I am an academic working in a British university, and I am currently on strike. Alongside many of my colleagues – administrators, librarians, lecturers, graduate students – in the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), I am taking industrial action in order to persuade Universities UK (UUK, the body which officially represents Britain’s universities) to commit to meaningful negotiations over the reforms they seek to impose on our pensions scheme (known as the Universities Superannuation Scheme, USS).1 According to the calculations made by UCU, UUK’s reforms to USS will result in the average member of the scheme losing about £10,000 per year in retirement; younger colleagues stand to lose far more than older colleagues.2
The dispute carries numerous hallmarks of the wider political dynamics of the last decade, including repeated instances of large employers, from British Steel to BHS, revealing that their private pension schemes are carrying hitherto unrevealed deficits, or have been emptied out. In the case of USS, the declaration that the pensions scheme carries a deficit of somewhere between £5bn and £7bn has been used by UUK as justification for closing the current scheme, which is based on defined benefits (DB), and open a new scheme, based on defined contributions (DC).3
This change has serious and significant consequences which go far beyond salary losses. Under a defined benefits (DB) scheme, members are guaranteed a pension (in effect, a salary) from the moment they retire until they die. However, under a defined contributions (DC) scheme, members build up a retirement fund. This fund does not provide a guaranteed pension; rather, the amount in the fund depends on the fund’s performance on the stock market, which depends on how fund managers manage the fund. Whereas a DB scheme therefore promises employees a secure income in retirement, a DC scheme can potentially produce higher returns, but does so at the cost of creating risk for the individual member.
The USS situation is, however, based on an extraordinary assumption: the projected £7bn deficit only exists where it is assumed that all UK universities in the scheme collapse at the same time, and there are – effectively – no members continuing to pay money into the scheme. For a private company, which could go bust (such as, recently, the construction company Carillion), the scenario may be considered reasonable; for the entire university sector, the scenario is wildly improbable. USS’s own accounts show that the scheme’s income currently outstrips its payments, and is projected to do so for at least the next forty years. The refrain from UUK, echoed by university managers, that ‘there is no money’ is a familiar one in the time of austerity; it exploits a common sense discourse – public debt must be paid back, and we must all make a sacrifice to do so – to mask the causes and processes of debt creation, the rationalities that guide these causes and processes, and the (publicly invisible) transfers and trade-offs that are central to the distribution and imposition of financial obligations. In this case, the pensions deficit is therefore an invention produced by specific, power-laden risk calculation practices; the rationality is that of individual rather than collective risk and obligation; and the proposed change from DB to DC is a political act of individualisation which is consequent on this invention and this rationality. Understanding it therefore requires context.
Regimes of Austerity
At the beginning of last year, Cristina Flesher Fominaya and I edited a special issue of the journal Social Movement Studies on Anti-Austerity Movements in Europe, featuring a series of articles based on fieldwork and other empirical analyses of the collective points of resistance to austerity in different European contexts (Flesher Fominaya and Hayes 2017). My contribution was to identify what I called the multiple regimes of austerity. I argued that rather than seeing austerity as a series of policies of fiscal retrenchment, we should see it as the overlaying of four particular and interlinked regimes of recurrent institutionalized practices and normative assumptions, which are fiscal, ideological, political, and civic in character. The first regime concerns economic policies; the second concerns the crisis of social democracy, and what may constitute a legitimate left politics; the third concerns the relationship between formal democracy and democratic participation; and the fourth concerns the privatization of public space, and the evacuation of resistant social representation from these spaces. As such, austerity as a material project of neo-liberal governance cannot be dissociated from the ongoing processes of democratic enclosure that characterise the European political and ideational space (Hayes 2017).
The goal was to enable a clearer understanding of both the socio-political economies and imaginaries of austerity and the multiple movement responses to it. Here, the potential of social movement action is to identify and reveal the processes of exclusion and enclosure that austerity produces, and enable the development of alternative imaginaries of action and association. The transformative potential of anti-austerity mobilizations accordingly lies in their capacity to develop an alternative moral economy grounded in new forms of solidarity and sociability, whether in workplaces or in civic squares.
What does this look like at the level of the current dispute over pensions in UK universities? Higher education in the UK is a specific site of the material practices of neoliberal governance, a space within which its own overlapping regimes unfold and develop (Holmwood 2011, Amsler and Bolsmann 2012, Lorenz 2012). The UK has a highly marketised higher education sector, characterised by tuition fees of £9250 per year (paid back at variable rates by students subsequent to their university studies), by inter-university competition over student recruitment and income generation, and by high levels of surveillance (what Lorenz terms a ‘culture of permanent mistrust’, p.609). Surveillance includes performance monitoring and management, and particularly, the use of multiple metrics in order to structure student and staff behaviours. These metrics include student evaluations for each course, an annual national student satisfaction survey for each programme, and large-scale, pluri-annual, government-driven evaluations of teaching practice (TEF) and research production (REF). The rationale for these processes is that they provide transparency and accountability, providing comparable information and enhancing rational decision making (by students, by university managers), and so raising standards. Their effect is to produce a change in the nature of higher education, from a collective public good to a divisible private one.
