“Get the FUUK Off Our Pensions”: The Strike for USS

Why all those that care about the future of the UK’s Higher Education should support the strikes.

For the past nine days, university lecturers across the country have walked out on strike as part of a 14-day stint of industrial action in protest against drastic changes to their pensions put forward by Universities UK. Here, Orlagh Fallon  tells us why she is supporting our lecturers, and why we should be too. 

I have always had a sense of awe towards striking. I am unclear as to whether it’s a by-product of a love I had for Billy Elliot during my youth or a veneration towards those ‘sticking it to the man’. Nonetheless, passing the lecturers’ picket line on my heavy walk to campus last week filled me with a sense of appreciation towards a group finally taking a stance on the break-up of our treasured higher education system.

Following major cuts to lecturers’ pensions, we are currently experiencing the largest opposition to the marketisation of university education yet, but the significance of this struggle should not be underestimated. This is just one terrible facet in a whole program aimed at opening the higher education ‘market’ to ‘alternative providers’ and creating competition within the sector. Whilst concern with the pensions cuts should not be overlooked, the strikes are a symbol of a much greater and concerning issue: the market forces unleashed onto our sacred education sector.

As a country, our university education system comes top of the world. It is a global envy. The UK possess three of the top 10 universities worldwide, five in the top 20 and we have seven in the top 10 in Europe. There is no other sector in which Britain does so well. It is an international export, that we do not struggle to sell, and in the academic year 2015-16 nearly 20% of all undergraduates were foreign students. We need to recognise and appreciate the fine asset that are British universities and start acting to protect them.

I concede that I am not overjoyed with the disruption the current UCU strike is having on our educations. As a finalist, my last semester is rapidly concluding and it’s hardly the situation one would wish for. Directing towards the pinnacle of your academic career whilst teaching has ceased is nothing but difficult, to say the least. However, I am hopeful for provisions and supportive of compensation. If the government is prepared to make our education a commodity, then they should be prepared to reimburse those students who are left without the goods for which they paid. An issue becoming increasingly critical following the announcement that striking lecturers will be punished with pay cuts over cancelled contact hours.

To safeguard our educational institutions, we should offer solidarity with those that operate at its core. As a country with an elite set of academics, there is a lack of appreciation for lecturers that have the intellect to succeed in a highly more lucrative career but choose to remain in education. Universities are engines of social mobility, the generators of new ideas and the drivers of our economy.

In a period of great uncertainty, as we navigate through the precarious post-Brexit era, we should be preserving and caring for the global assets we have. Regrettably, the loss of up to £200,000 worth of one’s pension throughout their lifetime does not qualify as protection. Additionally, there are reports that 53% of Russel Group academics are on insecure contracts and have been subject to hugely damaging public sector pay caps, with their real wages being cut by 10% over the last eight years. It leaves academia as an unattractive profession to enter.

Pension cuts and the overhauling of the university funding model are just the beginning of the marketisation of our university education and they are putting the purpose of universities at risk. Hence, we should back our lecturers, not in charity but in solidarity. Understandably, pensions are a distant thought when the memories of school still linger vividly in your mind. Henceforth, look at the current industrial action as a fight against the destruction of higher education. Those on the picket line are opposing the bleak future of our universities and seek to defend the fine institutions which our small isle has become synonymous with. So, this is an appeal to support the strikes, and to secure the pleasure of higher education for future generations.

Keep up to date with the action at the Exeter UCU Twitter page here.