If you’re a university student in the UK, chances are your last few weeks have been affected by the UCU strikes, with lectures cancelled, picket lines on your campus and being unable to contact your lecturers when you need them. As a student, it can feel incredibly frustrating to be paying out upwards of £9000 a year to not receive the university’s end of the bargain. However, lecturers and other university staff are striking for a very good reason, and arguably not only do these strikes have a direct effect on their livelihoods, but follow a pattern in academia of low pay, unstable jobs and lengthy training. These factors work to a systematic ‘putting off’ of prospective academics in the industry, and we need to consider how the proposed pension scheme creates yet another barrier to women, people of colour, and poorer people in academia.
But firstly, what are staff actually striking about? Basically, the University’s Superannuation Scheme (the USS, and most academic’s pension scheme) has proposed changes to lectures pensions which end guaranteed pension benefits. This will leave a typical lecturer £10,000 less a year when in retirement. In an attempt to prevent these changes, the University and College Union (UCU) have asked staff to strike to defend their pension. So that’s exactly what’s happening at 61 universities across the UK.
And secondly, why should you care? Well, apart from caring about all the staff whose post-retirement income will suffer greatly, and apart from being a student who (quite rightly) is concerned about disruption to their course, the fact that lecturers are having to strike for a decent pension seems very off-putting for young people who want to go into academia/research in the future. A career in academia is already one which can be fraught with low pay, and unstable jobs. Particularly, early career researchers can find themselves bouncing around different universities and projects, unable to settle in one place. Put this struggle in the context of what it takes to get to be an early career researcher: an undergraduate degree, most of the time a masters, and a doctorate- that’s up to 8 years of training, 4 of which (undergraduate and masters level) are most often unpaid, in fact, you’re paying to do them.
This leads to a very real potential of minority groups such as women, people of colour and poorer people being put off even thinking about a career in academia, and the latest blow to our lecturer’s pensions is a significant contributor to this. Minority groups struggle and achieve more than enough without the stakes being made ever harder for them by people whose careers are already well established. There is only so much low pay, short term work and cuts to pension benefits people who aren’t fortunate enough to come from a very privileged position can take.
And what happens if we see less minority groups in academia, because they’re off chasing steadier, and higher paid roles? Academics, researchers and lecturers create knowledge, but are always inevitably a product of their background. Do we really want to put the breaks on diversity even more, making it harder for minority groups to have a career at a university? Do we really need for our knowledge to continue being dominated by the rich and the white?
If you’re a student, supporting your lecturers is the best thing you can do for the extent the strike action lasts. This link shows you what you can do in support of the UCU strikes. Students across the country are joining the picket lines on their campus, and occupying their universities in joint protest with staff. Even just talking to your friends, or anyone you know who is affected by the strikes is a positive move. Knowledge needs to be diverse, academia needs to be diverse, diversity requires accessibility, and our lecturers require a decent pension.
Written by Katherine Skippon