU will have bought their support with a series of irresponsible narratives of false abundance.

Alexander Douglas is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of St. Andrews.



  • 注册是免费的,而且十分便捷
  • 注册成功后,您每月可免费阅读3篇文章
  • 订阅我们的邮件
Please 登录 or 注册 to read this article.

Reader's comments (2)

Not entirely unsympathetic to your position but can you address the fact that universities received a massive cash boost after the introduction of fees, particularly uncapped enrolments
Yes one other point that Academics fail to understand is that they will not get a decent pay rise/pension if Universities continue to have excessive administration especially useless quality control procedures. The pot is only so big and the more bullshit jobs (negative return jobs, quality control officers, senior managers with no value added and who waste their time in strategy meetings) the less for the academics. All the increase in academic productity has gone into managers pay packets and to create more admin jobs that meet the needs of managers but not students or academic staff Hence money is being wasted on a grand scale. Cut the excess bureaucracy and the academics can get a much better deal.