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Plan C: On the university pensions struggle

Plan C: On the university pensions struggle

Elio Di Muccio writes on the encouraging strength of recent strike action and the potential for a more radical attack against the long programme of marketisation which has afflicted higher education.

The student movement which started in 2010 in protest of the tripling of tuition fees in higher education predominantly took the form of direct action, with its preferred tactic being the occupation of public space. This was a powerful act of defiance against the privatisation of services forced through austerity. While we should have no regrets about the achievements of that movement, such as picket lines being physically enforced by students, we must admit that the experience ended in defeat insofar as the reforms were implemented and its demand for free education was not achieved. The outcome of the struggle proved that education is not a right, but a privilege.

The reasons for this defeat are several, but a few stand out for their present relevance: the overall lack of militant support among university staff (with notable and commendable exceptions); an excessive focus on capture of material resources through students’ unions, which burned out activists and emerging leadership; and the inability to address a demand by a fatigued and open membership to ‘diversify’ the movement’s tactics. But the movement never died and eventually developed an effective response to these demands – as evidenced by the rent strikes recognising the multiplicity of options available to disrupt the flow of universities’ income – and a more selective approach to the capture of student union resources.

Thanks to these continued efforts, free education is now back on the Labour Party’s agenda. The commitment to providing ‘cradle to grave’ education, built in the image of the NHS to provide a service free at the point of use over the course of each lifetime, is an essential component of an industrial strategy to give people some autonomy over their bosses. Sustained strikes such as the current industrial action over the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme, which are set to cut the pensions of workers ranging from tutors living in poverty to essential administrative staff and hard-working researchers and lecturers by 20%-40%, show students a good example of how to assert their dignity. Strikes can give students the confidence to challenge perceptions and assumptions about their social condition. One such presumption is that participating in a university education automatically means being a winner of social mobility. In other words, strikes in education remind us that attending school, college or university is not enough to cease being a member of the working class – to go from being exploited to being an exploiter.

Despite this power of strikes to encourage radical imagination, we should not forget that the ongoing strike is strictly about pensions. Nevertheless, it retains a potential to turn the tide against neoliberal reforms of the education system. It does so because of, rather than in spite of, its limitations as a strike about pensions. For starters, there has not been so much collaborative resistance between students and staff in higher education since the reforms that led to the triplication of higher education fees. Possibly never before has there been so much student-staff solidarity in the UK. This is because there is a growing convergence between the material conditions of current and future workers.

Who pays

The origins of the USS pension scheme in higher education are in government reforms. Realising that Britain’s workforce is becoming increasingly precarious, the state had to find some way of relieving itself of the responsibility to maintain a radically impoverished and ageing population. It therefore legislated that all workers must be enrolled in a pension fund from which the lowest paid workers can ‘choose’ to opt out. This paved the way for a traditional struggle between capital and labour to be fought over who should pay the price of long-term security for workers.

Despite each party arriving at a compromise position that didn’t please everyone, Universities UK – the representatives of British capital in higher education – have come back for more. Their attempt to cut staff pensions is not just a massive cost-cutting exercise. They also want to financialise the USS pension scheme: on top of the already existing unethical investments, UUK want to isolate universities from the potential costs of collapse of funds – either because of oversight or financial crisis – and want to offload these costs onto workers. Similarly, the government’s announcement of a review of post-18 education aims at lifting any cap on tuition fees. This would allow universities to charge students based on graduate employability, salary, and hierarchical level in the workplace. Both reforms are a way of cutting funding to universities that depend heavily on teaching and which comparably have few assets other than educators. The reforms would lead to further precarity and a three-tiered higher education system with rigid class divides.

Thankfully, resistance has been brilliant. Students and workers alike have understood that universities play a pivotal role in global capitalism and that the current situation is a crucial moment for disrupting this. Sustained strike action has been mounted alongside strategies new and old. The bosses are weak, divided and breaking ranks. And while it is not the case that anti-capitalist appetites are unequivocally spreading among workers in education, the diversity and militancy on the picket lines demonstrate that the time is still right for a political re-composition of the UCU leadership in accordance with the ongoing re-composition of its membership’s material interests.

