LONDON — The snowstorm blown in from Siberia did little to stop the hundreds of protestors who crowded the streets around Parliament yesterday, demanding that the government restore the pension plans of the United Kingdom’s university lecturers. With below-zero temperatures and intermittent blizzard conditions, students and lecturers held signs like “ART RAGE” and a Cher poster that read: “Do You Believe in Life After Work?” Even a dog participated, wearing a trendy jacket that said “Woof the FUUK” on one side and “Against University FAT CATS” on the other.
Organized by the University and College Union (UCU), the protest rally was just one event in what will be the country’s largest teachers’ strike in history. All members of the union are on a nationwide strike for 14 days across the next month, severely limiting teaching hours for students at the end of their winter terms.
For many academics, the strike is a necessary evil. Without union negotiations, Universities UK (UUK), the company responsible for administering the country’s higher education budgets, has decided to restructure lecturer pension plans; teachers stand to lose £10,000 (~$13,700) per year — or nearly £200,000 (~$275,000) in a lifetime — because of the change. The shift represents a push by UUK toward something akin to the 401k plans popular in the United States.
In a country that prides itself on its socialist programs of universal healthcare and affordable higher education, this shift is a drastic departure from the more liberal policies that have been the norm. Academics see the change as yet another nail in the coffin for an education sector that was once free from commercial interests.
“We’re fed up,” Sheila McTighe, a professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art who is on strike, said via email “Tuition fees are putting students massively into debt. Cuts to our pay and now our pensions have accompanied increased demands on us to produce constant proofs that we are doing our jobs. We want to teach, and to be able to live without fear of impoverishment. Students want to learn, and not take on crushing debts to do so.”
Meanwhile, students are caught between the administration and their teachers. Standing to lose a cumulative 575,000 hours of instruction time, nearly 100,000 students have signed petitions demanding compensation for their lost time and education. Despite such a loss, 61% of students responding to a YouGov poll support the teachers’ right to strike for their pensions.
Michael Thompson, a spokesman for the UUK, claims that the restructuring initiative is necessary to offset the pension plan’s outstanding £6.1 billion deficit (~$8.4 billion). Opponents of the cuts have rebutted such comments with evidence of superfluous spending by the country’s approximately 130 university vice chancellors (the equivalent of a number two position at an US university). Such publicly available itemized expense bills total £8 million over a two-year period. Those expenses include transportation fees for a Maltese terrier dog from Australia to the UK, £10,000 spent on car services for a single person, and even £32.50 for a set of mugs and a cocktail called a “pornstar” martini.
“They refused to negotiate at all with the union,” McTighe added. “But there is also a larger dimension to the strike, one that feeds the massive response of both academics and students. That is the imposition of the ‘market’ model on universities, and the transformation of students from learners into consumers, and teachers into machines for the delivery of information, not educators.”
The strike is a particularly tense topic for students and educators in the arts. For universities with very large international populations, students are bewildered by the loss of their already slim instructor time. Some American students at the Courtauld Institute of Art (where, full disclosure, I am a student) are incredulous. “Why should we suffer because they aren’t getting pensions?” one student, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Hyperallergic. “Professors in the United States rarely have pensions and they get along just fine.” The truth is far grimmer, as media outlets report story after story about adjunct lecturers in the US who are riddled with debt or living out of their cars without chance of retirement.
Julian Stallabrass, a Courtauld lecturer who is on strike, noted that the pension cuts will have long-term effects on the arts. “If this change is imposed, there will be low wages, patronization, and lousy pensions,” he said. “We will lose the brightest people. It will have an effect on art history, museums, and art galleries because so many people who we train usually end up employed there.”
So far, the strike has had little effect on university galleries and other educational spaces meant to supplement student learning. For example, Donald Smith, the director of Chelsea College of Art’s Chelsea Space gallery, explains that he has “always sought private donations in order to keep Chelsea Space going. Indeed, all of the technical equipment in Ian Giles’ [recent] exhibition was obtained through anonymous private donation.” If anything, this indicates that many art institutions within the UK’s educational framework are already finding ways to be less reliant on the government for support.
As a follow-up to yesterday’s protest rally in London, UCU is urging its supporters to prepare for the next national walkout on March 5. There has also been talk of extending the strikes after a leaked letter to university vice-chancellors from the UUK’s chief-executive, Alastair Jarvis, suggested that UUK was not prepared to “re-open negotiations.”