A Crisis in the Making in Post-92 Higher Education
UCU’s National Executive Committee met last week and voted to reaffirm its support for solidarity with the Palestinian people and call for branches and members to build support for staff student walkouts on the 29th November. The walkouts are part of the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, called by Stop the War and CND.
UCU should never be neutral in the fight against imperialism and oppression. The Palestinian fight for liberation is also important for our own fights. Campaigning for solidarity with the struggle against the apartheid and a genocidal Israeli government not only raises support for those fighting oppression but it solidifies our unity with students in a fight for education.
The NEC also voted to support members facing threats of disciplinary action for voicing support of Palestine. In doing so it will seek to liaise with campaigning legal groups such as the European Legal Support Center (elsc.support) who are acting as a co-ordinating body for students and staff under threat. Further details of the motions can be found at All out for Palestine on 29 November UN Day of Solidarity – UCU Left
The motions passed at NEC came from the elected members of the committee and highlights the importance of a member-led union to ensure urgent campaigns are championed by our union.
A motion was also brought by UCU Left representatives challenging the decision made by UCU centrally not to allow the elected Black Members Standing Committee to share a joint statement composed by the group on the Palestine situation (statement can be read here). The decision to deny a platform to elected Black members ultimately lies with the General Secretary as the elected head of staff. The motion sought to affirm the right of elected Equality Standing Committees to have statements shared where they are in line with UCU rule and policy. The sharing of elected Equality Standing Committee statements has been common historically but is in this situation being denied due to fears over political sensitivity. We successfully challenged the chair in ruling this motion out of order but were not able to hear it as it fell along with other motions.
NEC heard a report from the General Secretary highlighting our success in reversing cuts and defending the guaranteed pensions in USS. She also committed the union to oppose the latest anti-union legislation, Minimum Service Levels Act, which seeks to force union members to break strikes. As a union it is increasingly clear that we have to break the anti-union laws rather than find ways around them.
While motions passed by our NEC show how trade unions can be at the centre of social movements when it comes to industrial issues to defend our members the union can however be far slower to respond in developing a national strategy.
The Teachers’ Pension Scheme – and the looming disaster facing post-92 Universities
The UK government policy has set a course of undermining the pension schemes in post-92 institutions. Teachers Pension Schemes (TPSs) exist in all of the constituent countries in the UK. The 2020 valuations of TPS schemes will see increases in costs for employers across all schemes. In England and Wales, the increase in employers’ costs will be 5% of salary and in Northern Ireland a 4% rise has been announced. The expected outcome for Scotland is an increase of 3%.
The model for undermining the scheme is similar to that faced in USS. An arbitrary ‘discount rate’ has been arrived at by the Treasury whose sole aim is to ensure employers’ future benefit costs rise to levels whereby substantial reductions in institutions incomes occur. Unsurprisingly, employers will respond by adopting the rhetoric of unaffordability and threaten job cuts, pension cuts or both. Indeed, the post-92 sector, in which the institutions are smaller organisations than in pre-92, makes bankruptcy for some a distinct possibility.
A crisis manufactured in 11 Downing Street: The money is there
As UCU Left has argued, once the USS dispute was settled, it wouldn’t be long before employers and government turn to the Teachers Pension Schemes. Government has agreed to pay the costs of the additional contributions in schools and FE colleges, as public bodies, but refuses to do so in the post-92 sector – on the basis that they are notionally private sector organisations.
We need a national response to the rising employer costs in TPS, but it won’t come without a clear campaign of how to fund it. The answer is simple. If the government can fund schools and colleges, it can fund universities. Jeremy Hunt MP, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, this week handed tax cuts to business on the basis of a rosy forecast for the economy, but applied a pessimistic forecast to TPS in order to manufacture a crisis. The post-92 sector plays a crucial role in increasing access to university for under-represented student groups. The abolition of tuition fees and re-introduction of direct funding for the institutions would ensure they are removed from the market for education that has failed. Neither the Tory government nor a future Labour government will do so without a national dispute and strike action across the post-92 sector.
While government policy has created the crisis, university managements have also been complicit in destabilising the sector. Mismanagement in the post-92 sector is just as rampant as it is in the pre-92 sector. Rising costs in post-92 have not come from staffing costs, where salaries have fallen by 35% in real terms, but from the same shiny-building vanity-project mentality, inflated management salaries and ludicrous expansion into cities already awash with existing universities. A dozen post-92 universities have racked up huge debts by opening campuses in London. Glasgow Caledonian University even squandered £26m on a New York campus over the course of ten years before announcing its closure!
Strategy to win
There is however one thing missing from UCU, and that is a strategy to fight the cuts. The National Executive Committee of UCU met on Friday as the extent of the abandonment of disputes across all sectors of post-16 education became apparent.
The opportunity to launch the first national strikes in Further Education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of the #RespectFE campaign over pay was thrown away as branches were given the ‘choice’ of whether or not to participate in pay strikes in September and October. The encouragement to withdraw from the action not only ensured that activists in branches which did withdraw from the action had the rug pulled from under them, but those in branches that have continued with the strikes are more isolated than before. This was billed as the first national pay dispute in over a decade, but it has ended with local deals where members received deals well below inflation (and well below that could have been won). What happened to the ‘national’ FE dispute? – UCU Left
The plight of the FE dispute echoes the abandonment of the Marking and Assessment Boycott in Higher Education over the summer as part of the UCU Rising campaign where a national dispute was shattered by the UCU bureaucracy undermining branches and failing to call the summer ballot which could have extended the industrial action mandate into the first semester. See What went wrong with the UCU Rising Campaign? – UCU Left. It is not a surprise, therefore, that the aggregated ballot for restarting the pay and conditions dispute failed to get over the anti-union law’s 50% threshold. Nevertheless, over 68% of those who voted still voted for strike action.
A strategy to win can only be built around strike action on a scale management cannot cope with and can’t wait out. This is why indefinite action must be placed central to any industrial action strategy. It is a strategy that underpins the argument for protecting a defined benefit pension scheme and the right to retire with a decent pension. It also means focusing upon the UK-wide responsibility government in Westminster has for resolving the dispute.
None of this has been outlined by UCU. Instead the risk is that members will face the consequences of funding cuts at a local level, case by case in a raft of local disputes.
A Dysfunctional Union Bureaucracy
The UCU leadership is not simply failing to respond to the crisis facing members, it is also causing a crisis within the UCU staff itself. UNITE, the union representing staff in the union, is in dispute with the management of UCU. UNITE’s sole role representing all grades of staff in UCU is under threat, after the management team recognised GMB for the highest-grade staff, including the General Secretary and national officials. It is not uncommon for managements to recognise a second trade union in the hope it will split the workforce. These are strike-breaking approaches that have no place in the trade union movement. UCU Left raised support for UNITE and will continue to demand UNITE’s recognition remains for all staff grades.