I’m striking with university colleagues as our pensions are being destroyed | Vicky Blake | Opinion

I will be striking alongside thousands of colleagues at universities across the UK today. Unless Universities UK, which represents university employers, comes back to the negotiating table, we will be on strike for 14 days over a four-week period.

It is the longest and most serious strike the sector has seen. Among the thousands of university workers who will walk out are academics and postgraduates who teach, alongside other staff including the often-forgotten librarians, IT personnel, administration and faculty staff and widening participation officers who make the daily running of our campuses possible.

We do not want to strike and withdraw our labour from providing the high-quality education we are committed to delivering to students. Yet the scale and seriousness of the proposed reduction in our pensions is impossible to accept.

Our employers are planning to make our pensions entirely stock-market based, a move they accept will slash our income in retirement. Our union, the University and College Union, estimates this will result in cuts of 40%, or £200,000, over the course of retirement for the average member. The justification is what many see as a fictionalised deficit based on a valuation widely criticised by financial experts.

We will be taking action to defend our ever-declining working conditions. Those at the bottom – postgraduate teaching assistants and those who have not yet entered the pension scheme – face the worst outcome: zero security in old age.

While many seek to frame academics as overprivileged, overly comfortable idlers locked away from the real world in their ivory tower, the reality is different. Precarious working conditions, long working hours and poor mental health have become the norm. In addition, 54% of all academic staff are on insecure contracts, there is a serious gender and ethnic earnings penalty, and lecturers working on casual contracts often have to survive on benefit support and freelancing.

Steve Hanson, a part-time lecturer in political sociology, describes being a casualised lecturer as like “seasonal labourers, like fruit pickers. You have to email every September, cap in hand, saying: ‘Is there any work for me this year?’” Meanwhile, many vice-chancellors are paid six times the average salaries of their staff and sit on the remuneration committees that determine their own pay.

The crisis in our universities is not limited to pay and conditions for staff. Theresa May this week launched a review into why competition has failed in the sector. It’s no mystery to us: we knew universities would charge the maximum fees to students.

While vice-chancellors and university management want to pit us against those we teach, we are firmly on the side of our students. I entered higher education because of my vocation to educate and a belief in the public good of education. As a union, we have always opposed tuition fees. The UCU has consistently argued that it should not be students, but the large employers who benefit from the plentiful supply of graduates, who should pay for higher education through a new business education tax. We stand against the growing indebtedness of students. Education is a right not a privilege. So too is a dignified retirement for those who provide it.

Some universities are calling for a return to negotiations. Putting pressure on more of them to do the same, whether you are a member of the public, a student or someone who works on campus, is one thing you can do to support the higher education workers on strike.

Vicky Blake is a widening participation officer at the University of Leeds and president of its UCU branch

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