What does the USS strike mean for early career academics?

by Bregje van Veelen

As the strike over USS pensions has entered its third week, most people reading this blog will be aware of the details: proposed changes transfers the retirement risk from employers to staff, meaning that academic staff (including lecturers, researchers, and support staff) at a large number of UK universities could lose up to 50% of their retirement income.

RIPPLES members come in all shapes and sizes. What we have in common, however, is that we all define ourselves as early career academics. As we will likely bear the brunt of the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme, I asked my fellow RIPPLES members what the current dispute and strike action means to them.

Our pensions are important…

Our current pension provisions may look fairly generous to outsiders, but are not as great as you may think. RIPPLES members might define themselves as ‘early career’, but the days of being 21 are long behind us. The nature of academia, and the offer of often precarious employment post-PhD means that many of us don’t start paying into a pension until a relatively late age:

I am already in my 40s and have had a pension for a relatively short time. I got my first permanent academic job a year ago. My pension was already going to be fairly modest, and the changes look to effectively halve that modest provision.

I think being guaranteed a secure pension after an underpaid and insecure start to our careers is a small ask and something I certainly think is worth fighting for.​

Although UUK is apparently using early career researchers as an excuse to move away from a defined benefits pension scheme, RIPPLES members were generally clear: they don’t want flexibility, they want stability. The only scepticism expressed regarding the need to preserve our pensions was over whether it would benefit people of our generation: even if the current action is successful, what are the chances that the pension scheme in its current form will still be in place in 30 years’ time?

… but the current action is about so much more than just pensions

What came through in pretty much all responses, however, is that the current action is about so much more than pensions. It is about broader trends and principles; about how universities value their staff and their culture of learning; about how lecturers’ real wages have fallen by 16% since 2009, while seeing how VCs and other senior managers are paid; about feeling you are being exploited because you love the job and want to make a difference. While those working at post-92 institutions are not directly affected by the proposed pension scheme, they too are concerned that if the changes go through with the USS I feel it is likely to lead to other changes either to other pension schemes or general working conditions across all universities.

Others pointed out that it is not only about us: I feel like the outcome of this dispute might set a precedent for how other people’s pension schemes, especially teachers and other public sector workers.

Withdrawing our labour?

Although everyone was in agreement that the current dispute is important, many struggled with the idea of taking strike action. While some did decide to strike, the decision did not come easy:

There are many reasons why I considered not striking – the impact on my students’ future, increasing the workload of my non-striking colleagues, cancelling outreach activities and more selfishly, losing a significant amount of pay and potentially jeopardising my future career by rocking the boat.

Several members of RIPPLES – myself included – are full time researchers, and questioned the benefit of withdrawing our labour.

As a researcher I’m not sure the impact that withholding my labour has on the university, as ultimately I will still deliver the research for the project and so the university will receive its funding.  As a result, I have done a small amount of research work while I’ve been on strike, which I have felt very uncomfortable and conflicted about, but ultimately decided it needed doing to fully value the contribution of participants’ time.

I feel the same: as a full time researcher, the main person impacted by my absence is me. I did ask myself whether there was any point to striking at all, but I decided it felt like the right thing to do, and if anything, there is strength in numbers. This was somewhat of a luxury position though, there is a bit of flexibility regarding my work and upcoming deadlines, and with a line manager and collaborators who are also on strike, I feel I work in an environment where my decision is supported.

With these considerations in mind, I asked the others if they thought strike action is the most appropriate form of action? On the one hand, many felt that withdrawing one’s labour is pretty much the only position of power that employees have. On the other hand, while going on strike is presumably never an easy decision, early career academics face a number of particular challenges when deciding whether or not to strike, as they are more likely to be in lower-paid and/or more precarious positions:

In my part-time staff role, I am currently at “risk of redundancy” as my fixed term contract ends in four months.

The whole thing is complicated by my contractual situation. I currently have two part-time contracts: A 1 day/week research contract with a striking institution, and a 3 day/week teaching contract with a non-striking institution. So my teaching must go ahead as planned, even though it contributes to an MSc course for a striking institution. Crossing a picket line for a strike that I support is a horrible feeling and I will strike on my research day (Friday) in the final week if the action is still ongoing by that stage. 

As a fixed term researcher, with primary data collection in full swing, I feel I need to keep working just now to keep my project going. So my options are to ‘strike’ but keep working – effectively work for free; or ‘really’ strike, jeopardise my project, and therefore my future job prospects… neither seem great. So I’m working from home to avoid physically crossing picket lines, feeling awkward about being a protest free-rider, and wondering what else I could do.

So, what else can we do?

  1. Make sure junior colleagues are aware of the UCU Fighting Fund and any local Hardship Funds. Claims for strike pay from those on low pays and insecure contracts are prioritised, so that loss of pay alone should not be a barrier to taking action.
  2. Speak out and organise against the much wider trend of casualisation in academia. Having members of staff at the start of their career decide they cannot strike because they cannot afford to lose the pay or because they are worried about their job prospects is not right. These are symptoms of a broader issue with casualisation and precarity in academia and beyond: having people regularly working unpaid on days off and with no prospect of job security any time soon is not right either. Oh, and don’t just leave it up to those early in their career to organise against this. There is a great argument here about why senior colleagues should join the fight against casualisation too.
  3. Speak to junior colleagues about taking industrial action, what it means, and the implications. Remember: many of us have potentially never been on strike before, it can be a somewhat daunting prospect. If you are a senior academic, especially if you are managing junior colleagues or PhD students who teach on your course, remember you are likely to be not just a manager, but also a mentor, you can help make the process of taking action less daunting.
  4. Use the proposed ‘freedom’ and ‘flexibility’ of a defined contribution pension scheme against the USS. One option might be to withdraw from making any further contributions into USS, with an open letter telling them why. There are plenty of other defined contribution type private pensions out there, many with ‘ethical’ investment options. Perhaps this is the neoliberalisation of protest – treating everything as shopping; but it might ‘hit them where it hurts’ more effectively than me working for free?