It probably won’t have escaped your notice that many university workers in the UK began a strike today (or a series of strikes) over enforced changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).
USS is a major pension scheme for academic, managerial and professional staff in many pre-1992 higher education institutions. It’s the scheme I joined in 2015 when I became employed by the University of London.
Unsurprisingly, news in London has focused on and around my workplace, Senate House. The picket lines were out in force this morning (including at the neighbouring London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and were vociferous. I cautiously circled the building until I found a quieter entrance.
The sense of hurt is strong. There are many approaching retirement and witnessing a considerable threat to the structure and return of their pensions. There are many much younger who are furious at the injustice of it all. It’s right that they make an appeal.
What follows isn’t an argument against action – I don’t have a good one. But it’s worth reflecting for a moment why my job deserves my attention right now rather than my pension.
Democracy is shit
Something like this has been on the cards for a while. These days, it seems like just a matter of course that a major pension scheme should wobble while its chief executive pockets a 17% pay rise worth £82,000 a year.
Yet, as a public, we bear some responsibility for this lamentable fall from grace.
It’s a hiding-to-nothing to begin unpicking the public decision-making of the last two years. Most attempts to do so only strengthen the resolve of those whose opinions have been so decisive in the ballot box.
The higher education sector has not fared well from these decisions – from Brexit, from Toryism, or from Gove’s derogatory remarks about ‘experts’. (As a fellow English graduate, I’ll refrain from the usual jokes about how little expertise that actually provides.)
Emma Kennedy, who is supporting the strike, identifies a much broader malaise. She says the enforced pension change “fits into a broader pattern of how employers and the government have treated university workers (all of them, not just academics) and students in the last ten years”.
Indeed. I just worry that dysfunction is bred from democratic decisions and the ideologies that arise from them. Voter decisions can lead any of us down a tangent that cannot simply be brushed aside. Just ask EU citizens who now face an uncertain future here they couldn’t have foreseen just a few short years ago.
Tides can change, sometimes brutally, against our will. There’s every chance that the recent cold front of Conservatism could continue as a betrayed faction of Labour abandons the party. Voters are conducting the waves right now; it’s how hard many of us can swim against them.
This malaise is due at least partly to something much bigger than HE. That’s not to say that we must agree with the plight of our sector, nor that we shouldn’t fight it. But some things are what they are. Democracy can be shit too.
Pride before a fall
If that sounds like hopeless resignation, perhaps it is. I might wish I wasn’t so laissez-faire. But my circumstances leave me quite fortunate to be in the situation I’m in.
I had every hope of building an academic career, though luck was a little thin. Approaching 30, I wasn’t prepared to stay on an ad-hoc/freelance roundabout. I looked for something new.
I’m now in a role that might ordinarily require a postgraduate qualification (or at least a degree) in marketing. Not only did I lack that requirement, I’d also had relatively little experience compared to many in the sector. Luck has certainly repaid its debt.
And now I look to my responsibilities, which are numerous. This is a quiet week, and yet there are eight advertising demands that I must oversee tomorrow morning alone, several of which will be time-sensitive. Interruptions are potentially very wasteful, and I don’t want to lose budget to publishers for bookings that are not kept, or for campaigns to be ruined.
I know disruption is the point of industrial action (or if not the point, the consequence), but I cannot abide wastage. Our small team is already stretched to the limit. We need to plan for absences to avoid needless loss.
Likewise, there will be lecturers out there whose consciences have driven them to break ranks and teach their debt-ridden students. It’s not wrong to prevent waste or disruption to others because we ourselves have been wronged.
That inertia creates no easy answers. And I do feel selfish, to a degree. I’m still relatively young; I have little pension to speak of; and I’ve embarked on a career that doesn’t bind me permanently to the higher education sector. Right now, ironically, the conditions that prevented my career of choice have presented me with a more stable one in the same sector. It even offers some semblance of a work-life balance.
I’m not particularly invested in a fight like this. And clearly, I don’t see even a small victory overturning an ideological tide that is beset on reducing social mobility and putting higher education firmly under the boot.
At the same time, unlike my elder peers, I haven’t had the benefit of owning a home when it was affordable to do so. That seems a long, long way away.
Immediacy matters right now. At 34, much of my income is frittered away on rent and travel. Losing seven or eight days of it is not an option. Not right now.
I have every sympathy with the strikers, but I don’t want to feel guilty for showing up to work. I hope you’ll forgive my stance too.
2 thoughts on “Why I’m not striking for USS”
I have been thinking for a while that Academia as we have come to understand it in this country is reaching a point where it is no longer sustainable. As you mentioned, most of the academics striking will be of an older generation, who got their jobs years ago. The changing sector and increasing reliance on hourly paid contracts means that there will be very few new academics even eligible to join the pension scheme, never mind the Union. Instead, highly qualified new doctoral graduates are living hand to mouth on seasonal contracts with fluctuating hours.
And the requirements to get a job are becoming more and more ridiculous, with more publications and experience required, driving more people to scrabble for whatever they can to try and give themselves just the tiniest sliver of a shot towards being someone who would even be eligible for the pension.
Perhaps these strikes are a sign that Academia has tried to streamline itself into a collapse, and this is the beginning of the UK higher education system as we know it crumbling. I wonder how it will be rebuilt.
Thanks, m’dear. I like to draw a line between academia and HE, not least because my department is not involved in research and is funded entirely by student fees (albeit at much lower rates than you would expect to pay on-campus in London). Research relies a lot on grants, although the current dissent against the Research Excellence Framework may yet blow that up into confusion.
I do think it’s reached saturation point. Too many grads, too few jobs. But that’s not the sector’s fault; it doesn’t owe anyone a job. I do think that universities ought to warn prospective research students about the slim chances of an academic career, but they won’t, given that it’s often very easy money from a low-maintenance group.
I always liked the structure in Switzerland, which seemed progressive, early-career driven, a good mix of youth and experience, and much better costed. But the UK is more research-focussed, and that’s what has continued to drive up cost. The pension issue seems to exemplify an increasingly sore emphasis on the managerial side of the sector and how opaque and incompetent this can be.
Again, this is partly driven from my current department, but I do wonder if rebuilding will come around online, flexible, and/or dynamic methods of studying. (Especially post-Brexit, an easier way to offer UK degrees would be to do so online.) If that market grows, it will create demand for younger, tech-savvy scholars and teachers. The demographics of the academy would change, becoming younger and cheaper (and conveniently reducing the funding pressures on pensions). Maybe a lifeline or two in there somewhere?