University academic staff in the UK (61 out of around 130 total in the UK) have been on strike for over 14 days now,  and many of us in SPARC have been directly participating in the industrial action joining the pickets, cancelling classes and otherwise directly intervening in the dispute.

The immediate issue at stake is pensions. After killing off a final salary scheme several years ago, university employers now are seeking to undermine the very scheme they came up with to replace it – a pension with a defined benefit – as well as reduce the amount they pay into pensions. Staff affected would lose any guarantee of a minimum retirement payment and instead be exposed to the full force of market winds, possibly getting out of the pot less than they put into it, and losing the security of a liveable income in retirement after decades of service.

Those concerned about prisons and prisoners – the core audience of SPARC activities – may wonder why they should care about academics’ retirement packages.

Here’s why:

MARKETISATION: While the pensions dispute has been the catalyst for the strike, many of the conversations on picket lines have been about how to fundamentally transform universities and resist the growing marketisation of higher education. When we talk about the value of education, those discussions have become less interested in how university shapes our critical faculties, develops our ethics, engages our interests and builds our confidence. Just like the criminal justice system across the UK, the university has been reduced to its economic and market value. Staff and students from across departments, faculties and career-stages – including lectures, professional services staff, graduate teaching assistants, and librarians – have come together to question the growing rhetoric of students as “consumers” of educational “products” which are delivered for profit.  Questions have been asked about the way in which universities as institutions are structured and organised, and implications this has for the dignity, wellbeing and mental health of their employees.

INEQUALITY: These developments have created a system of inequality within universities – ironically one of the main institutions meant to be interrogating, exposing and reducing inequality in wider society. The pain of the neoliberal university has not been felt equally across the academia, however. A great divide has opened up between those at the top and those at the bottom. Principal and Chancellor salaries are now averaging £300,000 and senior professors are now bypassing normal pay rise and promotion processes to secure £100,000+ salaries. Against this, the staff who carry out the bulk of teaching and its smooth running – PhD students and administrators – are paid a fraction of this, without guarantee of long-term job security or progression.  Increasingly, people in the university work in precarious positions, and zero-hour contracts, this means many of the most valuable staff are treated as a disposable workforce. If it is not challenged, this precarity will serve as a barrier preventing individuals without other sources of financial security from pursuing an academic career.  Our teachers and researchers will become less diverse, not only limiting social mobility, but also the vibrancy of our scholarship. Additionally, other employers are taking note. If the universities are successful at dismantling the conditions of our pensions, then we believe other pension schemes are likely to be targeted. But other union members are also taking note and can be encouraged to fight back if we secure a good deal.

ACCESS TO EDUCATION: To meet the new market demands universities are receiving new architectural makeovers in the hopes they become more attractive to the more privileged and fee-paying students. Universities in the UK have embarked on the largest transformation of campuses and overseas recruitment in half a century – which is supported by the best case scenarios of borrowing and return on investment to finance construction and international expansion. The pensions dispute, however, is the result of a worst case scenario risk assessment of the market in which pensions are invested. In the race to produce shiny modern campuses comprising ‘hubs’ that will attract the best local and international students, universities have less funding and resources to develop pathways to education for those locally who have long been excluded from this essential part of transforming social mobility and life chances. The university is becoming more like the prison as an institution that reproduces and entrenches, rather than challenges, any existing vulnerabilities. This dispute is therefore also a powerful stand against the erosion of universities’ commitment to improve and welcome the communities surrounding them.

SOCIAL MOVEMENT LEARNING – This industrial action has had one of the highest levels of support and participation in a generation. The strike has involved an unprecedented numbers of days of action in which thousands of staff, including lecturers, professional services, graduate teaching assistants, and librarians, across the UK are coming back day after day to the picket lines. Staff have united in creating a painful, but felt to be necessary, disruption to university life. And while they are significantly affected, students from all backgrounds and programmes have been joining in to support the action, recognising that the fight against precarity and poor working conditions is their fight, too, no matter their career path. University annual and technical staff have been honking their horns in support while barred from sympathy striking. This solidarity, across disciplines, universities, pay grades, and role in the university has not only created an energising sense on the ground of a united community but demonstrated the power of collective action, which SPARC seeks to emulate and learn from. The sustained commitment to action forced the employers group back to the negotiating table and led to university managers at some of the most influential institutions to back off the pension proposals to support their own staff and the strike demands. Direct, coordinated action works and can inspire social change in other sectors. What we can learn from this is that penal reform will be at its strongest and most successful when there is a coalition of support seeking to change the criminal justice system.

RESEARCH IS ACTIVISM: The premise of the pensions fight is the familiar refrain of a ‘pensions black hole’. In this dispute, however, we have economists, mathematicians, lawyers, statisticians, philosophers and accountancy academics questioning the assumptions and figures used to devise this black hole. These informed and expert questions have challenged the methodology and the findings of a pensions shortfall. These informed questions and critiques show how research is a powerful tool of political action and change. High quality research is essential to activism, a core point in the SPARC manifesto.  New connections and solidarities are being formed amongst staff who have never previously met, despite often working at the same university for years.  These debates are also continuing online, where academics have been able to share research evidence that challenges many of the fundamental assumptions underpinning the pensions dispute.  Research, activism and campaigning materials are being co-created online and on the picket.

SOCIAL JUSTICE ACROSS INSTITUTIONS: Ostensibly, the strike is about pensions, but there are more fundamental issues involved that are symptomatic of growing social injustice across Britain. By taking and supporting strike action we recognise that lives are at stake. For those inside and outside the university, opportunities are being truncated, mental health is degrading, possibility is disappearing, and equality is being eradicated. These injustices are happening in the university, but also within the prison. In this moment we can begin to see the pervasive impact of neoliberal world we find ourselves in.

These strikes have been challenging: we value our students and our research.  For many, taking strike action has been a (financially painful) last resort. The strikes have shown that there is power in collectivism – when we come together we can gain ground that we might never have thought possible, and begin conversations about issues which had previously been sidelined or ignored. It is clear that these are important messages for penal reformers. Transformation is achievable if we can also see that penal reformers and university strikers share the same problems, endure the same impediments and seek the same goals with each other as well as many other sectors of society. Supporting social justice through positive institutional transformation is central to SPARC’s aims, as is our belief that education, collective action, and research is a powerful force for personal and social change. These actions can empower us all to challenge dominant or previously unquestioned assumptions or discourses. It is these same arguments that are being made everyday on the picket lines. It is clear that these are equally important messages for penal reformers. Seeing the connections between penal reform and the strike we can gain the collective power necessary to build a social movement intent on achieving equality and justice.  We continue to strike about the university pensions, but we do so knowing that we stand firmly against the political causes of social injustice across the UK today.

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