University’s response to strikes leaves staff frustrated

The Joint Negotiating Committee of the principal pension scheme for universities in the UK – the USS – voted to cut university staff pensions by at least 35 per cent on February 22nd. 

This comes amid ten days of industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU). Amongst issues of equal pay and fairer conditions, members of UCU have been striking against the decision to cut pensions.

With the cuts coming into effect in April 2022, a typical lecturer will lose at least 35 per cent of their guaranteed retirement income, with some losing as much as 41 per cent. 

This has led to a new sense of outrage amongst striking staff, with calls on Twitter to “escalate” and statements like “Why should I go above and beyond at work ever again?”. 

The decision on the pension cut has prompted the UCU to threaten further industrial action, including a boycott of marking and assessment.

Striking staff at the University of Edinburgh were angered by an email from principal Peter Mathieson, sent earlier in February, expressing the view that the strike is “profoundly regrettable” now that the sector is returning to a “more normal footing following the pandemic. […] our students are once again caught in the crossfire of a dispute that is not of their making.” 

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The email, coming before the cut to pensions was formally announced, claimed that “[the university’s] strong desire and commitment is to ensure that all of our current and future staff can look forward to pension schemes that are sustainable and deliverable.”

Responding to emails sent by supporting the staff strikes, Professor Mathieson wrote: 

“While no individual University or College can determine the outcome, we are actively contributing to the national debate in the hope that further industrial action can still be avoided.” 

Some students have argued that this phrasing gives the impression the university is more concerned with damage caused by the strikes than ensuring staff welfare. 

Mathieson further fuelled this sentiment in his email to staff by commenting “it hurts when we are seen as uncaring or unsupportive.”

Mathieson’s comment has received particular backlash – UCU Edinburgh responded to this on Twitter, saying: “What really hurts, here, is that staff are uncared for and unsupported. We’re striking to protect our colleagues and our students from brutal cuts and precarity.”

At a joint rally outside Scottish Parliament by both UCU and NUS (National Union of Students) on 22 February, protesting staff expressed frustration at the university’s response, believing it to be hypocritical and demoralising.

Aran Ward Sell, a striking staff member, told The Student: “Senior Management did no favours by acting as though they were the real victims in the scenario. We felt that the very concrete issues we are protesting on were being reduced to a matter of who felt sad about it. And when the Principal feels sad that his staff strike, he has the power to do something about it.” 

“A public message from Peter Mathieson saying that he supports UCU in their demands, and he will try to move University pay in that direction would do astonishing good for not only his staff but also for students and higher education in the UK.” 

Industrial action is expected to continue until Wednesday 2 March.

Image courtesy of UCU Edinburgh Facebook page