What the recent strike over pensions demonstrates is that a significant part of UCU’s current membership are casualised staff on insecure or no contracts, and that the issues pertaining to the ongoing casualization of education must be addressed if higher education is to be reimagined as something beneficial for workers and for students. Much of this new membership is composed of people who lived through, and were educated by, the student movement and resistance to austerity. Joining the ranks of staff in higher education has made us realise that managers in education are capitalists whose job is to sell degrees. If they could sell them without providing an education, they would. For this reason, it is absurd to believe that strikes damage a student’s education. Rather, they highlight the lack of an education.

The politics of the union, therefore, can be changed along these lines. In one way or another, UCU will need to recognise that many of its emerging militants are casualised workers, whose interests lie in the politicisation of the employment relation, including how this relation shapes and affects education. The attempts to read the pensions issue through such a holistic perspective – one which interrogates the marketization and casualization of higher and further education through the prism of pensions – demonstrates a way beyond the potential narrowness of union demands and struggles. This transformation presages a political space beyond trade union consciousness and is being brought about from within the union by those who, educated in the student movement, now face casualised and precarious employment in a university that does not respect them, but will learn to fear them.

Moving from defence to radical strategies

However, the union and the student movement alike are still on the defensive. This is because universities have been diversifying their portfolios and investing internationally, such that they plan to generate more profits from accommodation, hospitality services, digital tuition in campuses outside of the UK, and transforming themselves into employment agencies for businesses seeking tutors and researchers as one-off consultants. With each of these investments comes the absorption of workers whose needs our movements have never considered before. We therefore must be more radical, pragmatic and strategic in formulating our demands, to match new points of leverage.

A February strike day in Bristol, by Chris Bertram

One strategy is to see education as an economy in which the value of the commodity – the degree – is undermined by the growing supply. The more degrees are given with higher grades, the less valuable are even the ‘best’ of degrees. Grades are rising on average across higher education. A reasonable way of disrupting universities would be to maximise grade inflation to expose the lack of education. Giving every student 100% as part of a marking boycott would allow academic staff to mark essays and retain the real grades as a point of leverage in negotiations with management. Students could still be issued the feedback they would need to improve and would be allowed to progress with their studies as usual. For the first time, assessment would not be about competition, but a pedagogical experience. Finally, administrative staff would be able to fulfil their contracts, publishing grades on time while participating in the action, rather than having to spend strikes facing the brunt of students’ anxieties and concerns. In this way, whatever the issue being fought on could be highlighted and the protest structured in such a way to allow everyone to participate in their own capacity towards building free education.

Other strategies, such as a fee strike or a fee refund, are also innovative but do not adequately reflect the need to circulate student struggles and struggles over education throughout the working class. While a fee refund should be welcome where it is coordinated in conjunction with unions and the left on campuses – as it can add a financial burden to otherwise weak sources of workers’ power – it is a tactic which emerges out of the subjectivity of the student as an individual consumer: it is pragmatic, but it undermines, rather than encourages, collective responses. Similarly, a fee strike is difficult to imagine in a situation where fees are funded through debt, and in which the restriction of finance is the most effective method for government to exasperate crises in public services to justify cuts and privatisation.

Going forward, what is needed is the widespread engagement within the UCU with issues pertaining to casualization and marketization. Such efforts need to be linked to a broader political movement which seeks to restructure higher education as something belonging to the workers and the students, governed and run by them. This will be achieved through the ongoing re-composition of the union, at the lowest level working through to the top. Such a re-composition promises to potentially re-align the consciousness of the union, allowing its demands to transcend the historically limiting sectionalism and workerism of trade union struggle. This re-composition will not be frictionless, and the image of this process is one of slow, consistent work. However, the pension strike has proved a flashpoint through which we can view such transformation as an immanent possibility, one that is ultimately driven by the hard work and militancy of those on the picket lines.

This article first appeared at the Plan C website

Pic: UCU strikers in Glasgow last month, by LornaMCampbell

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