IT is rare for Exeposé to stand up and openly take a stance on controversial topics. We have not done so for some time, and do not intend on making a habit of this. Instead, we have always focused on bringing the facts to students, and leaving them to make up their own minds.
However, in the face of the upcoming industrial action, we do not feel that we can continue to do this. We do not feel that we can sit on the fence as academics find it necessary to withdraw their labour, leading to the cancellation of teaching hours. We believe that, as we have a voice with which to do so, we must make a stand.
This industrial action has come about following proposed changes to the pension scheme for academics. The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which currently houses academics’ pensions, has been described as unsustainable by its trustees, despite being only a short time in to a 17-year recovery plan. The USS is a shared scheme, participated in by pre-1992 universities across the UK, which guarantees a specific level of pension based upon an academic’s average salary. Universities UK plans to replace this with a scheme which subjects pensions to market forces, which UCL’s Students’ Union, in lending its support to the strike, called “stock market gambling by hedge fund managers.” A study by First Actuarial, commissioned by the UCU on behalf of academics, showed that this change could end up with staff losing up to 40 per cent of their pensions annually, with those beginning their contributions now hardest hit. In our view, and in the view of the UCU, this offer, which could slash the pensions of academics, is unacceptable. However, Universities UK is refusing to budge, and as a result academics feel compelled to strike.
It is worth noting that there is more context to this strike than just purely pensions. There is concern about the way in which teaching relies upon the use of casual staff, many of whom are PhD students. Not only this, but such staff are often concerned for their job security. It is against this background that we begin to see how such an emotive debate can begin.
We are extremely concerned by the stance that the Students’ Guild has taken. To be “sympathetic with the views of both sides of the dispute” is not a strong enough statement to protect the interests of students. Where the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick has gone on the record in telling staff that he was “mystified” with the proposed change, the fact that our Guild stands by, providing little information to students and choosing such a stance of neutrality, is disappointing. Even one of its trustees – Malaka Shwaikh, the current VP Postgraduate Research – took to her personal Twitter to call out the Guild for its stance, quoting Desmond Tutu’s words: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
The Guild took this stance without consulting the views of its members and stakeholders – instead, it was a formulation of its management and sabbatical officer team. It is not clear that this stance, in the slightest, paid attention to the fact that some postgraduate students, who are members of the Students’ Guild, are directly embroiled in this conflict. With concern that the Guild only seems to pay attention to its undergraduate members, it is even more concerning to see such a sweeping aside of worries, and the direct imposition of a neutral stance. This is made even worse by the fact that, when the stance was released, a Large Idea was live on the Guild website, calling on it to support the UCU strike. To put aside these legitimate concerns of some of the Guild’s most overlooked members, as well as the democratic processes of a supposedly student-led organisation, is deplorable. Indeed, it brings into question the Guild’s role as a representative organisation.
We do not question that this strike will be disruptive to teaching. We do not question that this will bring stress to students – not least those who, like ourselves, are in third year, with dissertation deadlines and final exams just around the corner. However, we also do not question the fact that our lecturers and tutors are equally worried about the ramifications of this strike. This is a rare step – and we do not believe that they would walk out without good reason. As Rhian Keyse, a PhD candidate who teaches undergraduates, said at an open meeting: “this is an existential threat”.
With this in mind, it is impossible for us to stand by. We must call on Universities UK to put a real offer on the table, to negotiate in good faith and to do their part to prevent this strike by recognising the legitimate concerns of academic staff. In doing so, we must call on the University of Exeter to put pressure on Universities UK as other universities have done, especially given that the Vice-Chancellor Sir Steve Smith currently sits on its board. To hide behind a defence of this being a national negotiation simply isn’t enough. We must call on the Students’ Guild to extend its support to its postgraduate students as necessary, and ask it to pay closer attentions to the interests of its members.
And to our fellow students? We call on you to support your lecturers and tutors. Any threat to their working conditions is a threat to our learning conditions. Write to the University and tell them how you feel. Stand with the academics on the picket lines on strike days. Lobby the Guild to make your voice heard. Much like how we felt it impossible to remain silent, we believe that all students in Exeter ought to find it impossible to remain silent, regardless of their viewpoint.
This strike is a defining part of our time at University. We must play our part. We must stand up. It is only by working together that we can make positive change in the world.