Four weeks of strikes staged by university staff across the country have now come and gone.
Over 60 universities saw picket lines form over suggested changes to the pension scheme, proposed by Universities UK (UUK).
The participants, many of whom are lecturers and teaching staff of the University and College Union (UCU), say that the new plan would leave them £10,000 worse off in retirement with younger staff being among the worst affected.
A ballot posed early on by the UCU showed that an overwhelming 88% of surveyed members supported strike action. This apparently resounding approval was indeed met with widespread protests at campuses around the UK and a strong presence of #ucustrike trending on social media.
Manchester is no exception. Staff at both the University of Manchester and University of Salford both staged walkouts.
Speaking to MM at one of the rallies, Dr Richie Nimmo, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester, described the pension changes: “In terms of its impact on planning for the future, we’re moving towards a situation where people are just not going to be able to afford to retire. It won’t be possible to pay off mortgages.
“The severity of what’s being proposed makes it untenable.”
Dr Seth Schindler, a Senior Lecturer in the Urban Development and Transformation department, commented: “It’s damaging people’s health.
“I hope the universities just come to their senses.”
A number of those striking in Manchester have already seen small victories, hopefully paving the way for the change. Dr Hannah Quirk, a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law and Justice also at the University of Manchester, praised the events:
“The action has gone better than anybody thought it would do in terms of the number of people coming out.
“It’s been very useful in terms of meeting like-minded people.”
However, this united front is still often overshadowed by other developments, in what may be one of the most tumultuous periods in higher education history.
The debate has consistently been marred by allegations from both sides regarding the accuracy of the figures used. The most stark contrast in numbers is at the very core of the dispute.
Universities UK have stated that the pension fund is £6.1bn in deficit. The managers of the pension scheme maintain that the cuts are essential, due to the extreme gulf between how much it has and how much it will owe to members in the future.
Conversely, the UCU claims that these findings are incorrect, suggesting that the fund could be around £8.3bn in surplus.
As the list of those affected by the disagreements grows by the day and with no deal on the horizon, the issues being raised at institutions all over the nation delve far deeper than just fickle figures. Rather, the operation and very culture of higher education itself is being confronted by all sides.
Dr Quirk told MM: “it’s changed how I feel about a lot of things,” namely how universities are run and the role of academics within them.
“We’ve crept into a situation where it’s run very much as a business and we’re sort of there to fill in forms and deliver services to customers, which is not what higher education has ever been about and I don’t think really should be about.”
Of course, the strikes cannot be discussed without considering the student response. Again, social media highlighted a number of cases where students have come out in force to support their lecturers.
The University of Manchester’s Students’ Union released a statement in backing the strike and expressing concerns: “The student experience will be negatively affected by the new pension proposals in two ways: by how the new proposals will negatively impact PGR students – both those who are on the current pension scheme and those who aspire to go into academia in the future – and by dissuading new, excellent teachers from coming to Manchester.
“Recruiting quality employees at the University is crucial for the student experience, but universities with unfavourable pension schemes and unhappy, side-lined staff will not attract the best candidates, or their current staff will leave, and students will suffer as a result.”
Still, crucial questions remain among students about the rapidly diminishing state of their education whilst many are still paying the controversial £9000 per year figure for their course, regardless of their opinion on the strike.
This has manifested itself most notably in the 80,000 students who signed nationwide petitions pledging support for their lecturers, but requesting compensation for the hours missed.
A precedent has now been set by a leading institution, King’s College London, where the money saved from lecturers’ salaries will be channelled into a compensation fund.
Whilst this move has given students a glimmer of recompense it remains to be seen whether the decision will be mirrored by other universities.
The University of Manchester, in particular, has firmly stated that it will not be reimbursing students.
But with over 60,000 students estimated to have felt disruptions between the two universities striking in Manchester alone, dissertation season already upon them, exams approaching, and still no sign of support returning, the tension is rising for those who feel they have been abandoned at a critical time in their studies.
Lecturers have expressed disappointment that students have been caught in the crossfire, yet this has not swayed some to make up for lost time.
Instead, the discussion over tuition refunds seems to have provided them with further evidence that the focus of universities has shifted away from their primary role, becoming more commercialised since the introduction of fees.
Dr Quirk highlighted that unless paid for the 14 days of strikes, she would not consider teaching the missed content despite acknowledging that it would be stressful, particularly for those in their final year.
She said: “I thought at first [refunding students] was a really good idea because it would focus the University’s attention because obviously they don’t want to upset the students and it would be a financial loss to them.”
She now questions if compensation is just “reinforcing this idea that education was a commercial transaction” and that “it wouldn’t be of much benefit to students as very few of them would ever repay their loans anyway.”
However, a strike compensation calculator website created by two frustrated third year students now boasts over 16,000 visits, making it abundantly clear that many students are not agreeing so readily with their teachers.
The sparring parties seem to have only become more entrenched, even hostile, in their positions as statements and proposals continue to be exchanged. And with the further walkouts still very much on the cards, there is no sign that the war is waning.