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February 20th, 2018:

The Pensions Strike: A Personal View

Note: this blog was edited 3.3.2018 in response to a few comments. See the my longer note at the foot for a discussion of the issues some commenters raised.

Over the past couple of weeks I have had a lot of conversations in corridors with staff in my institution. Very few of them have been explicitly about the strike. What people really want to talk about  is workload. That’s because my University, along with many, many other Higher Education Institutions in the UK, has a massive problem.

While the politicians and media personalities nationally like to spin the notion of lecturing as a leisurely job punctuated by long holidays, conversations on campus reveal a very different picture. Academic staff repeatedly tell me a that they had no weekend because they worked a Saturday visit day then marked all day Sunday; they tell me that they marked until 4 am then got up early to give a 9.00 lecture; they tell me that they got forty minutes sleep the night before a marks return deadline. They tell me that if they turn away from their email for a day to get a core part of their job (like, y’know, teaching) done, their inbox mushrooms out of control. They tell me that they can’t go on doing this; it’s physically and mentally harming them. In private, colleagues are prepared to talk about how the workload has damaged their family lives. ‘I haven’t seen my youngest child for three days’, a colleague once told me. Others have shared that they have felt pressure to choose between the job and their marriage.

When I look at my own life I have to admit that it has been damaged too. I’ve spent booked holiday that I really needed to rest and recuperate preparing courses, because I know that if I don’t, the students will suffer. I’ve worked, over the past six months, probably about 60-65 hours a week, and each weekend normally includes at least one working day. I’ve struggled with the physical as well as the mental and social demands of this.

Free labour in a marketised Higher Education system

My University in common with many HEIs across the UK, has a peculiar sickness: an addiction to free labour. Like other addictions, it started innocently enough, but has become an all-consuming monster.

First universities expected colleagues to pull a few long days in the marking season to get the work done. And naturally, when colleagues have got books or articles to finish, or a research grant deadline is looming, was expected that the days will be a bit long and they might have to pull a working weekend or two.

Then it was the Saturday Applicant and Open Days. We tried a few – voluntary of course – and the were a success. So the University scheduled more. Then, under pressure over recruitment, we tried a Sunday Open Day. The University decided that it works, so it scheduled more.

Of course, the academics can’t take time off in lieu in the week to compensate for these weekends (because we’re teaching in the weeks). But universities don’t think about that; academic contracts say that we have to work such hours as are ‘reasonably necessary’ to do the job, so they assume we will just absorb the work. More and more work is heaped on us: myriad tasks we’re told are necessary to enhance ‘the student experience’;  tasks required for quality assurance reasons; tasks for REF; tasks for TEF; tasks for the impact agenda, and so on, seemingly forever. Too often, the employers’ response to the demands of the competitive market in Higher Education is simply to expect individual frontline staff to do more.

I look at this trend in my workplace – and across universities nationally as seen here and here – and realise: we’ve been feeding an addiction. We thought that the more free labour we gave to our employers, the more they would appreciate us. Instead, this labour has fuelled and increased a dependency that the employers do not themselves even recognise. It has taken the current pensions dispute to make this truly clear to me.

Free labour and the current dispute

Way back when I first thought about becoming a university teacher, I was warned that the pay was a bit rubbish, but that the pension compensated. The first part of this sentence is certainly true, and particularly so at lower levels of the pay scale. UCU keeps track of the erosion of academic pay by inflation. As they prepared for the last set of pay negotiations in 2015, UCU pointed to a real terms decline in the value of pay since 2009 of over 14%, caused by academic pay’s failure to keep place with inflation. This followed years of below-inflation pay rises. But UCU members at many institutions, including my own, have not traditionally been particularly militant about holding out for above-inflation or catch-up pay rises, because we have viewed our take-home pay as just one part of our wider benefits package – a package that also includes deferred pay in the form of our pension. Indeed, a refrain I’m hearing from many colleagues in this dispute is — rightly or wrongly — that they’ve never felt comfortable striking or picketing over pay; it is the unprecedented attack on the pension that has brought many of them to the picket line for the first time.

Along with many colleagues at institutions across the country, I have always seen our defined benefits pension as a fundamental part of my overall salary package. When I’d ask myself ‘financially, is this really worth it?’, after another endurance-busting week working some insane multiple of my contracted hours, there was the pension: that promise of financial security on the horizon. In short, I rationalised the amount of unpaid, unrecognised labour I was performing as  balanced out by the pension. Now, my University, along with the other largely pre-92 universities that are members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, is going after that pension.

You can read any number of articles outlining why the changes proposed to USS by our employers are unfair and largely unnecessary. A series of excellent articles by Mike Otsuka set out how much of the current alarm about the scheme results in large measure from bizarre and unwarranted actuarial assumptions; how the employers’ attitude to risk is hypocritical; how the draconian proposals presented are disproportionately driven by an estate-rich Oxbridge cartel in a fit of free market buccaneering. There is no need for me to rehearse any of those arguments here.

What I think really needs to be stressed is the impact of what is happening on us, and on our relationships with our employers and our work. The UUK proposals, and the Universities’ reaction to our decision to take part in lawful strike action, have clarified the extent to which our employers feel that they are entitled to our free labour. This sense of entitlement has enabled their belief that they can unilaterally decide to pay less for it through a reduction in our retirement incomes – our deferred pay – of thousands of pounds per year.

