I have just cancelled tomorrow’s classes, something I really hate doing, but I felt I had to. This is the letter I sent my students to explain what the current industrial action is about.
As you will have seen, I have cancelled tomorrow’s class because I am on strike. I am really sorry about the disruption and inconvenience that this will cause you; I would much rather be teaching (and not just because I don’t get paid when I’m on strike), so I thought I should explain why I have made this difficult decision.
As you may know, the strike is about pensions. What you may not realise, is that British university lecturers are not well paid: worse than most comparable professions in Britain; worse than lecturers in many other countries; and, on top of that, our pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation over the last decade, so we’ve effectively had our pay steadily cut. When we joined this profession, we were promised a decent pension when we retired. Our current scheme (USS) is called a “defined benefits” scheme, which means we know in advance what our pension will be when we retire, based on how long we have worked and how much we have paid into the scheme. Universities UK, the national body that represents universities, claims that our pension scheme is eventually going to run out of money, so they want to scrap all guaranteed pensions now. What they are proposing is that our final pensions will depend entirely on how the stock market is performing. On average, we will be about £10,000 a year worse off under this proposal, but the uncertainty of not knowing what we will get is even worse. And it’s especially hard for younger colleagues who are just starting their careers; people like me, who’ve been paying in for a long time, won’t be hit so hard, but my younger colleagues will be, so I’m striking for them especially.
But the most important reason that I’m on strike is that I’m a parent. My kids are still in school, and if these changes to our pensions go through, I’m really worried about what kind of educational system we will be left with by the time my kids are old enough to go to university. To give you, and all future students, the best possible education, we need to attract and keep the best researchers and teachers – from all over the world. Low salaries and Brexit are already making that hard, and destroying the current pension scheme will make it even harder. Currently, Britain has one of the world’s best university systems and I feel I can’t just sit back and let it be destroyed. So, that’s why I was out on the picket line in the freezing cold at 7:30 this morning (evidence attached).
The strike could be over tomorrow if UUK would simply agree to fresh negotiations. My union, UCU, has said they’re willing to discuss any option, including increasing contributions from staff, in order to meet any legitimate concerns the employers have. The employers’ claim that the pension scheme is £6 billion in deficit, but it isn’t – that number is simply a projection of what might happen in twenty years’ time, based on some very pessimistic assumptions. Last year USS received hundreds of millions of pounds in contributions more than it paid out, and it has billions in assets. So, there is simply no need for UUK to be stubbornly sticking to their very drastic and unfair proposals. If you would like to know more, the union’s position is set out here: https://www.ucu.org.uk/student-uss-information
If you support the strike, and agree that it’s really about the future of education in this country, please contact the student’s union (who are supporting us), to find out how best to show your support. You can also write to our vice-chancellor, Adam Tickell (VC@sussex.ac.uk), urging him to change his stance and join the growing group of other vice-chancellors (at Warwick, Essex, Loughborough and elsewhere) who are supporting their staff and calling for guaranteed pensions to be retained. Your parents, friends and family can do the same, and you could all write to your MP urging them to get the government to intervene, since the way the government funds universities is one of the causes of the strike. But, most importantly of all, you can show your support by not coming onto campus (unless its to join in the protests that USSU are organising). The more support the lecturers have, the sooner UUK will return to negotiations and we can all get back studying together.
Thanks for reading this and, once again, sorry this is such a hassle for you. See you soon, Jim