by members of the Engenderings editorial collective
At the Engenderings editorial collective we are disappointed not to be striking alongside our colleagues from other institutions. The LSE UCU branch failed to reach the 50% turnout required for a mandate to take industrial action, although 90% of the not-quite-half of the union members balloted voted for strike action in the first ballot in December, and 89% did in the re-ballot in February. Seeing our social media feeds fill up with strike updates and pictures from pickets up and down the country has been powerful. We stand in full solidarity with our striking colleagues, especially everyone on precarious, hourly paid and lower paid contracts who will be particularly hard hit by taking industrial action. We will be attending the march today, and hope to see you all there!
As many others have pointed out, despite the highly publicised deficit, the USS pension scheme is in good shape and this is an ideologically motivated cut to retirement income by transferring risk from being pooled across many large university employers to individual employees. This individualisation of risk and responsibility is typical of the neoliberal model of higher education being implemented in the UK. So in fact, this moment is about so much more than university professors’ pensions! Despite what the media keeps repeating, support staff and researchers belong to the scheme as well, and could suffer from an estimated £6,000 reduction in annual pension income.
Photo credit: Rose Cook
The hardline insistence on changing the USS pension scheme is part of the general move towards the increased marketisation of universities which has brought with it spiralling student fees, increasing pay inequality within the university and a rise in precarious, short-term and hourly-paid contracts across the university sector. At the LSE for instance, the UCU estimates that 45.4% of the teaching staff are on a casual contract. Increased precarity and lower pay and pensions disproportionately affect women and minority workers, who are also vulnerable to other structural inequalities. At the LSE, 23% of in-house staff overall are (known to be) of Black and Ethnic Minority origin, yet, among professors the proportion is less than 7%, and among senior management staff it is about 8%. Moreover, they also face an ethnicity earnings gap at every point on the pay distribution, while the gender pay gap has been identified as relating more to a glass ceiling effect of slower promotion and over-representation of women on part-time contracts. At least the LSE still has on-site nursery provision for staff and students while many other universities have closed theirs (albeit at a monthly cost close to the PhD studentship level or the net earnings of an employee working full-time at the London living wage level). Furthermore, the LSE, as most universities, has been outsourcing its cleaning services to a workforce composed primarily of BME and migrant workers, kept on lower terms and conditions than in-house staff. The LSE cleaners will be brought back in house this month; a reminder that industrial action can work. But the discrepancies between top earners and staff deemed less qualified is likely to continue as vice-chancellors can attend their own pay setting meetings and command earnings six time the average earnings of their staff.
While news broke over the weekend of the outlandish expenses claims made by a number university vice-chancellors and reports of “more than 60 vice-chancellors now earning in excess of £300,000 a year”, at the other end of the pay scale employees have had below-inflation pay rises resulting for example in childcare costing them more than their net salary. At our own institution, the #LSEPayUp joint cross-union campaign has been calling out this inequality for months with its demand for fair pay for support staff.
This inequality is intimately linked with the ever-rising level of student fees. Some of us are old enough to have started undergraduate studies the year fees were first introduced and still remember that it is not that long ago that university education did not have to come with a lifetime in debt price tag. But now something is seriously wrong when high fees and withdrawal of grants for students from lower income backgrounds means that university education has become more costly for less affluent students. As one student supporter of the picket line at Surrey pointed out:
There are structural flaws in the HE sector, however when the few who are in power continue to act in short-term, self interest at the cost of the many – there is no chance of dismantling these barriers.
With all of this in mind, it should of course not have come as any surprise to hear of the threatening letters received by colleagues at other institutions from their HR departments ahead of the national strike action starting. Yet we were shocked by the tone of the messages shared on a supportive online forum for early career researchers and PhDs on hourly teaching contracts. When unpaid overtime has become an assumed part of the contract, working to rule becomes less-than-full-time work, and workers doing no more than what they have been contracted to do can have up to a quarter of their pay docked.
So in essence, this moment is about defending education on every front. As Priyamvada Gopal wrote recently, this strike is not just about lecturers having a right to a decent retirement income; “it’s about the stealth privatisation of higher education” and students, academics and support staff stand united:
This is our university and our shared education and together we will defend it from the relentless assaults it is undergoing at the hands of the Tories and the votaries of privatising everything except corporate losses.
Students, support staff, outsourced university cleaners, as well lecturers, overwhelmingly recognise this. As PhD students, some of us with fixed term hourly paid graduate teaching assistant contracts, we are well aware that we would have gone on strike, but for a few votes in the ballot. In recognition of this, we pledge to contribute what we can and to share our income from teaching with the UCU fighting fund every week that the strike goes on in gratitude to everyone striking for pensions and against the marketisation of education. See you at the march!
Jenny Chanfreau is a PhD student at the LSE Department of Gender Studies. Her research looks at gender and class differences in transitions in and out of the labour market over the life course. Jenny’s research interests include the gendered division of paid and unpaid work, including caring and childrearing.
Louisa Acciari is a PhD student at the LSE Department of Gender Studies working on the mobilisations of domestic workers in Brazil. Her research interests include social movements; feminist and post-colonial theories; the intersections between gender, race and class; and Brazilian politics. She has also been involved in the student and feminist movements for years and believes in the importance of linking academia to activism and practices of contestation.
Tomás Ojeda is a PhD student at the LSE Department of Gender Studies . His research examines normative issues regarding Chilean “psy knowledges” on so-called sexual and gender diversity, and their place within Chilean sexual and gender politics. Tomás is also a research member of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Subjectivity and Social Change, and has worked as a psychotherapist and as an advisor in sex education.
Julia Hartviksen is a PhD candidate at the LSE Department of Gender Studies. Her PhD explores the materiality of violences against women and femicide in postwar Guatemala. She is particularly interested in the political economy of violence against women, feminist historical materialism, extractivism and development. Previously, Julia studied International Studies & Modern Languages at the University of Ottawa, and Global Development Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, in Canada.