Starting Thursday, 22nd of February, my union, the UCU, will be walking out over changes to our pensions, and I will be joining them. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the right thing to do, but I am very aware of the difficulty it can cause to students, and I feel its incumbent on me to do a little explaining about why I am going on strike.
With a demanding job and two young children I don’t follow the news and politics as closely as I once did; this does not claim to be the most informative view out there, but a personal one.
The immediate issue: pensions and risk evaluation
The University is presenting the pensions as being in huge trouble with massive deficits, but this is largely a matter of how you project it; our own Sam Marsh explains a lot of this here; I’ll summarize it briefly below.
The immediate cause of the strike is over changes to our pension scheme, which is claimed to be in very deep financial straights, but this depends on how you evaluate it; currently much of our funds are in the stock market, and according to UCU projections we’d have a large surplus if the market continued as it is, and only a very small deficit under more cautious market projections. Much of the current crisis is coming because we’ve been asked to “derisk” our portfolio and invest more in “safer” options known as “gilts”; over short time periods, sometimes these outperform the market (a market crash), but in all longer time scales the market has won, and pension schemes are not a short term investment, so whether or not this is a sensible move to make is unclear.
It is coming to light due to a leak that a large push for the move to derisk was coming from oxbridge, with individual colleges there getting as much representation as much larger individual universities.
They’re also claiming that the current employer contributions to the scheme are at the maximal feasible, but between 1983 and 1997 they were paying more into the scheme than they currently are; the scheme had been doing so well that they dipped their contribution for a while, and had they not done that and kept at the original rate, the projected deficit in this would disappear as well.
The Financial Times, that well known bastion of anticapitalism, even claims in their opinion column that the cuts proposed are too deep.
Broader issue: commercialization of education
I think it would be easy for you to think that an increase in my pension would mean an increase in your tuition fees, but I view these two as symptoms of the same thing; the commercialization of education, viewed as something you’re purchasing to increase your current earnings, instead of a public good, and something valuable in its own right. Personally, so much of the value of my education was not in the job I got, but learning for the sake of it, even and especially the elective literature courses I got; on top of the intrinsic worth, an educated public able to make reasoned decisions is essential to a well functioning democracy, and should be considered a public good.
To me, it’s clear that a good University education should be available to anyone, and should be well funded by the government. The proposed changes to tie the fees for each program to the amount of money earned by graduates reduces all these deeper reasons for education completely, and in addition doesn’t actually help those most in need: if you’re rich and can pay the whole thing off, you will save money. If you are poor, take out a loan, and never wind up earning a lot of money after your degree, you wouldn’t actually have to pay off your loan, and it would make no difference to you what the actual fee was. I worry that the government is doing the same thing to education as it is to the NHS, underfunding it on purpose, so that when it underperforms they can say its not working and cut it further or privatise it.
These are maybe grandiose ideas, but these are really important values to me, that I feel I don’t often have the chance to stand up for.
What to do
Obviously, from my perspective it would be great if you didn’t cross the picket lines, but I understand you have lots of conflicting pressures, and I don’t want to add largely to that personally. I will point you to a couple of sources:
- The Sheffield Student union has come out strongly in support of the strike and has some suggestions on how you can help
- Here’s the UCU’s information about how to support us
I’d personally add that the workers at Universities across the country are striking, and different Universities have vastly different responses; Vice-Chancellors at many Universities have come to urge the resumption of negotations. Disappointingly, Sheffield hasn’t. Sir Keith feels like is a potentially persuadable figure, though.
I will be on the picket lines tomorrow morning, and most days, and if you find me I’d be happy to chat with you about these issues, or math in general.