The UCU Strike at King’s began this morning amidst snow flurries with a ‘Solidarity Breakfast’ picket line outside the Strand Building entrance.
Today is the first day of King’s participation in the 57-university strike over proposed changes in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the university staff pension scheme, intended to make up for a £6.1 billion deficit. Under the new proposal by Universities UK (UUK), university staff face a riskier pension more dependent on the stock market, resulting in a £10,000 yearly reduction for some lecturers.
Among the picketers was Dr. Jim Wolfreys, President of King’s UCU (University and College Union) and Senior Lecturer in French and European Politics. “We’ve seen huge turnout on the Strand and on other sides, bigger than previous strikes,” Wolfreys comments. “We’ve had a number of disputes with King’s over the years, particularly in 2010 and 2014, and the level of anger and engagement from staff and across the campus is off the scale, I think because people see this as a line in the sand that has been drawn by the vice-chancellors.”
Picketers also include a number of students, including Ramona Sharples, a 1st year Politics student. Regarding the turnout, Sharples commented “I wish every student was here… it’s not about missing lectures. It’s the entire British education system.”
Sharples also expressed support for student reimbursement, which has been petitioned by thousands of students across the UK as compensation for time lost. “We’re being treated like consumers so we should act like one,” noted Sharples, though “to be clear we’re standing with the teachers and lecturers… You have to be careful of reimbursement standing on the right side.”
The protest remained peaceful for the most part, with students and staff passing easily across the picket line from the street to campus. The most heat took place in an exchange between Principal Ed Byrne and Joe Attard, Secretary of the KCL Marxist Society and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Film Studies. Attard recently appeared on Sky News defending the UCU Strike.
In the exchange, Byrne conceded that pay cuts were unfair and that more negotiation was needed. “I totally support getting back to the negotiating table with a range of options on the table for Universities UK and UCU. I think we have to resolve this,” Byrne stated in a comment to Roar.
Discussion also turned to executive pay. In a challenge by Attard over Byrne’s executive salary, which Attard claimed to be £450,000 according to a recent FOI, Byrne stated “I have the very high pay of 350, not 450. It’s been frozen since I’ve started so I’m going to give a fair bit of that back in donations to the university and also a significant reduction soon.” The Financial Times reported in September 2017 that Ed Byrne’s pay was indeed £350,000, not £450,000, which the UCU contests.
Overall, participants remained optimistic that their voices were being heard. “I’d like to see King’s from the outset say ‘we think staff have the right to a guaranteed pension,’ and that this should be on the table for negotiation… and I think at this stage it’s in their interests to do that,” commented Dr. Wolfreys.
As for the deficit, Wolfreys was unconcerned. “Lots of schemes have deficits at a certain point. There are lots of actuarial studies that show that the deficit question has been misused and that the scheme is healthier than these ultra-prudent analyses show.” Attard, meanwhile, insisted on a look at the bigger picture, maintaining “it’s beyond pensions, it’s against the marketisation of universities.”
Further striking is scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, Monday 5 March to Thursday 8 March, and Monday 12 March to Friday 16 March.