Staff at the University of Bristol (UoB) have once again voted for industrial action in an effort to “get employers back to the negotiating table” regarding cuts to staff pensions and other unresolved grievances.
University staff across the country are demanding change across the ‘4 Fights’: fair pay, manageable workloads, job security and equality. In addition, ‘pre-1992 universities’ such as UoB (those existing before polytechnics became universities) are fighting cuts to their pension scheme, known as the Universities Superannuation Service (USS).
USS, the largest private pension scheme in the country, concluded from a 2020 valuation of its assets that contribution rates need to increase “very significantly” from the current rate of 30.7% of salaries – 9.6% from staff and 21.1% from employers. But UCU have said these increases aren’t necessary and haven’t been properly justified.
Academics claim an average lecturer could be losing hundreds of thousands in retirement funds, in particular younger and lower-paid academics who have not built up compound benefits on the current scheme.
A university spokesperson said the vote for industrial action was “regrettable” but that management respects the right to strike. UoB staff will be striking alongside UCU members at 58 universities nationwide.
“Employers have put forward a series of calculations about what the pension scheme is worth and what any deficit might be,” said Dr. Martin Parker, a professor in UoB’s Department of Management.
“But of course, they’re being countered by a bunch of academics who teach actuarial science and finance and accounting who say their assessments are unduly pessimistic, their understanding of the scheme is wrong and needs to be revalued.”
Bristol’s UCU branch president Dr. Jamie Melrose said there had been “precious little change” during the disputes since 2018. Last year’s strike actions saw UoB achieve a Gender Pay Gap agreement, but Melrose said: “It’s hard to see how decision-makers are serious about systematically addressing precarity when on the 4 Fights they reject the notion of any deal, let alone a good deal.”
In 2018, actions caused employers to retreat on pension cuts at the time, Melrose said, but that stance “has largely been jettisoned” since the hotly-disputed USS valuation from 2020.
The impact on students
Students have generally been supportive, said Melrose: “The work of our Bristol staff-solidarity group has been tremendous. The last few years, with Covid and the 2019/20 strikes, have been tough for all, staff and students. Understandably more disruption is hardly welcome.
“But most students, I hope, recognise that attempts to slash someone’s pension by 30-40% are plain wrong, and that if they think their futures are improved by lessons in how to be the perfect neoliberal subject than by allowing employers to get staff to work more for less, on shitty contracts, they are sadly mistaken.”
Anna Lart Greene, a second-year English and Classical Studies student, said she thinks university management were counting on students being furious with striking staff after the impact Covid had on teaching. “But during the pandemic, hundreds of students in Bristol went on a rent strike themselves against the university, and they can’t forget how management treated them,” she said.
“Especially compared to the vocal support from staff,” she added. “More students than ever, not just the “activist” types, understand why people take strike action and how important solidarity is.”
The Cable tried to also find students who opposed the strike or had mixed feelings, but those who came forward were supportive. Third-year Maths student Abed Rafaee proposed that it may be because only two or three lectures will be missed, and that students across the board “understand that lecturers are overworked and underpaid”.
Third-year Politics and International Relations student Charlie Wilbraham said: “Our uni experience has been so disrupted by Covid, and strikes, but there is a recognition even among people who aren’t politically aware that the strikes are necessary due to how badly the uni board has acted, especially towards employees.”
The National Union of Students has publicly supported UCU’s strike action and many Bristol students, such as those in the rent strike group, have made solidarity statements. This comes after when Bristol students occupied the management floor of the University’s central administration building in support of their lecturers during strike action in 2018.
A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Regrettably, UCU has announced further industrial action at the University of Bristol and other UK universities in the continued dispute over the USS – staff pensions, and the national pay award for 2021/22.
“Industrial action is part of a complex national dispute. These are important issues and we respect the right of our staff to strike, which we know was not an easy decision to make.
“As a university, we have worked collaboratively with our staff and the local UCU branch to put our collective views forward and have argued for higher employer contributions to help ensure the USS Pension scheme is sustainable in the future.”
They added the university’s priority was minimising disruption to teaching and learning.
“As a University, we are proud of the way that we have worked with the local branch of UCU and the other trade unions to make things better for staff. We are open to continuing the conversation and being proactive in addressing their concerns.”
If strikers see no gains, Melrose said he expected ongoing industrial action, but he does believe progress is possible: “[management] have the current authority to make a difference, retreat from the USS cuts and start making a 4 Fights deal. Indifference and inaction on their part isn’t an option.”