Universities ending the strikes is not a climbdown – the fight goes on | Des Freedman | Opinion

Members of the University and College Union have voted 64% to 36% to suspend industrial action in their campaign to defend guaranteed pensions. They have accepted the proposals of the employers’ organisation, Universities UK, to set up a “joint expert panel” to consider the valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) fund.

They have not done so with any great faith in Universities UK’s commitment to sustaining existing levels of provision, nor with any conviction that the employers’ underlying determination to reduce their pension liabilities has suddenly disappeared.

This was a decision driven more by short-term calculations about what further strike action in the summer term might deliver than about accepting Universities UK’s claim that it now recognises “the clear wish of staff to have a guaranteed pension comparable with current provision”.

Let’s be clear: the employers have not shifted their position because they have been enlightened or become newly benevolent. Fourteen days of strike action, the ongoing work to rule and the threat of significant disruption to the exam period forced them to change their tune and belatedly to recognise that the campaign to defend a defined benefits pension scheme might have some justification.

The dispute has changed the union: thousands have joined up, moribund branches have revived, and a process of radical political education has taken place. While ordinary members have become experts in superannuation schemes and actuarial arguments, we have all learned that the debate is about far more than pensions. Instead it concerns the broad direction of travel of the university sector under neoliberalism. Pension obligations, far from being a technical and opaque issue, are in fact one of the main constraints on the ability of entrepreneurial-minded institutions to operate as autonomous companies in a higher education (and shiny new buildings) market.

Many branches have already started to ask some fundamental questions about governance and democracy – not just about the secrecy and lack of transparency of the USS valuation process, but about decision-making in their own institutions. FOI requests about how resources are allocated and campaigns for democratic representation on decision-making committees and structures are likely to become bread-and-butter elements of branch agendas.

The dispute has further illustrated the precarious position of hourly paid staff who can barely afford pension contributions. At the same time, it has highlighted the bloated nature of a higher education system that gobbles up tuition fees in order to generate surpluses which it then spends on infrastructure and inflated salaries for vice-chancellors, while pleading poverty when it comes to adequately compensating staff.

Acceptance of the offer does not signal the end of the pensions campaign. The composition and work of the proposed panel needs to be scrutinised. The issue of fair pensions must not be kicked into the long grass. The suspension of the action, however, will make it harder to maintain the energy and militancy that emerged so dramatically during the strikes. As the academic Jack Saunders has noted, a “pause” in a dispute is always dangerous: “With momentum gone, attention dissipates and people move on to new problems … Examples of workers successfully prosecuting disputes with a substantial pause in the middle are rare to non-existent.”

Oversight of the expert panel is linked to the accountability of union negotiators to its members. And accountability has been in short supply in recent weeks. First, the University and College Union’s general secretary, Sally Hunt, proposed an Acas-aided deal with Universities UK – rejected vociferously by members – which was so unpopular that #NoCapitulation started to trend on Twitter. The union’s higher education committee then voted to put Universities UK’s fresh offer to members, even though this offer had not been negotiated with the union and dozens of branches had requested revisions and clarifications.

Finally, the handling of the ballot itself raises questions about the conduct of the leadership, not least because the ballot was accompanied by a lengthy text from the general secretary urging a “yes” vote without any countervailing arguments.

Yet democracy was everywhere on the ground during the strikes: in action committees, grassroots initiatives such as teach-outs and staff-student forums, lively branch meetings and indeed the grassroots rebellion against the deal reached at Acas. University staff will now have to rebuild these democratic spaces and galvanise themselves if they are to maintain pressure on both employers and their own negotiators to deliver a pension settlement that is meaningfully comparable to existing provision.

Meanwhile, there is unfinished business. Ordinary union members and student supporters, radicalised by the dispute, are now set to play a key role in campaigns against university marketisation. They are best placed both to protect the memory of the dispute and to learn its lessons. They will need not only to scrutinise the work of the forthcoming joint experts panel in future revaluations of the pension scheme, but, more broadly, to coordinate the resistance against the corruption of public higher education by a market that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Des Freedman is professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is the author of The Politics of Media Policy

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