As a student at the University of St Andrews, I am supporting the striking university staff in the dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). UUK announced plans to change the pension scheme from one where university staff have a guaranteed retirement income to one where pensions are dependent upon the stock market. In the worst case, this could lead to a reduction in pension income of £10,000 a year. In response, the University and College Union (UCU) announced 14 days of strike action.
A deal was offered to end the strikes on the 12th March, which would have resulted in staff contributing much more of their current income towards the pension scheme for no further benefits. UUK claims the scheme has a deficit; however, this is disputed and some universities, mine included, have been claiming that as fact. Regardless of whether there is a deficit or not, cutting pensions is not the way to solve the problem. The UCU rejected the detail, and a second wave of strike action is due to happen in the future.
While the pensions of university staff are under attack, vice chancellors and equivalent continue to be paid large sums of money, much more than is necessary for anyone to live. Meanwhile, these are the people who want to cut the pensions of staff with much smaller salaries. This kind of pay gap is synonymous with capitalism, an economic system which necessitates inequality.
As a final year student, this could not come at a worse time, as by their nature, the strikes are disrupting students’ education. This is not the fault of those striking, it is the fault of employers for proposing this outrageous scheme and failing to present an acceptable deal at negotiations. University staff have a difficult job, one in which the pay is comparably less to other professions requiring the same skill level. Staff deserve to feel security about their retirement, but under this scheme, that security is eliminated.
As students, we should be supporting our lecturers and the other staff whose pensions are at risk. Some current students wish to continue with academia, and hope to work at a university one day, and these proposals may discourage some from doing so. Those who choose academia do so in the knowledge that they are passing up far more lucrative careers. At the moment, however, they have the promise of a decent pension in retirement.
If these proposals were to go ahead, that promise would not exist. There would be no security, no guaranteed income and no guaranteed retirement plan. It is highly likely then, in that case, that many people would be discouraged from entering academia. Other careers requiring similar education tend to have better pay and are often less stressful. As current students deciding on our future careers, this is very important.
At the end of the day, nobody wants to have to strike. They lose pay for the days not working, and university staff do care greatly about students’ education – they chose that career, after all. But in this case, industrial action is necessary. It is disruptive by its nature, designed to show employers how much they need their employees. It shows employers that their proposal is completely unacceptable, that it is over a line that cannot be crossed without action being taken.
I call on other students to join me in taking action to support the strike. If you are unsure how to do so, the UCU has a guide to students supporting the action. UUK needs to understand that cutting pensions is completely unacceptable, and hardworking staff deserve security in their retirement. I hope a deal that does not leave staff worse off, either just now or in the future can be reached.