Well, that was an unusual day at work. Or, rather, not at work; I have spent the day on strike. Now, I have mentioned strikes in this blog before, noting that our strikes are usually just a day or two over below-inflation pay rises, and that little usually comes of them. This strike is different, and is on a scale that I have never seen in my 28 years in the UK’s universities.
The main reason that the strike is different is that it is about our pension scheme, not about our pay as such. The issue is actually very complex: to explain properly why we are so angry would require many powerpoint slides, or, at the very least, several blackboards, a good supply of chalk, and an hour of your time. The executive summary, as I see it, is as follows:
- In the 1990s and 2000s, the pension fund was doing very well, so our employers cut back on the amount they contributed, and pocketed the difference. Now that a deficit has been identified in the scheme, they want to address it by drastically reducing the benefits we get in retirement.
- Whether the scheme really has a deficit of any sort is a matter of debate. You can get one accountant to say there is a problem when another says the scheme is flush with money. The main reason the scheme appears to have a deficit is that it might not be able to cover its responsibilities if all the universities went bankrupt all at once. This might be a sensible test to apply to the pension scheme of a single company which might actually go bust (*cough*Carillion*cough*). It makes no sense at all to apply it to an entire education sector.
- The proposed changes would make the pensions for staff on the traditional universities far worse than the pensions of teachers, or of staff in the post-1992 universities. Their pension scheme does not have any funds at all; it is simply backed by the taxpayer. So no-one asks whether it has to pass the same tests that are being applied to our pension scheme.
- The principals and vice chancellors (which is who we are in dispute with) have, over the last few years awarded themselves enormous pay rises. This has left a very bad taste in many people’s mouths.
On a personal level, you can tell how serious the issue is by the fact that I stood on a picket line this morning, for the first time in my life. That is me on the far left, in the terrible hat, the others are my fellow pickets from the School of GeoSciences. (Thanks to Magnus Hagdorn for taking the photo.)
Once we had finished a morning’s picketing, I also joined a protest rally: another thing that really isn’t me. But I felt that it was important that as many of us as possible showed up, just to show how serious we were.
The rally had all the features one hopes for at such events: a good crowd, lots of placards, some angry left-wing speakers and a hopelessly inadequate PA system. Hopefully it is enough to convince our principal of the strength of feeling that he is up against.