Monday, 19 February 2018

Strike for a Kingdom

Well, I let a whole ten days or so slide with out blogging. I'm not sure whether I'm lazy, overworked, or an emblem of a generation tiring of semi-long-form social media in the era of snarky one-liners (if you haven't seen my Twitter feed, it is indeed mostly snarky one-liners designed to bring about fully-automated luxury communism by lunchtime). It might be all three. Being the Voice of a Generation is tiring, especially when you're trying to fit it around marking and episodically head-butting the desk when some lanyard-wearing gimp emails you another set of time-wasting things to do that aren't going to help him, you or the students.

Anyway, now that's off my chest, let's talk about all my friends at posh universities. By posh, I mean those universities with a staff room and whose pension scheme has more syllables than mine: the Universities' Superannuation Scheme. I'm in the Teachers' Pension Scheme because I'm from Scumbag College and won't have a Volvo or a labrador to feed in my old age.

My own pension scheme was reduced to a serving of gruel and a boot up the arse some time ago (and despite being 42, I've only 8 years of contributions because university teaching has been casualised), but it's relatively safe, being government-backed rather than 'invested' on the stock market, overseen by some massively overpaid VCs who turned out to be taking home up to an extra £90,000 to help the USS decline. Will their own pensions be hit? Of course not: VCs and other executives hit the limit years before, and get massive payments in lieu of pension contributions.

Academics at pre-92 universities tend to be paid a little less, but they had a better pension scheme. Then the USS board (stuffed with the same VCs and their cronies whose pay has risen 56% in a decade while teachers' pay has been eroded by inflation) announced that the scheme is bust and pensions have to be cut by £10,000 per year. Small beer for the VCs of course: mine got a £27,000 pay rise in a single year not long ago and has never once expressed concern for the decade of earnings loss suffered by his employees, but a lot for someone who probably didn't get a permanent, pension-contributing job until they hit their thirties.

On top of that, it turns out that the fund isn't in deficit: USS has fiddled the statistics. Why would they do that? Because Oxford, Cambridge and UCL, being hugely rich, decided that they'd rather not lend their superior credit rating to the national pension scheme, thus throwing their own employees and those of all the pre-92 universities overboard in the process. They want to get out and what the élite universities want, élite universities get. Will a government stuffed with Oxbridge graduates refuse? Of course not? Will the regulator refuse? Given that the Office for Students is headed by Nicola Dandridge, formerly chief lobbyist for Universities UK, I think it's safe to say that they won't rest until teachers have all the perks and benefits of your average Amazon worker.  

Will they get away with it? There's a big strike starting this week, and a few VCs are protesting, but most of them are claiming that it's nothing to do with them guv: despite being members of the USS board and of Universities UK, they claim it's out of their hands. Having routed money away from investing in staff and students, they're cannibalising their employees' retirement fund to pay for their grace-and-favour mansions, chauffeurs and bonuses. Do they care that pensions aren't bonuses, but deferred pay? They do not. Do they care that a generation of bright young things will opt for some less useful job away from academia? Not a jot.

What does the strike mean for USS staff? On a very basic level, it means losing 14 days' pay, and the concomitant loss of pension contributions (and universities regularly take a day's pay when staff stage two-hour strikes, because they're deeply unpleasant people: Leeds and other universities are planning to fine staff who simply do the hours stipulated on their contracts - my own university is even more punitive when we strike: they take 1/260th from our annual salaries rather than 1/365th). Most people with a household budget would struggle with losing two weeks of salary, and given that 50% of the people who teach you or your children at university are on hourly-paid and/or precarious salaries, it's a big loss. Most branches have a hardship fund, and I'll be donating. More than the financial loss, academics are torn and saddened by the need to deny students the education, support and care that they provide every single day. If you've studied, or been an academic, you'll know that emails arrive at 2 a.m, that students come for help at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., that marking deadlines mean that friends and family get locked out at weekends, references get written at short notice and drafts read on Sunday nights. Decent academics put in way more work than their employers care to notice, and this labour is often emotional labour. None of my better-dressed colleagues want to withdraw any of this, but they need to demonstrate to their chauffeur-driven suits that they aren't fungible assets, and they need to show students that another world is possible.

Across the country, academics from 61 universities aren't simply putting their feet up: on those strike days they'll be holding alternative lectures and seminars, teach-outs and rallies to examine the mean-spirited, ideologically-driven ideology that led to them treating their former colleagues like assets to be sweated. To those parents protesting that their children are being deprived of the education they paid for,  experiencing a strike and finding out the causes are precisely the kinds of educational experiences that will stand them in good stead.

Academics are professionals, and part of being a professional is recognising that you have a duty to a set of principles rather than a local organisational manifestation of these principles. Lawyers have a duty to the law rather than a client or the state; doctors have an oath that outweighs the time clock or a manager's demands; academics have a duty to the pursuit of knowledge. The ideological sea in which we've swum for decades has been one of deprofessionalisation in all areas of human activity. because independent centres of resistance have to be crushed if Lord Ashcroft, Richard Branson, Tim Cook and the Carillion directors are to be guaranteed that extra olive in their martinis. The proletarianisation of all professions is a concerted effort by neoliberals to turn work into nothing more than the exchange of products for wages, with no voice and no principles. Working-class colleagues have a far harder time than me and my academic friends, but without the security of a decent pension, academics won't ever be able to challenge the juggernaut of the piecework labour model that's rolling over us all. This week it's university lecturers. Doctors and lawyers – through the withdrawal of legal aid – have already been through the mill. Who's next?

I'm not on strike next week, but I'll be supporting those who are, and I won't be crossing any picket lines. If you're thinking that academics have it easy and are lucky to be able to strike, think about this: it's because we clung to our right to unionise, despite repeated attacks on those rights. Try doing the same. Here's a guide to how to support your lecturers:

Now go away. It's 7.21 p.m., I'm still in the office and there's still work to do.

*The title of this blog refers to a seriously good novel written by Menna Gallie. Her husband was a professor of philosophy at several universities: another of her books, Man's Desiring, is a funny, moving campus novel based on Keele, where she lived while her husband taught there.

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