By Annette Chrysostomou
An escalating strike at British universities shows high levels of frustration among staff over salaries and pensions.
Almost a month ago, members of the UK’s University and College Union (UCU) at 61 universities decided to back industrial action because staff pensions had been cut for the third time since 2009.
Universities on strike include Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College. At a decisive UCU vote 88 per cent of the members who voted backed the strike action. The strikes have since escalated during the four-week period, starting with two days in the week commencing February 19, three days the week after, then four and five days respectively in the following two weeks.
Politics professor Lee Jones from the Queen Mary University of London told the Cyprus Mail more about the reasons for the strike.
“Our real terms pay has also fallen by around 20 per cent. Now, bosses want to slash our pensions by another 40-75 per cent. Even after four decades of dedicated service to students, many of us will have to survive on less than £200 a week. That is 44 per cent below the current London living wage,” he said.
According to Jones, the problem is not that the USS (Universities Superannuation Scheme) pension fund, the sector’s main retirement fund is in deficit. It currently has assets worth £60bn and can pay out its liabilities for the next 40 years, according to a cautious evaluation by First Actuarial. A Guardian article reported that 184,000 university staff currently contribute to a USS pension.
“Hard-line employers have fabricated a phoney deficit by making ludicrous assumptions, like inflation-busting pay-rises – which haven’t happened for well over a decade – and that all universities simultaneously go bust. It’s a sham,” he commented.
Rather, he said, staff who actually teach students are being squeezed, while an army of useless bureaucrats earn mega salaries and devote the rest of the money to vanity building projects.
The students, at Queen Mary University at least, support the strike. The student union passed a motion supporting it with 98 per cent support. There are others though who are sceptical about the strike, since course works and exams might be affected.
“We completely understand their anxieties. We are dedicated teachers and support staff; being away from our work and unable to help students is an affront to our professional identities and many of us are very conflicted about striking. We also lose all our salary when we strike, and we have been freezing on picket lines for five days already,” the professor said. “We regret the impact on students but hope that, with their support, we can direct our shared frustration at employers and bring the strike to a successful conclusion, allowing us all to get back to our work.”
He added as the UK is one of the most popular destinations of Cypriots for their undergraduate and postgraduate studies current and prospective students should care about the grievances of the teaching staff.
“If academics’ pay continues to fall, after 20 per cent real-terms cuts, and we are left with poverty pensions, who in their right mind would want to work in British universities? The best minds will leave for more secure, better paid employment in the private sector, where wages for comparable professionals are 30-50 per cent higher. The quality of British higher education is at stake. This should naturally be of concern to anyone thinking of coming to study in Britain.”
Lee Jones did his graduate studies at Oxford and moved to Queen Mary in 2009.
He has advised government agencies and civil society groups from a wide range of countries including Australia, Britain, Denmark, France, Myanmar and Timor-Leste. He regularly appears in national and international media. Outlets have included Al-Jazeera, BBC News, the Financial Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, the BBC World Service and Monocle 24 radio. He tweets @DrLeeJones and his homepage is www.leejones.tk.