UK University Strike: Pensions, Pay and Precarity

Colleagues outside UK may have noticed, on social media or elsewhere, that a significant number of UK staff, both academic and administrative, recently went on strike. Those not so familiar with recent developments in UK higher education may have wondered what this strike was all about. Here is a short overview.

Following a ballot by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) in September 2019, around 45,000 staff stopped working for 8 days from late November to early December. They will also be working to contract (i.e. to, and not beyond, contracted hours) for the foreseeable future. The ballot was separated into two main issues: pensions, and pay issues; these were treated as distinct as not all university staff in the UK are in the same pension scheme (see below).


The pensions story has been a rocky one. Staff at around half of the universities in UK – those which had university status before 1992 – are members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS); the remainder will mostly be paying into another scheme as they were previously linked to local education authorities. In mid-2017, the USS announced that the balance of its assets and liabilities was in deficit. They therefore suggested that, instead of receiving a defined pension (i.e. an identified amount) on retirement, staff would receive whatever the fund could afford at the time.

This was not well-received, and strike action was balloted for and then taken in February 2018. During and after the strikes it transpired that the USS had actually overstated the deficits and the level of risk. Some changes to pensions have been made anyway (including increased contributions), but serious concerns have since emerged regarding how the USS governing board operates and around its relationship with university leaders in general. At the time of writing it is fair to say that the level of trust between the USS members and its senior leadership is very low – see USS Briefs for extensive analysis and commentary on this issue.

Pay et al

Within the pay issue are a number of concerns: pay itself, workloads, and precarious contracts.

Pay in the UK higher education – which is nationally agreed – has not kept pace with inflation. In real terms, our purchasing power has fallen 20% in the last ten years. Most academic staff are relatively well paid, with post-doc starting salaries being around £34,000 (gross annual income); median UK earnings are £30,000. However, the breathing space between pay cheque and outgoings is shrinking year on year, which sits badly alongside rising workloads across the board and the fact that universities are becoming wealthier through tuition fees. There are also major issues around gender and ethnicity pay gaps in the UK – that women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds tend to be paid far less than their white, male colleagues. This, of course, is a topic in its own right, but most of us know that – and how – universities are systemically sexist and racist institutions.

Workloads are a bit of a black box in UK universities, given that they are being calculated at the discretion of the department and/or central administration. While it makes sense to have an idea of how much work people can be expected to do in terms of teaching and marking, this model falls apart if the models and reality don’t match. Further complicating matters is the fact that the boundaries of academic work are difficult to define, consisting of a combination of the day job and huge amounts of (undocumented) reciprocation, which creates issues – or opportunities – for universities. It is increasingly clear that universities know very well that they are giving many staff more than a 100% workload, and that the time allocated to tasks is underestimated. The upshot is that UK university staff are working millions of hours for free and as such their deteriorating mental health is a major problem. It is no surprise that the hashtag #ExhaustionRebellion is trending.

When I say “most university staff are relatively well paid”, there is a huge caveat to consider – almost half of all academic staff are on limited term, part-time contracts, or are only paid by the hour. Some of these may be on reasonable salaries if they come with full-time posts, but these positions obviously come with an expiry date. A lot of research is conducted by staff on limited term posts created for particular grants, and teaching accordingly fits alongside this as staff are “bought out” of teaching (where the research contact pays for others to do their teaching) and others are employed hourly or very part-time to teach those classes. Universities also need to plug unexpected gaps of varying sizes in their teaching capacity through sickness, maternity/paternity cover, and so on. There is evidence that, in line with the faulty workload allocation models in general, the hours paid and required for this kind of work (teaching preparation, the actual teaching, marking, and pastoral care) are also woefully miscalculated.

There is a perception among some (largely senior) colleagues that all of this is a rite of passage, that scholars should cut their teeth in the post-doctorate phase and accumulate sufficient experience to merit a permanent post. This period of precarity, though, is a growing phenomenon: with far fewer posts than applicants, this creates credential inflation, and in turn makes the precarious period longer and more fraught, which is particularly problematic for those with caring responsibilities and/or who are less mobile. It should also be noted that precarity is not only an issue for academic staff.

Where to, and how?

We are, in short, in a mess. The question is where we go from here. What has become evident during the strikes is that universities are keen to avoid dealing with many of these issues. Some universities have pitted students against staff, (falsely) telling them that joining picket lines is unlawful, or asking them to report on classes which are not taking place. This appears to have backfired, and the National Union of Students supports the strike. In terms of staff, some universities have fast-tracked or exaggerated strikers’ pay deductions, or made threats about them “only” working to contract.

It is clear that the strike, alongside the issues on the placards, represents a wider rebellion against our marketised university system. Mobilising effectively, though, is difficult for a number of reasons which split the “voice” of higher education staff, if there is such a thing. Firstly, there are around 450,000 staff in UK universities, and the strikes therefore only represent about 10% of the total. So while the strike is a significant hit in terms of classes not taught, functions not fulfilled, it doesn’t quite paralyse the system – often non-striking colleagues have to pick up the slack. The numbers of potential strikers is also reduced as, since 2017, over 50% of an institutions’ union membership has to vote in order for any decision around industrial action to stand. This is high, and a number of universities missed the threshold by a small number of votes.

Not all staff are union members, either for cost, political, or other reasons, and not all union members are on strike – some have to work if they can’t afford to lose that pay, have certain commitments, or even don’t agree with the reasons for striking. Not all union members are in the same union, either. Also, staff employed through agencies (some of which universities set up internally) are not allowed to be union members, while international staff are concerned that the immigration authorities in the UK could revoke their visas if they are absent from work for a period.

Universities’ unwillingness to engage may indicate that university management is now entirely socialised into the logic that universities should operate on marketised and managerial lines. Even if this is not the case, there is an issue of path dependence in that universities have essentially painted themselves into a corner, and policy makers have given them the paint (see this piece for an excellent explanation). In short, the system is almost entirely geared towards the notion of a competitive, zero-sum game around a limited pot of students, research funding, and status. These are, of course, interrelated, given that status is based on metric performance (and history), and higher status garners you more student numbers and research contracts.

As state funding for tuition disappeared almost entirely in 2012, the balance (and then some) was replaced by tuition fees rising from £3,000 to of 9,000. Universities also became free to recruit as many students as they like. They can, though, only admit as many students as they have space for. Many borrowed money to build more facilities in order to attract and provide for students, but if application numbers fall, that debt becomes unmanageable, so they’re committed to a particular route, and need to maximise student numbers but reduce costs (hence pay, workload, and precarious contract). The big names will likely be fine, but the losers in this case will be staff across the board and particularly lower ranked universities who are more teaching oriented and admit more local students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is debatable whether the system can perhaps be demarketised in some ways, whether academics know how to and if university leaders would even allow it. We do often look to elements of university provision (no tuition fees, limited influence of rankings) in continental Europe with some envy, even while we know that life for colleagues there is not perfect, either.

What are your thoughts?

Richard Budd is a Lecturer in Higher Education in the Department of Educational Research at the University of Lancaster. He is mostly interested in how students’ experiences vary between universities and countries. His profile can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter.

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