On day five of a fourteen day strike across UK universities against cuts to pensions, four historians share reflections from the picket lines on solidarity, precarity, and the marketisation of education

Photo Credit: Elly Robson

Professor Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History, King’s College London

It takes a lot to get British academics to strike. Because we are lucky enough to do work which is our calling and because, in the happy past, our universities operated as cooperative mutual enterprises – in which people like us, paid like us, and sharing our pension scheme, coordinated administration – few recognized themselves as workers.  But after ten years of salary cuts in real terms of perhaps 15-20% and confronting an aggressive and wasteful top-down management culture, once people checked out the pensions difference calculator, many had a sudden epiphany about their social class location.

The picket lines at King’s on Monday 26th, when our strike began, were packed from 7.30 a.m. Among those striking are heads of department, deans, and bravest of all, many of the early career academics (ECRs) on fixed contracts for whom the pay loss is particularly hard. There was strong student support, along with a sound system. The Strand echoed with a mixture of grime, reggae, hip hop and rounds of ‘Solidarity Forever’, as well as conversations about £9,000-a-year fees, the precarity experienced by ECRs, the attack on salaries and pensions in and out of the university, and our managers’ porn star martinis and private pensions. It was joyful, but people should not miss how angry academics are, and not just about the proposed theft of our pensions. What people are beginning to talk about is the need to restore the mutualized self-governing model of the university with which our communities of scholars began, and to end the post-1990 drift to wasteful and undemocratic CEO-style administration.

Dr Sasha Handley, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, The University of Manchester

I am on strike, and on the picket line at Manchester University, to defend the rights of all USS members to a viable pension, to safeguard the quality of our students’ education, and to stand up for values of diversity, inclusivity and sustainability in the HE sector. Being ‘socially responsible’ is one of Manchester University’s core strategic goals. As staff, we are asked to help create ‘socially responsible graduates’ who should be able to ‘tackle and understand problems relating to equality, diversity, sustainability, ethics and social justice’ in the twenty-first century. I can hardly think of a better way to fulfill this objective than the collective action that my colleagues and I have taken over the past few days, with the support of many of our students. As somebody that was educated by world-leading social historians at the University of Warwick, I’m acutely aware of the perils of passivity and of the power of collective action to contest injustice. As we stand shivering on the picket line, updating old protest songs with new lyrics, I’m proud to stand in that intellectual tradition and to set an example of socially responsible action for future generations.

Dr Lucy Delap, Reader in Modern British and Gender History, University of Cambridge

The strike across UK universities has raised some highly technical questions of pensions policy. The fiendishly complex ins and outs of what benefits are provided, and who shoulders risk, are profoundly important to the future well-being of higher education workers. But as always, the strike also raises deeper issues, and provides opportunities for new solidarities. The picket line is an education – for those choosing to cross, for those engaging them and asking for strike-solidarity, for those cycling and driving past, and for those supplying tea and donuts. Students do ask us why, given that they have paid fees, they should not get what they bought? And by posing the question on these terms, we are forced to confront the commodification of education and the wider market ethos that could become the dominant value system of the academy. But in this strike, on Cambridge picket lines, more students are donating their time, their scarce money, their energy, into supporting the strikers. They understand that education is a wider source of value, growth and civility, and I am moved by their supply of tea, toasties, biscuits and good humour.

We are also forced to engage with the precarity of many lecturers and researchers, who dare not stand up to bullying instructions not to strike or who cannot afford the risk of loss of income. And the strike has also raised questions over the accountability of our institutions – who takes decision on our behalf? Who is consulted? Who should shoulder risks? Finally, the strike brings us face to face with hard questions about wider inequality. The taxi driver who drives across the picket line and asks with animosity, why don’t I have a pension scheme? And most movingly, the petrol station employees who invited us to help ourselves to firewood supplies to keep warm on the picket – but who are likely not in a union, aren’t given the chance to strike for better conditions, and almost certainly don’t have a pension scheme. Do we show solidarity with these workers? Let’s not forget their gestures of support.

Dr Andrew Dowling, Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies, Cardiff University

Though still early days, the experience of the UCU strike at Cardiff University hints at greater changes to come. The attack on pensions is being interpreted as the final straw of a series of endless changes that university staff have been subject to. As one colleague put it in, in a joint staff and student strike meeting: this is the coal miners strike, but a strike of knowledge. On the picket line, at meetings and debates, the value of the university as a societal good has come to the fore, as has an ever-greater sense that a major and dramatic change in the direction of travel of the British university is required. Universities UK may come to greatly regret the assault on pensions, because it might just mean that their version of higher education – managerial and neo-liberal – has reached its zenith. The pensions strike has released a whole range of pent-up frustrations and for the first time, academics and support staff are discovering that collective action can create a new cultural environment in which to work.


Solidarity Forever: Updated for the USS Pensions Strike

Captured on the King’s College London picket line by Richard Drayton

It is we who wrote the lectures late into the night
spent the weekend doing marking
got up at dawn to get class right
now you want to steal our pensions
we’re all ready for a fight
For the union makes us strong

Solidarity forever
Solidarity Forever
Solidarity Forever
For the union makes us strong

A modest home’s now costing
10 times my salary
while you drink porn star martinis
I’m watching every P
you want to build glass pyramids
while we age in poverty
But the union makes us strong

We are seeking further reflections from historians – including Early Career Researchers, postgraduate students, and undergraduates – about their experience of the USS Strike. Please send a paragraph (not more than 250 words) and a picture of yourself and / or a picket line to hwoeditors@historyworkshop.org.uk by Wednesday 7 March. 


  1. Very heartening and informative. More please.

  2. Chris Williams

    Great summaries, and consistent with my experience at (OU) Nottingham and Milton Keynes, and (university of ) Leicester.

    Maybe the future will look more like this – a department responding to closure by re-constituting itself as a co-op and seeking external validation to teach degree courses in its specialism: https://leicestervaughancollege.wordpress.com/

  3. Michael Byrne

    My best wishes go to the lecturers on the picket lines, and I sincerely hope they win this dispute over pensions. I’m particularly heartened by the support and solidarity shown by students and the wider community for the lecturers. Their fight is our fight too, many workers are seeing their pensions trashed by this neo-liberal onslaught on workers terms and conditions, only by collective action can we defeat austerity.

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