News writer Robyn Bower-Morris spoke with senior social policy lecturer Ingela Naumann about the upcoming Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) strikes, changes to pension schemes and the affects of industrial action on the student population.
This interview was conducted before the nationwide strikes, starting today, had begun. The striking University of Edinburgh staff will begin industrial action on Monday 26th February.
Can you please provide details about your position at the University of Edinburgh?
Of course. I am a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, and have worked for the University for about twelve years now. I specialise in European Social Policy, with a particular focus on the reconciliation of work and family life, and gender equality.
Why have you decided to participate in the strike?
Well it is important to say that the strike has not yet begun. The most positive thing that could happen would be if the universities and the trade union could sit down together and come to a joint agreement before the strike begins. And I very much hope that this is what happens. However, if no negotiations come about, then the trade union will have no choice but to mobilise its members—this is the worst-case scenario.
We all know that the strike is about proposed changes to the universities’ pensions scheme – so what exactly is it about the planned changes that you, and the trade union, object to?
The proposed changes are extreme. The changes are not just fiddling at the edges of my pension, they are overhauling it completely. Not only is the level being reduced—and reduced drastically for some university employees—but, the way in which the pension functions is being fundamentally altered.
In what way?
The proposed change is to move our pension scheme from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution scheme. A defined-benefit states from the outset what you are going to get when you retire. When I first took a job at the University, I was promised a defined-benefit pension that would be based on my final salary. I think the promise of this generous pension was part of the attraction for many young, internationally esteemed academics to come and work at Edinburgh University—even if the starting salary could be quite low. One of the rationalisations that I heard a lot when I took the job was that we needn’t worry because we were going to get a final salary defined-benefit pension. If you start low, it doesn’t matter because your final salary is what will decide your pension.
But in 2016, the defined-benefit became dependent on career average earnings instead. This meant that now it did matter what salary you came in on. Even then this worried me. But there was an argument to be made: we do live longer, so the pension pot has to last longer. On the other hand, an average earnings defined-benefit system can have considerable gender implications. Due to care obligations, women are more likely to work part-time and have a slower career progression, and may, therefore, have lower average earnings which will result in lower pensions.
Now the university employers want to get rid of the defined-benefit scheme altogether, and replace it with a defined-contribution scheme. Now the intention is to put the whole pension pot in the stock market where it will grow or shrink, and whatever is left we can have. This means that all of the risk lies with the employee; in a defined-benefit scheme the liability lies with the employer. We have just had one of the biggest ever financial crises, and this should have dampened our confidence in the stock market. Instead, we are expected to trust our pensions with it. The pension is far less secure.
Am I glad? No. I do not think in a work relationship there should be such a shift in responsibility onto the employee. I think there could be far more creative thinking around risk-sharing and the sustainability of our pension scheme; and with less severe implications for employees. We could learn a lot from other European countries and how it is done there.
So, for you this change represents something bigger than pensions, a change in employment relationships?
Exactly. The proposed changes represent a hollowing out of social protection for workers. It seems quite extraordinary that some terms of your employment contract can change so drastically. What concerns me is the attitude of our universities as employers; they seem to think they can do this without causing an outcry. It seems almost blasé. It demonstrates a lack of consideration and care for their staff.
But do you not accept that if the University has run out of money, then it has to make cuts somewhere?
If all the universities in the UK together have run out of money, then of course they need to make cuts somewhere. Of course. But are the universities in the UK collectively that poor? I doubt it. Edinburgh University has just decided to pay its new Principal over £400,000 a year. Edinburgh has just bought part of the Quarter Mile. It is certainly not poor.
But this is not only a question of how much money universities have as a sum total. It is about the manner in which universities have started treating their staff in different ways. Some teaching staff and academic-related admin staff – without whom the university would not be able to function – are on really low pay, sometimes zero-hours contracts, that kind of thing. And they’re the ones most affected by the pension changes. Will they even be able to put enough (of their earnings) into defined contribution to get an adequate pension in the end? It’s really problematic. As a Social Policy scholar, I am very concerned about the level of inequality that is becoming apparent. A university is not a bank. We are funded, in-part, by the Government and taxpayers’ money, and I think a wider discussion around social protection and social inequalities would be in place.
What about students’ money? The University of Edinburgh charges high fees, and will this strike not disrupt students’ studies?
The strike will disrupt students’ semester quite considerably if it lasts for the full four weeks. To be honest, so that the impact on students could have been reduced, I would have preferred it if the strike had been planned to only last two weeks, rather than four. But there you go.
But you are still planning to strike for the full four weeks if necessary?
Yes. I am a trade union member. I feel that when you are a member, and there has been a democratic decision that the union will strike, you have to take part. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to have a trade union. The strength of a trade union lies in its numbers. I think collective action should be used very sparingly, but in this case, I believe it is justified. Although I do wonder if a four-week strike was a bit overly-ambitious; I personally would have thought that two weeks of strong strike action would have been more effective. There is a risk that people will start to lose morale over the course of four weeks, and that the strike might fizzle out. But it’s not for me to decide as a single member.
But, regardless of my concerns about specifics of this collective action, I truly believe it is important to have trade unions in all professions. In my field of expertise of European Social Policy, it is generally acknowledged that welfare states and social rights would look very different, or might not even exist, were it not for workers’ mobilisation and trade unions. Countries with strong trade unions tend to have more generous social protection than countries with weaker trade unions. This is what we teach our Social Policy students in our core courses. But it is of course also important to put this into practice. Some academics, particularly in the UK, might think that, because we are generally middle-class, we do not need or deserve a union…but, in a mature welfare state, we need trade unions across the spectrum of employment to maintain work-related social protection—most of us aren’t blue-collar workers anymore, but we still need protection. Being myself from a Swedish-German background, it feels very natural that, if I am employed, I am a part of the respective trade union.
Can we return to the impact on students?
Yes, the strike could be painful for students. It feels incredibly difficult to me, to not deliver my teaching. I don’t think any lecturer wants to not teach. We are passionate about teaching. I think most staff are very committed to making the impact as small as possible. Staff will try to work around the strike days as much as possible. If I were a fee-paying student, I would be very annoyed. I would ask for my money back. To lose three or four classes in the semester is considerable.
But I hope students will support the strike, and that we can work together. This could be a wonderful way of breaking down the hierarchies in the University. It could create an open exchange between the staff and students. Don’t forget that these matters will be relevant for students when they have jobs. I hope that, as teachers, we can develop an understanding amongst students about their own employment rights.
For more details about the USS pension scheme, see the following article from our Comment section:
Image: Boon Low @Flickr