I was dismayed to read John Marenbon’s article, “USS strike: academics are wrong to walk out” (Opinion, 2 March).
When you take away the hysteria (“trade union militancy”), the ad hominem slurs (“armchair socialism”) and the rather egregious errors of fact (the claim that the Universities Superannuation Scheme is in debt), the article boils down to three points: the strike makes those who are not striking uncomfortable; it is unfair to students; the consequences of a University and College Union victory would be catastrophic.
With regard to the first point, the worst that I have heard is “Please don’t cross the picket line.” If that makes non-striking colleagues uncomfortable, it should. Those who are on strike are forgoing half a month’s wages (and, in universities that are exacting further penalties, sometimes more) in service of a cause that, if successful, will also benefit those who are crossing the picket lines but who continue to draw their full salaries.
The claim that students are being “used as pawns” is absurd. No one likes to strike. In addition to the financial disincentive, academics are in this business because we love teaching. The union has made strong efforts to explain the situation to students. Students are, of course, free to decide whom to hold responsible for the current situation: their lecturers (whose dedication to their profession would, one would hope, have long been evident to them from classroom interaction), or the administrators at Universities UK and the USS (who refused to sit down to Acas-mediated negotiations until pressured to do so by the strike).
I won’t say much about the third point because Marenbon doesn’t either: he simply asserts rather than attempting to make an argument. I do, however, want to speak to his claim that the strike is motivated by “self-interest and greed”. That lecturers are striking from self-interest is true enough. On the other hand, to say that striking lecturers are motivated by greed is slanderous and beneath contempt. “Greed” would not, to my mind, be a term naturally used to describe people – many of whom could earn far more in the private sector and all of whom have seen the real value of their salaries fall by nearly 15 per cent in the past decade – protesting that their compensation is being cut, and drastically (the proposals would mean a 10 to 20 per cent cut in the value of pensions, translating to a net loss of something in the order of £10,000 per year for the average retiree).
The financial status of the USS is something that is open to discussion and increased contributions may well be necessary in order to keep the system working as a defined benefit scheme. These are all matters that the UCU has made clear it is willing to discuss. It is a pity that Marenbon isn’t.
Ian A. McFarland
Regius professor of divinity
University of Cambridge
John Marenbon: you don’t get it. This strike is not about a few militants but about thousands of academics, admin staff and students who are worried about the future. We have reached a watershed moment with regard to pay and conditions, but also in terms of the relentless marketisation of the sector. Perhaps the author has been insulated against the worst of that at the University of Cambridge, but others are not so lucky.
The idea that strikers are deliberately manipulating and injuring their students is insulting, as well as dismissive of the time and effort that they put into teaching. Students are neither gullible nor manipulable: they are adults who can think for themselves and some have come to the same conclusion as their lecturers. If anyone is uncomfortable with the picket line, 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.
Marenbon is shaming academics for pointing out that they have livelihoods to protect – families to feed, old age to insure and lives to be lived in reasonable comfort.
Astrid Van den Bossche
Industrial action is now in its fourth week. By picketing and taking a significant financial loss of up to half a month’s pay, union members have exposed miscalculations and shambolic behaviour on the part of UUK.
It is now clear that the projected deficit in the pension fund is a result of employers making reduced contributions, some years ago, taking advantage of its then-healthy state, and worst-case analyses being carried out at the present time imagining that all universities might go bankrupt simultaneously. The process by which UUK has brought such a state on us includes an amateurish interpretation of its survey among participating institutions about the levels of risk acceptable to them. Further, a tweet being the trigger to agree a meeting with union negotiators does not inspire much confidence that this organisation intends to treat staff with any seriousness or respect.
With knowledge of the above, several vice-chancellors have acted sensibly in either clarifying their institutional positions in a more considered manner or by reversing previously held views. Others have called for more detailed analyses to be carried out by experts, even noticing that such experts are employed in the institutions that they lead.
None of this would have been possible without industrial action. Hence, it is the behaviour of senior university leaders that should be blamed for the damage being done to student education.
It is urgent that the issue is resolved quickly so that staff can be confident that the pensions promised to them in return for the relatively lower pay is secure, and so that they can return to work.
Department of electronics and computer science
University of Southampton