In the final part of our series on the UCU pensions dispute, two members of university staff reflect on higher education hierarchies, media portrayals of striking workers, and the implications for non-teaching staff members.
Josh Allen, an academic-related member of staff at a non-striking institution
Throughout the current USS dispute the headlines, regardless of news source, have been the same: this is a ‘lecturers’ strike’. What is apparent on the ground, however, is that it is not just lecturers striking. Academic-related university employees – staff employed on the same terms as teaching and research staff, but who perform purely managerial or technical work – are also taking action.
As an academic-related member of staff at a non-striking pre-1992 university, one of the most heartening things has been the tweets from the picket lines showing academics standing in solidarity with the librarians, IT technicians and other technical and managerial staff who make the university function. Indeed, part of the reason why I am sorry that my own institution is not out on strike is because we have lost this opportunity to have an honest collegiate discussion about the purpose and direction of the sector and institutions that we all work in.
While the politics of academic-related staff tend to mirror those of the academics with whom we work so closely, in nearly four years working in higher education I have never encountered another academic-related member of staff who has openly discussed being a trade unionist. One key reason so many academic-related staff do not actively engage with UCU in particular is precisely because it tends to prioritise the interests of teaching and research staff over those who keep British higher education on the road.
There is a towering divide, embodied in the language used in our institutions, between those deemed to possess knowledge and those whose presence is necessary only to facilitate it. If the term ‘academic-related’ is suggestive of the poor relations you invite around at Christmas time, but otherwise ignore, then the concept of ‘support staff’ is indicative of servitude. I am an academic-related, professional-managerial Grade 6. My colleague at the desk next to me is a support-staff Band 500. We’re nearly the same age and have a similar educational background, but his defined benefit pension was replaced with defined contribution back in 2002. While he has to be at his workstation and desktop computer the entire day, my employer gives me a laptop to facilitate me moving around and working from home. Appreciating how these hierarchies and divisions came about, and seeking to change them, requires historical understanding.
There are, of course, peculiarities to the outlook and situation of the workers who undertake research and teaching labour in higher education institutions, something which I have written about before in a different context. As a masters student I became fascinated by the history of how intellectual work has been produced, and what the conditions of its production signify. I wrote about the history of clerical staff in higher education: a classed, gendered hierarchy of labour that shapes the character of our institutions and, subsequently, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding carried out within them. Today, the division is also increasingly racialised. In my institution, 23% of the support staff carrying out the lowest-paid work with the least autonomy are from BME backgrounds. By contrast, the office-based academic-related staff, who enjoy the same terms and conditions as fellows, lecturers, senior lecturers and readers, are 87% white. In this way the UK’s older universities are structured in such a way as to perpetuate the inequalities that permeate our society.
Academic or academic-related, once our current dispute is won, we would do well to remember our position of relative privilege within our institutions and use this as a platform from which to lobby for change. As noted, support staff at most institutions, who are not covered by national agreements in quite the way that we are, lost their defined benefits a long time ago. Agency staff, until very recently, usually had no pension entitlement at all, and even now it is usually as little as can be got away with. USS and academic-and-related conditions for all should be a minimum demand. As a longer term goal though – hard as it will be to remove the calcified assumptions that also structure our own minds – we need to have a conversation about what a non-hierarchical, non-exploitative, university for all would look like. Only then will we be able to escape the baked-in inequalities that have held back higher education for so long.
Beatrice Hyams, a member of professional university support staff based in London
I am a member of UCU, and a member of the professional support staff of a university. My colleagues and I will be affected by the pension cuts in the same way as the striking academics who are, not surprisingly, making the headlines and having the greatest impact from withdrawal of their labour. But as administrative staff, we face similar difficulties and hard decisions as we support the industrial action.
I have been on the picket lines with other support staff. In fact, my organisation consists almost exclusively of support staff, with relatively few academics directly employed by the University to teach students. In joining the picket line, however, I have put myself at odds with many of my colleagues – some union members, some not – who cross the picket line daily with the reassuring comments that they ‘fully support’ us, or have ‘so much work to do’, or who ‘really care about our students’.
Do these colleagues think that those of us standing outside don’t care? Like many entering the building each day, we are committed employees, routinely devoting time over and above our contractual hours to support the goals of the University: providing access to higher education to students across the globe. It is because we do care – we care in the long term, we care about the sector, we care about students – that we are actively engaging with this industrial action.
As professional staff we are more isolated than the academics on the picket line. Collegial support across administrative staff is fragmented for a number of reasons: they belong to other unions or other pension schemes; they bury their heads in the sand about the impact on them as individuals; or they think their job will be jeopardised if they don’t go in. A fear of reprisals results in some members of staff putting their heads down and passing their colleagues on the picket line, unable to empathise, support or even debate.
Added to this is the awareness that, as academic support staff, we are frequently seen by academics as part of the problem, imposing burdensome bureaucracy on their teaching and academic research – not necessarily colleagues to be embraced as we stand on the picket line together.
I will be at the head of the pension queue in two years – there is no need for me to be on the picket line. But I am concerned about the young, talented, developing members of professional staff who will be financially penalised, and yet will still be supporting, through their monthly pension contributions, those fortunate enough to have worked in the sector in an earlier time. It is these same young people whose pension is becoming an increasingly unknown quantity. Many will have joined the sector because it was an environment in which the bottom line was not the overriding consideration. Or so they thought.
The employers would not have been wrong in gambling that these young people would be focusing not on their pensions, but on the here and now: reducing tuition debt, paying nursery fees, putting a down payment on a mortgage or meeting annually increasing rents as their salaries fail to keep up with inflation. Young professionals can’t afford to worry about how they will live in retirement when there is so much more to worry about at the end of this week, at the end of this month. And yet some of them are – a defined pension was part of the small print – and they are fighting for this contribution to their own, and their families’, long-term well-being.
We have been saying that this is not a normal strike – perhaps they never are. This is about ensuring the future quality of the sector, honouring the terms under which we all signed up and ensuring a work force that can support academic engagement and academic innovation. There will be no future for higher education if the talent it needs is compromised by poor rates of pay and a pension that prevents planning for the future.