The elephant not in the room

The elephant not in the room: why we won’t solve the industrial dispute without involving government.

Dr Andrea Rigon, UCU member and Associate Professor, University College London.


Over two years ago, UK university staff initiated the greatest industrial action of the sector in its multi-century history. A solution to a decade-long falling of 20% in real pay, a drastic reduction in pension benefits, and deteriorating working conditions is still far. Higher education is not just any sector of the economy. With its research, innovation and training functions the return of collective investment in higher education are very high. Its role is central to shaping the future of a country and central to the government’s ambition of a higher-productivity, higher-wage knowledge economy.


For decades, in many disciplines the social contract in higher education was that staff accepted salaries below the private sector with a view of having a good pension arrangement and the privilege to autonomously pursuing the creation of new knowledge at the service of society. When the first cuts to the final salary pension occurred not everyone saw the beginning of the dismantling of the sector’s working conditions. This was followed by pension benefits calculated on average salary and then were further capped. The salaries didn’t catch up with inflation, while an increased marketisation of the universities led to increase in student numbers, workload, and further casualisation, on top of entrenched gender and race pay gaps.


Currently academic staff are on the same national payscale but those working in post-1992 universities are part of a pension scheme guaranteed by the government, while those employed by pre-1992 universities have their pension scheme at the mercy of returns on the global market. Moreover, some academic staff (many in my institution) are on the NHS pension. Thisstructural inequality in the sector makes no sense. Why the pension of some academic staff is protected like that of public workers, nurses, teachers and doctors and that of others is not? The only solution to the USS pension dispute is the involvement of government to provide some guarantee.


Pre-1992 universities are currently trying to reduce their pension risk so that in the unlikely scenario that disastrous and adverse market conditions for a protracted period occur, they will not be forced to undermine their core functions in order to comply with their pension liability. A government guarantee will ensure thata reasonable level of risk can be taken by universities because in the worst case scenario, government would be able to step in.


Moreover, the current funding and management model pushes universities into unhealthy competition, investing millions of pounds in advertising stealing each other students, and ultimately cutting the share of their budget dedicated to their staff. A national conversation involving government is needed to rethink the sector, its funding, its internal problematic inequalities, and how to ensure it can continue to deliver its fundamental public function.


In most countries, key issues in higher education are discussed with government because the most important universities are public (although operate autonomously) or because they have a public function. The UK current industrial action is an anomaly; despite the fundamental public function of universities, such important dispute is considered a private affairs between Vice-Chancellors and staff, while doctors’ or teachers’ disputes are dealt with by the government.


However, this is not a struggle between staff and Vice-Chancellors, this is a struggle for the future of higher education that is the future of the country. Staff and university leaders alone are unable to identify a solution. They should unite to ask government to take part in a more strategic conversation on the future of the sector and the country. When I proposed this to union leaders and employers in 2018, I was met with the British scepticism for state’s involvement and fear of losing autonomy, but academic freedom can only be ensured in a system where the economic bases of Higher Education is guaranteed at national level, rather than being the outcome of global competition amongst universities.


British universities feel they are the best in the world and therefore don’t like to look outside their borders. Therefore, while there would be a lot to learn, I avoid any comparison to all those countries where such dispute without the state would be unthinkable and focus on the problems of the current framing of this struggle by only looking at the UK. Here, universities are largely publicly funded and operate autonomously but because of their importance they are highly regulated.Schools are even more publicly funded and still have autonomy in hiring their staff but their staff is on a government guaranteed state pension scheme.


Because they are publicly funded, it makes no sense to have discussions on the future of universities without the government that is the most important funder and representative of the society that is the main beneficiary of universities. I can’t think of any other example in a democratic country where such a key stakeholder would be excluded.


With market turbulences and consequence loss of value in pension scheme assets and the potential impact of corona virus on international students upon which our universities depend, we need a broader conversation on higher education. It does not matter whether this government is sympathetic or not to academics’ demands, we need to open up the conversation beyond VCs if we want to protect staff working conditions and in so doing protecting our universities and their future.


A national conversation involving the government can also open up another set of interconnected issues such as the increase competition and inequalities between universities leading to well-resourced top-quality universities producing good professionals and poorly funded low quality universities. But society does not need a good and bad medical doctor (or any other professional), we need all universities to train good doctors.