Austerity, in some ways, has not affected the university sector in the UK as it has affected other parts of the public sector: university finances are, broadly, booming, particularly for the larger, more powerful, established institutions. At the same time, however, university administrative and academic staff have been subject to pay freezes and below-inflation pay rises, whilst salary inequalities have become more profound, with university leaders earning sums widely considered excessive.4 Most crucially, from 2012, large amounts of future debt was transferred onto students. Here, the funding system is perhaps less important as an economic model than a socio-normative one: a university education is increasingly communicated and understood as an individual investment in order to acquire employability skills (whose acquisition is a key metric for university league tables). The critical and collective character of the university as a public institution is increasingly erased. UK university courses are now subject to consumer protection law; at open days, we are legally obliged to inform students how much below or above the mean average our students earn after graduation; my own University is currently marketing itself with the slogan ‘Study here. Earn more.’.
The pensions dispute must be seen in this framework of the extension of neoliberal governance practices. Beyond reducing future risk, UUK’s decision to move from DB to DC effectively accomplishes two tasks. First, all universities in the scheme currently act as a mutual safety net: if one university defaults, its liabilities are transferred to the other universities, ensuring that its employees are covered and their pensions secured. Second, under a DB scheme, the employer carries the risk: the employee’s return is guaranteed. Both of these safety nets are removed by the proposed DC scheme. In other words, changing DB to DC is an act of demutualisation, followed by an act of risk transfer, from the institution to the individual.
It is perhaps not immediately obvious, given the structural damage to the mobility and competitiveness of the UK university sector that Brexit will surely cause, why UUK is seeking to downgrade pension provision to its employees on the basis of a fantasy default scenario. As many have pointed out, the likely consequence is to make working in these universities less attractive,5 at a time when recruiting highly mobile specialists is both more difficult and more important for the UK’s ‘knowledge economy’. Yet it is also highly consistent with the marketisation of the sector under the logics of austerity’s overlapping regimes. As Bhambra notes, alongside collective bargaining, the USS scheme is one of the last remaining collective aspects of the public university system in the UK; once completed, demutualisation and risk transfer make it feasible for individual institutions to defect from the public system, setting them free to charge students a level of fees uncontrolled by a government cap. The pensions reforms, therefore, are really designed to facilitate privatisation.6
Given this situation, what are the sites of resistance within the university? First, let me repeat: I am on strike, and the strike is currently scheduled to last for fourteen working days in total, from 22 February to 16 March. This is unprecedented in my working life. It is also remarkable in that, in terms of the foreclosures of democratic space operated under austerity, UCU’s industrial action could only be legal if 50% of union members voted, under the terms of the Trade Union Act 2016. UCU decided to hedge its risk, organising local ballots in each university rather than a simple national ballot, enabling it to conduct local strikes even if the national vote did not meet the 50% threshold. In the end, turnout did not meet the threshold in only seven out of 68 institutions; at my university, turnout was a remarkable 68%. Nationally, 88% of members voted for industrial action, and 93% for action short of a strike.7 Rather than an exams boycott – often used in the past, and which tends to separate academics from administrators and information specialists – strike action in this case means doing no work for our employers (and consequently forgoing all pay for each strike day). To repeat: this form and scale of action is unprecedented in my working life.
Second, a consequence of the individualisation of higher education is a loss of student radicalism, as students are inevitably invested in the production of neo-liberal subjectivity. One piece of advice given to students during the dispute is that they write to University managers to demand a refund on their fees for every class missed because of industrial action; this may be effective in the short-term to create leverage, but it surely reproduces rather then resists the positioning of students as consumers. Yet students appear, for the moment at least, overwhelmingly sympathetic to the strike, and (if not necessarily being disruptive) have demonstrated in solidarity with academics and administrators at numerous universities, as they hold pickets, rallies, teach-ins and teach-outs.
Third, at the time of writing, there is a strong sense that the strike is working tactically: UUK has been forced back to negotiations with UCU over its ‘non-negotiable’ position. Perhaps more importantly, the strike is symbolically significant in ways that go beyond the local micro-solidarities developed through collective action within specific places. Though nominally still a public system (British universities have charity status, and do not have shareholders), the structural positioning of universities as individualised competitive institutions – competing with each other for funding, for students, for distinction, for research power – is increasingly naturalised discursively and operationally, and is ingrained in the everyday function of the university and the academics and administrators who carry out their tasks within it. Equally, the capacity of strike action to produce systemic challenge is highly circumscribed in the UK, as a result of legislation prohibiting secondary picketing and ‘political’ strikes.
