TONY Brown, University and College Union (UCU) president at University College London (UCL), told News Line on the Gower Street picket line yesterday morning: ‘Today, we’re taking action across England at all the pre-1992 universities in defence of the USS pension scheme.
‘The employers are trying to divide new scheme members from existing members. They want to put new members on a career average rather than a final salary scheme, and to increase member contributions.
There was a lively picket outside SOAS. UCU member Thomas Marois, a lecturer in development studies, said: ‘I’m here because we have to resist the cuts in public services, the attacks on education and the pensions of hard working public servants.
‘All the students I’ve been in contact with have been supportive. The students understand, like the lecturers, that the crisis today is a crisis caused by the excesses of the bankers and not of ordinary people who are bearing the cost of the crisis.’
At the Birkbeck College picket line, UCU member and history lecturer Mike Berlin said: ‘For us it’s a great turnout. Everybody is raring to go. We need solidarity action as widely as possible.’
Head of the Economics Department at SOAS, Jan Toporowski, told News Line: ‘I’m here because I’m a union member and always have been. I’m concerned about the conditions of many junior academics coming into the profession with worse pensions. The starting academics have indebted themselves to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds to get their qualifications. They face an appalling housing situation.’
On the picket line at the LSE, the UCU branch secretary Mike Cushman said: ‘The employers are attacking our pensions, which is a wage cut, and that means it is very difficult for our members when they retire.
‘It is particularly difficult for young people coming in to work at universities because their pension will be calculated on their average earnings rather than a final salary pension – and that means a cut of around 35%.
‘We have two days of strike action this week and if they do not back down then there will be more action next term.
‘There was an overwhelming majority for all types of action both at LSE and nationally.
‘On Thursday our strike is about jobs and pay as well as pensions.
‘The students’ union have voted to support us and they are advising their student members not to go in to university today.
‘The students are supporting us because we supported them in their occupation against cuts and fees.’
An LSE student, Raymond Leung, said: ‘I am studying Econometrics and I support the lecturers’ strike, it is the right thing to do.
‘Overall, the quality of education is pretty good at LSE however, if the lecturers are sacked the quality of education would definitely go down.’
The President of the UCU nationally, Alan Whitaker, came down to visit different pickets. He joined the LSE picket and spoke out for free university education. ‘It is UCU policy that university tuition should be free’ he said. ‘There are other ways of funding university tuition without making students incur an enormous amount of debt.
‘This is all part of the drive to privatise education.’
Pickets at Goldsmith told News Line: ‘We are on strike at Goldsmiths today because of attacks on the pension scheme. The plan is to change the terms of new schemes even though there is no financial limitation stopping them from carrying on with the current scheme.
‘The changes will give new entrants worse terms and conditions compared to those previously employed. This plan is being carried out without any consultation with the staff.
‘There will be further strike action on Thursday challenging pay cuts being imposed on workers, who are being offered a 0.5 per cent pay rise while inflation is around five per cent – this is a pay cut of 4.5 per cent.
‘We see all these cuts as attacks on higher and further education in line with this government’s attacks on state education.
‘They have refused to negotiate on pay and, instead, focused on attacking job security of workers and staff which restricts students’ access to education. This is at a time when vice chancellors are receiving higher pay rewards and bonuses.’
A picket added: ‘I support the March 26 demo and support a general public sector strike, since everyone is under attack, and hope there will be a coordinated strike action over pension cuts to comply with legal demands. Although other workers are in support of this action, the leadership are still lagging behind.
‘On Saturday it is no surprise that the TUC has lined up a speakers’ list of the top 10 trade unions in the country excluding Bob Crow, who is leader of the 11th largest union and is very much in support of strike action.
‘I would support a general strike to defend education and jobs in the public sector for bringing this government down.’
l Pickets were out at Queen Mary College in Mile End.
The UCU branch secretary at the college, Rick Saull, told News Line, ‘The reasons for the strike are primarily to defend our pension scheme from attack by the employers. The union is asking the employers to enter serious negotiations with us.
‘The changes to the scheme are being imposed by the vice chancellors of the universities.
‘In a ballot of members of the scheme, over 95% voted to oppose the changes. It would reduce our benefits considerably. People joining would have worse benefits than existing members. We would pay in more to get less.
‘It would be easier to sack people, as the pension redundancy package would be less.
‘These changes are not necessary. The employers are using the cover of the crisis to push through these radical changes.’