In his blogpost of April 3rd, our Vice-Chancellor seeks to intervene in the UCU vote over industrial action by campaigning for acceptance of the UUK’s current proposal. He then outlines the University’s post-strike plans. Given the important role the VC has played in this dispute thus far, we feel it necessary to respond.
The post begins by announcing that “there is a clear agreement between UUK and UCU on a way forward over the pensions dispute.” Whilst we entirely sympathise with the desire to find a satisfactory resolution to this dispute – for our students, for the university, and for ourselves – at present, there is anything but a “clear agreement” on a way forward, and the VC’s attempt to influence the vote on the current UCU ballot is worrisome. The VC himself has emphasised that any solution needs to include a Defined Benefit pension and numerous experts have argued, including some on our own committee, that the offer as it stands will not guarantee the sustainable, Defined Benefit pension we’ve been striking for.
Second, we take exception to the notion that the UCU’s goal in taking strike action is to “prevent students from graduating.” Our goal throughout this action has been to prevent UUK from taking away our pensions. The UUK triggered this dispute by unilaterally devaluing our retirement provision; if they cared as much about the student experience as the VC suggests, they would act to end it quickly. Instead, their willingness to play politics with students’ futures was further revealed when they amended the conditions of their own offer, after the ballot was announced. It will take more than this kind of maneuvering to restore trust between employers and staff in what has been an unnecessarily prolonged dispute.
Furthermore, by trying to pit student interests against those of their teachers, librarians, and IT and office staff, the VC overlooks the extraordinary solidarity demonstrated by students in support of the strike. Students not only support their staff getting a fair and decent pension upon retirement, they recognise the hugely damaging impact the UUK’s proposals will have on the health of the sector as a whole. They have lived through (and suffered from) years of ruthless marketisation in education. Perceiving this dispute as just one symptom of a broken system, students and staff have come together in this action to demand an alternative model – one that does not treat students as consumers and universities as businesses.
Finally, we have serious concerns about the VC’s proposals for moving forward in the third term of this year should this dispute end. His proposal that, should the strike end, strike funds be returned to individual departments to tempt strikers back into the fold, so that deductions become an incentive to top up the salaries of those who reschedule teaching or otherwise “enhance the student experience,” is deeply problematic. We have been arguing throughout our action that all deducted wages should be given to a Student Hardship Fund, as has been echoed by the Students’ Union, because we believe that the money we have lost fighting the UUK’s campaign to degrade our benefits should go to the most vulnerable among us. This plan attacks the basic tenet of collective responsibility and principled sacrifice. Moreover, it threatens to exacerbate the deep inequalities among staff and across departments at Warwick, whereby those with the most to lose, including casualised and sessional tutors, are preemptively targeted on the basis of their vulnerability to any further pay deductions; and it ignores the sacrifices made by UCU members in non-academic departments, who will not see their deductions passed on to students at all.
Again, the VC appears to have missed the exceptional level of support for our action among the most precariously employed members of the university community. His blogpost fails to register the extent to which doctoral students, contract teachers and junior or early career colleagues have been striking in support of their – and our – collective future in higher education. The difference between a vision of this future as privatised, monetised and competitively administered, vs. one that is public, collaborative and academically led, has never appeared so stark. We hope that, whatever the result of the ballot, all members of the Warwick community will continue to work together toward achieving the latter outcome.
Warwick UCU Committee