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30 November – A statement from the branch President

Tomorrow is going to be quite a day.  A day of action featuring several million people.  A show of solidarity and strength by more than 20 trade unions, including our own.  A demonstration of our collective unwillingness to sit back and watch our benefits get taken away without negotiation.

But more than that, it’s a chance for us to show that we’re prepared to fight back.  To step up when our employers, and this government, decide that they can take away what we have worked so hard for.  To stand in the way of changes done for reasons of ideology rather than need.  To show to our colleagues, our students, and our community that we stand prepared to defend higher education in this country.

The USS pension scheme is the second-largest pension scheme in the country, and is cited as one of the most financially stable.  Even during the current crisis, the scheme is not in terrible danger of falling apart.  And yet, our employers have chosen to attack the scheme, to replace it with a markedly inferior two-tier structure that is unfair to new members, and to increase our contributions while making sure we get less out of it.

Some members have expressed to me the view that, while these changes are a disaster, we should be thankful for keeping a decent pension in the current climate — so why are we getting all fired up? But of course, these changes aren’t happening in isolation; they’re happening in concert with other sweeping changes to higher education that, when combined with the pensions issue, threaten our profession and our universities.  On top of our lesser benefits, our universities are getting their funding cut enormously, meaning we have to deliver more with less money.  Support has been cut for poor students who need financial support to attend college.  University students are now expected to pay triple the amount of fees as before and live the rest of their lives with a mountain of debt.  Along with all of this, lurking ominously in the background has been the promise of changes to university certification, which will allow private education providers — and the predatory lenders who come with them, as we’ve seen in the United States — to enter the sector and change the landscape of higher education forever.

For me, I feel like I know where this path ends.  I come from the United States.  I have $118,000 in student loan debt, which will follow me for the rest of my life and is not dischargable for any reason, including bankruptcy.  I’ve seen the undercover investigations of private education providers, and how they prey on the poor, the mentally ill, the infirm, offering them a chance at ‘education’ but in the end providing only empty promises and a lifetime of debt servitude.  Finally, I’ve seen what happens when unions are broken and when benefits are eroded: workers certainly don’t end up with a ‘good enough’ pension that is protected.  Eventually, as soon as the employers can engineer it, those benefits disappear entirely.  And they don’t come back.

Tomorrow will be a fantastic day, filled with inspiring rallies, glorious marches, and comraderie and solidarity.  But it will also be an opportunity for us to say that enough is enough.  That we don’t want a higher-education sector funded on the backs of students, a sector that preys on its workers and denies them the right to a dignified retirement after many years of hard work.  We deserve better than that.  Our students and co-workers deserve better than that.  Our society deserves better than that.

Please stand with us on 30 November.  Let your employers know you’ve had enough.  The challenges ahead require unity and strength; and the more of us there are, the stronger we are!

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Eric Silverman, PhD

Southampton UCU President

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