As the action draws nearer, universities’ HR departments up and down the country have been busy emailing employees, threatening almost identical punitive deductions not just for strike action, but for working to contract (Action Short of a Strike, or ASOS). That is, many institutions, including my own, are threatening to withdraw 100% of our pay if we have the temerity to only work the hours stated in our contracts (normally 35-37 hours per week), should they deem this to result in ‘partial performance’. Some are even threatening individual lecturers with legal action if students make claims against their universities. Drawing their support from the line in most academic contracts that states we must work ‘such hours as reasonably necessary to perform our duties’, universities are closing ranks to assert their absolute right to demand academic labour without paying for it.

What next?

It’s clear that a number of the Universities involved in this dispute think that they can ride this out. They think they  will take a hit in the NSS this year but, aided by threats of punitive deductions and  the hard economic reality of pay deductions bearing upon staff, they will weather the strike. The changes will then be imposed and we can all go back to business as usual.

That is not how this ends.

The Higher Education sector in the UK is broad, diverse, and strong. Staff at many institutions in the sector automatically join the Teachers Pension Scheme, which is already significantly better than USS, even before the proposed UUK changes are enacted. UUK’s highly divisive proposals  are set to magnify that difference, and it is hard to see how this will not  affect the ability of pre-92 institutions to recruit and retain staff. For those who choose to remain at  pre-92 institutions, what UUK and individual universities have done will profoundly damage perceptions of employers’ good faith and concern for the wellbeing of their staff. Reductions in pension benefits will lead to increased dissatisfaction among staff with stagnating levels of basic pay. This threatens to drag the institutions into a series of bitter and drawn-out pay disputes that can only further damage their reputations.

For my part, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’ after what has happened in this dispute. However this is resolved, institutions’ reliance on free labour, and their extraordinary insistence on their entitlement to it, must stop.

Dr Marianne O’Doherty

UCU Representative and Branch Executive Member

Note on edits 03.03. 2018

After writing this post, I received many many comments, overwhelmingly positive, from colleagues across the sector who recognised themselves and their own institution in it. Several commenters, though, suggested that it was unhelpful to frame the piece as about pre-92 universities, pointing out that the addiction to free labour exists across the sector. Several also pointed out that there are a number of USS members in post-92s (because of course staff move around), and that there are a small number of post-92 HEI’s whose members are by default in USS. 

 The piece was never intended to imply that the addiction to free labour doesn’t apply to post-92s; I’m sorry and slightly mortified that the piece ever gave that impression to anyone. It is deliberately and explicitly framed as a personal piece, signalling that it is based my own experience which, since I finished my PhD, has been in pre-92 universities. The explicitly pre-92 frame of reference particularly aimed to reflect the fact that the current official dispute in which we find ourselves is between staff and employers in the largely pre-92 member institutions of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. This is true irrespective of the fact other institutions unquestionably have members in the scheme. It is difficult to find a shorthand expression that reflects the part of the sector affected by the dispute, and I initially settled for ‘pre-92s’ for simplicity, not exclusivity.  The piece attempts to reflect that – while workloads are terrible across the sector – the specific threat to USS, as a scheme that largely (though not exclusively) serves pre-92 institutions, is bringing to the fore conversations in this part of the sector – the only part in which I have recent personal experience. 

In the light of commenters’ remarks,  I’ve edited  -and, I hope, improved – the piece to better reflect the widespread nature of the workload problem across all UK HEIs. Some way of making a distinction between the universities involved in the dispute (because their members are largely in USS) and those that are not (because their members are largely, though not exclusively in the Teachers Pension Scheme) is necessary to understand the dispute; I hope commenters will consider my phrasing (‘largely pre-92 member institutions of USS’) improved.  

In the light of the important points commenters have made, it seems appropriate to add a few more words on the cross-sector nature of the problem here. Contracts in pre-92 and post-92 institutions alike don’t set fixed hours. The post-92 national contract sets a maximum number of contact hours, but that number – 18 – is extraordinarily high given rising demands to increase informal student support, maintain time-consuming VLEs and so on in pursuit of a TEF Gold. All institutions seem to be making use of roughly the same contractual clause requiring us to work ‘such hours as are reasonably necessary to perform your duties’ (or similar wording). It’s this that allows employers across the board to ratchet up loads, by simply adding more duties and requiring us to perform them. This applies, of course, not just to teaching and research staff, but also to administrative and managerial staff whose contracts contain the same phrase. There might in the past have been a time when employers had a reasonable definition of the word ‘reasonably’. If so, that time has gone. 

 All institutions across the sector seem to share the expectation that we’ll work during much of our holiday entitlement – that is, not just the vacation periods, when we of course expect to be working, but our booked annual leave. In the pre-92s  I think that expectation is an unwritten (though sometimes a spoken) rule. The post-92s national contract, however, contains the charming statement, in clause 8.2, that ‘your holiday entitlement (clause -“Holidays”) will primarily be devoted to research and scholarly activity’. Classy.

I absolutely agree with the commenters who point out that the ratcheting up of workloads is a cross-sector problem in response to which we need cross-sector solidarity and union mobilisation, and I look forward to working together to improve things for all of us and for our students, who cannot be well-served by exhausted and demotivated staff.