Students at King’s and at sixty other universities across the UK are currently facing a significant dilemma in the form of serious and sustained industrial action by the University and College Union.
This is being undertaken with the aim of protecting the current form of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension programme for academics. The present arrangement is the “defined benefit” system, under which retiring employees of a given institution are offered a guaranteed amount post-employment, often in lump sums or in annuities.
In principle, it is easy to envisage a majority of students— who tend to be left-leaning and enthusiastic about support for social causes— endorsing the action and supporting their lecturers and seminar leaders in a fight to conserve guaranteed pension benefits and resist the move proposed by Universities UK (UUK). The latter, if made successfully, would tie retirement incomes to stock market performance under a system known as a “defined contribution” (DC) plan.
But for students to support the cause without making any demand for fiscal compensation from the universities themselves may well be an injudicious act of self-sabotage. Student bodies should be pragmatic, and the strikes (set to run at King’s on 26-28 February, 5-8 March, 12-16 March and 19-20 March) are designed to be maximally disruptive to their collective educations.
If no agreement is reached between the UCU and the various institutions that employ its members, students are at risk of losing out on a full two weeks of classes for which they have already paid sums which many would identify as exploitative in themselves. Students graduating in the summer of 2018 (particularly those presently writing dissertations, who are set to be deprived of important academic counsel at a crucial stage) will suffer the most if the strikes proceed as planned, given that final year modules have a higher “weight” than those taken in preceding years.
King’s has promised to make every effort to reschedule the classes disrupted by the action, but has omitted the fact that striking academics face no obligation to teach outside of their timetabled lecture or seminar hours. For the same staff to do so would stand in direct opposition to the expressed purposes of the strike. Students should not allow shrewdly made statements of this type to pacify them into inaction.
King’s has also stated that “should students feel strongly after the event that their learning has been impacted by industrial action, we will of course look into [fee repayment] on an individual basis.” Cynical though the attempts of the UCU to weaponise and mobilise the student presence of the UK on its behalf may be, the student cause is, at present, unquestionably aligned with the union cause. Some students of economics may well hold that the UUK’s proposed move to a DC system is more realistic long-term than the retention of the current one, but it would be sensible to withhold the expression of such positions until the class time owed is actually delivered.
The importance of demanding, rigorously and collaboratively, institutional assent to remuneration is twofold— first, given appropriate intensity and ubiquity, the demand increases the likelihood that the UUK will reopen negotiations with the UCU and halt the strike outright. Second, in the unhappy case that no agreement is reached before the proposed action date, the demand will, again, if appropriately widespread, boost the probability of students seeing rightful reimbursement for classes cancelled and the scholastic disadvantage that will arise inevitably as a result.
Of course, the return of a small percentage of the cost of an education cannot possibly mitigate the substantial and temporally extensive injury that is an unfairly devalued degree, but undergraduates and postgraduates alike in the UK faced with this deeply unfortunate prospect have, at the present moment, no superior option available.
This piece was contributed by Jamie Ryder