The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 16 March 2018

UCU’s ‘Syriza moment’: Putting university managements on notice!

Despite strong support from the Greek people, in July 2015 the Greek government by Alexis Tsipras gave in and accepted major further austerity measures in exchange for a third bailout agreement with the Troika, consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF (The Guardian, 13 July 2015). Against the background of a bitter dispute over cuts employers in British Higher Education (HE) want to impose on the USS pension scheme in pre-1992 universities (see Britain: Universities on Strike), here too, UCU negotiators felt they had no other option but to accept an agreement, which involved major cuts (see UCU ‘agreement’, 12 March 2018). Nevertheless, pushed by its members, UCU ultimately did not buckle and rejected the ‘agreement’. In this blog post, I will analyse the underlying reasons for this different outcome.

Sitting at the negotiation table with creditor governments or employers and trying to find an agreement, must put strong pressures on negotiators of debtor countries or trade union representatives. Syriza initially seemed to be in a very strong position. Having won the Greek elections in January 2015 on a wave of anti-austerity sentiment and widespread disenchantment with traditional parties of the centre-right and centre-left, the Syriza government embarked with great vigour on a course of establishing an alternative course to Greece’s problems in the Eurozone (The Guardian, 26 January 2015). This position was strengthened by a national referendum on 5 July 2015, when a clear majority of all regions in Greece rejected further austerity as the outcome of negotiations with the Troika (The Guardian, 5 July 2015). And yet, only a week later the Tsipras government caved in and accepted draconian austerity measures. What happened?

Student Occupation at Nottingham University

Very similar in the UK at the moment, UCU had a very strong mandate to carry out sustained industrial action. In most of the affected institutions, there was an unprecedented participation rate of ca. 58 per cent, with a large majority of around 88 per cent endorsing strike action (UCU, January 2018). And the action went well. From around the country reports came in that record numbers of members participated in picket lines, receiving significant support by students. At Nottingham University, even the Students’ Union as a whole endorsed UCU industrial action. In some places such as Bath, Bristol, Leicester, Liverpool, UCL and since yesterday also at my University of Nottingham, students underlined their determination in student occupations of key university buildings. And yet, what happened? On Monday evening, 12 March, the UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt circulated a message that an agreement had been concluded with the employers.

At closer scrutiny, this so-called agreement was terrible (see UCU ‘agreement’, 12 March 2018). A reduction in the defined benefits section to £42000, an increase in employee contributions, a reduction in the accrual rate to 1/85 and the introduction of an inflation cap of 2.5 per cent, implying that for every year that inflation was higher than 2.5 per cent (as, for example, in 2017), the value of the defined benefits part would be reduced. Overall, the calculation is that instead of the 40 per cent cut implied by the employers’ initial proposal to move to a defined contributions scheme only, the cuts would now amount to 33 per cent (UCU University of Leicester, 13 March 2018). In general, this agreement was still based on the highly discredited USS Fund valuation and, to add insult to injury, UCU committed itself to encourage colleagues to re-schedule cancelled teaching. Hardly a good and satisfactory agreement!

Why did UCU in the end then reject the ‘agreement’? As soon as the General Secretary had circulated the agreement, members emailed, sent tweets and responded via Facebook in protest against this ‘agreement’. Similarly to the case of Syriza in 2015, a key hashtag emerged on Twitter. In 2015, it was #ThisIsACoup, referring to the ongoing negotiations in Brussels deep into the night, now it is #Nocapitulation. Why did UCU not give in unlike Syriza in 2015? The key answer is that unlike in Greece in 2015, the agreement by the UCU negotiation team still had to go through democratic procedures, within which members could have their say. Before finally accepting the ‘agreement’, a meeting of the Higher Education Committee (HEC) of UCU, made up of elected representatives, had to give its final consent. Prior to its meeting on Tuesday, 13 March 2018, UCU had called on branch delegates to come to London for a meeting to report back on the reaction of UCU members.

Day 14 of UCU strike at Nottingham University

It was at this meeting that the decision of rejection was made. Representing the UCU branch of Nottingham University at that meeting, I witnessed how one delegate after another expressed their members’ disappointment, outrage and anger over this ‘agreement’. In Nottingham, we had consulted members widely via email and organised an open committee meeting at short notice, which was attended by over 150 members. UCU members at Nottingham overwhelmingly rejected the agreement and delegates reported similar developments from other universities across the country. In short, developments this week over the USS strike indicate the importance of democratic procedures, which allow individual members a direct input in decision-making. Branch delegates at the meeting in London were not elected, but represented directly the position of members on the ground.

Although in a better position than Syriza in 2015, not all is well in UCU’s internal democratic structures. Branch delegates, who had reported the position of members at Tuesday’s meeting, were not allowed to vote. After the briefing session, HEC met separately to make the final decision. Considering the overwhelming rejection of the ‘agreement’ reported by delegates, HEC had little choice but to reject the deal too. The episode indicates that much more internal democratisation has to take place inside UCU to ensure that members’ positions and opinions are heard. On this occasion, this would have implied that branch delegates participate in the voting. UCU must transform itself beyond a representative democratic institution.

Day 14 of UCU strike at Nottingham University

Since the rejection of the ‘agreement’, the commitment of UCU members to see this conflict through has increased further and students continue to support strike action. This is uncharted territory for UCU and, of course, the outcome of this struggle is still wide open. Significantly, questions related to pension cuts such as high tuition fees, enormous Vice Chancellor salaries, hierarchical decision-making structures in universities, casualisation of the workforce, as well as the very purpose of teaching have now entered discussion. There are more and more voices demanding a fundamental transformation of current HE in the UK re-establishing HE as a public good. UCU’s decision on Tuesday has clearly put university managements on notice that the further marketization of HE is no longer accepted. Solidarity forever!

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

16 March 2017

1 comment:

  1. Dear Andreas, thank you for your analysis. But, I find your comparison with the Greek case as poorly thought. In the case of Greece, the choice was either take the measures or had all the banking system abolished and the money supply cut off (meaning suspend all imports, etc, etc). That is either leave the euro and go back to the stone age, or take the unpleasant medicine. The populist left along with their far right government partners, had only themselves to blame for selling to the ill-informed and desperate electorate in Greece that they, somehow, will be much better where everyone else had failed (akin to create wine from water...). The comparison with UCU is unfounded. A similar situation would have been if UCU members were threatened with abolishing the HE sector as known, such as wholesale privatisation, and the like. That was not the case.


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