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University strikers deserve our full support

A pension should be a wage in retirement, not a chancy investment that could leave retired lecturers in poverty

LECTURERS beginning an escalating programme of strike action over pensions deserve unreserved support from the public and overwhelmingly this is what they’re receiving.

It is no coincidence that those most affected by the strike, the students at the 60-odd universities involved, are behind their teachers.

Indeed, while an impressive 61 per cent of students overall say they support the strike, the figure is actually even higher (66 per cent) at the institutions affected.

Clapped-out Blairite Lord Adonis might tweet his disapproval, sniffing that strike action by academics “damages their professional standing,” but that’s clearly not the way students see it.

This is not because students would rather skip their lectures anyway and have a lie-in.

If that were the case we would not see them braving the cold to back striking staff on picket lines and their demand that universities refund them for missed classes — quite justifiable given the staggering debt young people in this country are forced to take on to get a degree — would not be attracting tens of thousands of signatures.

It is because of a growing understanding that solidarity across trades, professions and generations is essential if we are to stop the race to the bottom on pay, pensions and quality of life that has disfigured our country for far too long.

It will not have escaped students’ attention that Universities UK, which is behind the raid on pensions, has consistently lobbied the government to raise tuition fee thresholds so universities can charge them more for their education.

University lecturers are on strike over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) — the largest funded defined-benefit pension scheme in Britain.

Universities UK claims the defined-benefit scheme is unsustainable, though doubt has been cast on its calculations. Sheffield mathematician Sam Marsh argues that USS problems are at root “political, not financial.

“Decisions were actively being made that would force the appearance of deficits. Assumptions that had big effects on the valuation were presented without justification, and seemingly contrary to the evidence,” he writes in Times Higher Education.

What is less contested is how much the proposed changes will cost scheme members who have already swallowed a succession of bitter pension pills since 2011, with staff forced to pay more into pensions at the same time as losing access to final-salary schemes and having to work longer before being entitled to claim their pension.

The University and College Union (UCU) points out that a typical lecturer could see their pension slashed by £10,000 a year if Universities UK gets its way.

Younger academics are set to lose almost half their retirement income if the defined-benefit scheme is replaced by a defined-contribution replacement.

These changes are being pushed through by university vice-chancellors on preposterous salaries who, like the grossly overpaid chief executives of the private business sector, claim credit for the hard work of thousands of employees who deliver the education and research that makes and breaks institutional reputations.

The higher education sector suffers from many of the problems that characterise the British economy — insecure work on fixed-term and zero-hours contracts, low pay and the cynical exploitation of staff aspirations to go above and beyond for their students.

Bosses now want to add an insecure old age to this toxic cocktail. If pension payments are dependent on the whims of the market, then they cease to be a “wage in retirement” that people can rely on to allow them to plan and manage their money and their lives.

There is no need for Universities UK to be so intransigent — indeed, while the Tories could hardly be expected to show solidarity with academics by backing their strike as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has, even the government wants bosses back at the negotiating table with the union.

They should heed that advice and enter serious talks with the UCU on resolving this dispute in a way that doesn’t involve picking the pockets of their staff.

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