Local university lecturers began a second day of strike action over pensions and working conditions, expressing a determination to make a stand against a ‘neoliberal model of education.’
The eight day strike, which began in Monday, is affecting both Goldsmiths in New Cross and Queen Mary in Tower Hamlets, both part of the University of London.
They are among hundreds of members of the University and College Union taking part in a nationwide action, due to continue until December 5, arguing that employers are betraying the agreements over pensions which followed strike action in Spring 2018 and which could leave them thousands of pounds out of pocket in retirement. Academics are also angry over increased casualisation and higher workloads.
The action, which was backed overwhelmingly by a ballot, has led to disrupted and cancelled lectures and seminars for thousands of students. The National Union of Students is supporting the strike.
Speaking outside Goldsmiths, Des Freedman, Vice-President of the UCU at Goldsmiths, said universities had indulged in ‘creative accounting’ to deny staff pension entitlements and pay increases, explaining: “Of the last 10 or 15 years there has been surpluses basically every year in the university account. Our argument is ‘what have they invested that surplus in?’
He told Eastlondonlines that institutions should not panic if there was a deficit for one year. ”The worst thing to do is to panic and to hold staff responsible, as we are the people who have delivered the surpluses in the first place.”
He said universities were applying a ‘worst case’ scenario. ”If every university went bankrupt tomorrow at the same time, then the pension fund might be in deficit. But it’s not going to happen. The truth is that in the pension fund much more money is put in every year than is withdrawn, creating a surplus. But the employers are creating this fictional deficit.”
Becky Gardiner, a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, stressed there were wider politics involved: “Everything with fees and the way students are treated; it’s a neoliberal model of education, where students pay hiked fees, and staff pay is insecure and not paid well enough. They know they could be dropped if there are a few less students one year – it is the ‘Uberfication’ of university.”
She argued that the actions of universities are actually more likely to create a deficit: “There is evidence that by making people increase contributions, more people will drop out of the pension scheme because people won’t be able to afford the contributions. This then leads to people who have been in it years and years drawing from it, and the new people coming up are no longer paying into it, so then you create a situation where the pension fund is unmanageable.”
Both colleges stressed they were working hard to miniumise disruption but it was too early to guage the full impact of the action. A spokesman for Goldsmiths told Eastlondonlines: “The university’s management believe current USS pension scheme arrangements, in which Goldsmiths pays more than £8m per year into USS, are appropriate to ensure the scheme can maintain existing benefits.”
He added: “We believe we pay our staff fairly: Last year the average pay-rise for Goldsmiths staff was £920, with lower-paid staff receiving more, and most staff also receiving a £469 rise in London weighting.
“We have a duty to ensure that the university’s financial position is sustainable and our employees’ pensions are protected for decades to come. We urge all parties to return to national negotiations to resolve the disputes.”
A representative for Queen Mary told Eastlondonlines: “All members of staff at Queen Mary are deeply committed to providing an excellent student experience. We are not as yet in a position to assess the impact of the industrial action, but are working hard to minimise any disruption to our students’ education.”