Yet the local nature of each strike has – perhaps paradoxically – enabled the sense of the (re)creation of higher education as an interlinked, collegiate, public system. Social media – particularly twitter, but also the numerous blogs written by striking – has enabled the consolidation of ties between strikers at different universities, and the active reinforcement of solidarities, particularly in the face of the punitive sanctions threatened by individual universities against their striking staff. As one influential critical blog on UK Higher education system puts it, perhaps the most conspicuous gain from the strike ‘is that there has been a mass recognition of the value of solidarity, together with the sheer joy of strikers finding they do indeed belong to a community’.8 More widely, the strike and its solidarities are a further step towards debate not just on fair pensions, but on the very nature of the university.9
Finally, as noted above, the processes of demutualisation and risk transfer are part of the aggressive enforcement of market governance within the particular sites and spaces of the contemporary public university. Here, austerity’s regimes intersect: this is not simply a fiscal question, concerning the nature of deficit and the technical management of a large fund, but a democratic question, concerning not just the continued existence of welfarist safety nets, but the potential for creating collective and resistant ideological, political, and civic spaces. As such, it is a touchstone for the contemporary social democratic left. Under the conditions of the ideological austerity which they helped to produce, social democrats in the UK were cheerleaders for these processes; tuition fees and neo-liberal management instruments were championed and extended by the New Labour governments of Blair and Brown, before the explicit policies of fiscal austerity were implemented. Post New Labour, these champions remain influential, arguing (for example) that the inequalities of higher education are essentially a problem not of indebtedness but of cartelisation, and as such are a consequence of the incomplete marketisation of the university system; in this discourse, excessively paid university leaders are characterised as a kind of gentry class standing in the way of liberalisation.10 Nonetheless, the current Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn has supported the strike, with the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell joining teach-ins,11 and Labour has promised to end the tuition fee system once elected. Of course, there is much more to the pushback against austerity than the reform of parts of its fiscal regime, not least the widespread complicity of academics with the techniques of surveillance imposed upon them. But it is nonetheless here – in struggles within and against the multiple, specific, physical, and normative spaces created by austerity – that the prospects of building an alternative to the normalised conditions of austerity lie.
Amsler, Sarah S. and Chris Bolsmann. 2012. ‘University Ranking as Social Exclusion’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33/2, pp.283-301.
Flesher Fominaya, Cristina and Graeme Hayes (eds). 2017. ‘Resisting Austerity. Collective Action in Europe in the Wake of the Global Financial Crisis’, Social Movement Studies, 16/1.
Hayes, Graeme. 2017. ‘Regimes of Austerity’, Social Movement Studies, 16/1, pp.21-35.
Holmwood, John (ed.). 2011. A Manifesto for the Public University. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Lorenz, Chris. 2012. ‘If You’re So Smart, Why Are You under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management’, Critical Inquiry, 38/3, pp.599-629.
1 Only those universities established before 1992 enroll their academic and senior administrative employees in USS. Universities established after 1992 – mainly, those that were known as Polytechnics – enroll their employees in TPS, the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. Unlike USS, TPS is underwritten by the state, and is not affected by UUK’s reforms.
2 UCU, ‘Overhaul of university pensions could leave staff £200,000 worse off in retirement’, 30 November 2017, https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9093/Overhaul-of-university-pensions-could-leave-staff-200000-worse-off-in-retirement
3 UUK, ‘Open letter from UUK to USS scheme members over pensions dispute’, 22 February 2018, http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/news/Pages/uuk-open-letter-uss-members-pensions-dispute.aspx
4 For an egregious recent example, see ‘Vice-Chancellor suggests he deserves salary of £360,000 as he has to oversee huge staff redundancies’, Daily Telegraph, 21 February 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2018/02/21/vice-chancellor-suggests-deserves-salary-360000-has-oversee/
5 ‘Professors warn of recruitment ‘disaster’ over USS changes’, Times Higher Education, 18 January 2018, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/professors-warn-recruitment-disaster-over-uss-changes
6 Gurminder K Bhambra, ‘In Defence of the Public University: The USS Strike in Context’,
Discover Society, 23 February 2018, https://discoversociety.org/2018/02/23/in-defence-of-the-public-university-the-uss-strike-in-context/
7 ‘USS Industrial Action Ballot: Final Report’, 19 January 2018, https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/9091/USS-ballot-results—ranked-summary-table/pdf/uss_ballotresults_summaryranked_jan18.pdf
8 Academic Irregularities, ‘Frozen, but Solid: #USSstrikes 2018’, 1 March 2018, https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/frozen-but-solid-ussstrikes-2018/
9 See the Campaign for the Public University, https://publicuniversity.org.uk/
10 ‘Andrew Adonis: A One-man Tuition Fee Twitter Storm’, The Guardian, 8 August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/aug/08/andrew-adonis-twitter-tuition-fees-university-vice-chancellors
11 ‘Labour’s John McDonnell tells striking lecturers in Scotland: Campaigns against cuts will bring UK Government down’, CommonSpace, 23 February 2018, https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/12391/labours-john-mcdonnell-tells-striking-lecturers-scotland-campaigns-against-cuts-will