TALKS began yesterday between the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK), the body representing all universities, at the conciliation service ACAS in an attempt to resolve the bitter dispute over pension cuts to lecturers and university staff. What makes these talks unique is that the UCU has refused to call off its strike action while talks take place.
The usual route that trade unions follow in disputes that have reached the boiling point of their members declaring enough is enough and walking out, is to agree to ‘unconditional’ talks with the employer at ACAS and to suspend strike action for the duration. This device is used by the trade union leadership in the past to wind down strikes, dissipate the militancy of the workers and prepare for a sell-out deal to be produced after the protracted talks at ACAS have petered out.
It is a mark of the mood amongst UCU members that this well-trodden path to wearing down the members’ resolve in this way has been ruled out. Far from suspending strikes while seeking a negotiated settlement, UCU, to its credit, has insisted that the four days of strike action at over 60 universities take place starting yesterday.
Under attack are staff at the 68 universities founded before 1992 who are members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Universities founded after that date are in another pension scheme and are unaffected by the changes being sought by the employers. The planned changes will result in lecturers, librarians and university administration staff losing up to £10,000 a year on their pensions. Yesterday’s round of strikes came in the face of threats issued by some universities over the weekend that they would punish strikers unless they made up for any cancelled lectures.
Behind the strike is the anger of university staff at not just the attack on their pension rights but the entire drive by universities to carry forward the Tory plans for the complete ‘marketisation’ of higher education. In other words, transforming higher education into just another capitalist enterprise with all the practices designed to screw as much profit as possible out of the universities and to hell with actually operating for the benefit of students, who are transformed into just another ‘consumer’ to be milked dry through increasing levels of fees.
This move to transform universities into profitable businesses has seen the introduction of zero-hours and temporary contracts for lecturers to the extent that today the majority of them are employed on contracts that would not disgrace Sports Direct.
While the majority of lecturers live hand-to-mouth on such contracts, the university Vice-Chancellors are pulling in a fortune.
Last year, the Vice-Chancellors in the elite Russell Group of universities were paid an average of £332,000 a year. Those in the less prestigious universities had to make do with an average of £277,834 a year but they did get a massive 10% pay increase last December. The recent review of tuition fees and university funding by the Tories opened the door for universities charging different tuition fees depending on the subject studied, another step along the road of destroying universal education through introducing the capitalist market place into higher education.
What is clear is that the determined fight by lecturers and staff to defend their pensions is a fight against the Tory complete privatisation of education.
It has won the overwhelming support of students who have joined picket lines and occupied university buildings in solidarity with UCU strikers.
The defence of higher education today involves not just UCU members and students but the entire working class. UCU members must demand that their union do not let up strike action but extend it to indefinite strikes, while at the same time calling on the TUC to mobilise the entire trade union movement to defend the very existence of a free education system for all by organising a general strike to kick out the Tories and go forward to a workers government. A workers government will expropriate the bosses and bankers and provide a free education system at all levels as a right under a planned socialist economy.