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.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Striking for USS: four ways university managements have misjudged the situation.

The University and College Union (UCU) and the employers’ association for pre-1992 institutions UUK are currently locked into a bitter battle over pensions in the UK Higher Education sector. Overall 14 days of strike action have been scheduled for February and March (see Lecturers on strike). To the surprise of the employers, support for lecturers on strike has been strong resulting in a fragmentation of UUK. The University of Oxford is only the latest in a line of universities changing their position (The Guardian, 7 March 2018). In this blog post, I will identify four ways in which the employers have seriously misjudged the situation.  

First, they have underestimated the resolve of staff in Higher Education to stand firm and carry out extended industrial action despite the heavy salary losses involved. At my own institution, the University of Nottingham, never before have we been able to mount that many picket lines across the various campuses. Day after day, we have had four picket lines on University Park campus, three on Jubilee Campus, one on Kings Meadow Campus and one on Sutton Bonnington campus. Moreover, never before have the picket lines been that large with at times more than 30 people congregating on individual pickets. The picture is pretty much the same at other institutions across the country.

Picket line at Triumph Road entrance, Nottingham University

Second, university management have seriously misjudged the resolve by UCU to maintain the pressure of industrial action. Unlike three years ago, when our national leadership caved in prematurely (see The Great Pension Robbery – UCU unravelling), this time round the mere offer of renewed talks was not used to call off action. On the contrary, this time members were asked to continue striking and so we did. The mood on the picket lines as well as at UCU Head Office is clear, until we have concrete proposals of an alternative solution on the table, we will not stop engaging in industrial action.   

Picket line at East Entrance, Nottingham University

Third, university managements have completely misjudged the reaction of students. Rather than turning against staff members in anger over cancelled lectures and seminars, students have spoken out strongly against the pension cuts. For the first time at Nottingham University, the Students’ Union has issued an official declaration in support of industrial action: ‘As representatives of the student population we stand with UCU as they take industrial action and urge you to show solidarity too. You can do this by writing to the Vice Chancellor to tell her your concerns, or joining our academics on the picket line during strike days’ (SU Nottingham University, 7 February 2018). Additionally, the Students’ Union drew up a model letter to the VC for students, so they can demand that the VC puts pressure on UUK to re-engage in meaningful negotiations (SU Nottingham University, 20 February 2018). This supportive stance has been replicated by a range of student societies and significant numbers of students on picket lines. Again, the picture is similar at other universities. At universities in Bath, Bristol, Leicester, Liverpool and UCL, students have even occupied the VCs' offices to underline the seriousness of their opposition to pension cuts (see, for example, Bristol Post, 7 March 2018). 

Picket line at King's Meadow Campus, Nottingham University

Finally, university managements have failed to understand that there is a change in wider British society. With Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party and the party’s much stronger performance in last year’s general elections, there is a broader shift towards issues of social justice. Poverty wages, poor working conditions and pension cuts, continuing austerity in general is less and less accepted by large parts of the population. Student support for the strike comes against the background of increasing concerns over high tuition fees, student indebtedness and the fact that the Labour Party has acknowledged this in its Manifesto pledge to abolish fees. 

Times are changing and university managements around the country are learning this lession the hard way.  

Picket line at Derby Road entrance, Nottingham University

Andreas Bieler

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

8 March 2017

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