Snow gone, strike on

Snow-Park.2

“Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?” Villon wrote, which Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously translated as ‘But where are the snows of yesteryear?’ We, of course, are wondering where the snows of last Thursday and Friday have gone, as water streams along the gutters, so plentifully, in fact, that there must be a burst main somewhere..

The university was officially shut on Friday, due to the weather. The weekend passed with reading, phone calls and emails; and with the Librarian making bread while I counted the birds coming for food in the garden, a little anxious about how many of the regulars had survived what was reported to be the coldest March day since such records began at the start of the twentieth century. But there have been no obvious casualties: both the male and female blackbirds, the sparrows, the blue tits, the robin and the not-quite-definitely-identified bird (very sparrow-like but with a black cap) have shown up, however briefly And snow outside the back door, deeper than the average cat, whittled down their risk.

Now the world tilts back to whatever passes for normal lately. At the moment, this means the Librarian setting off, with placard and badge, for the picket line. Like most of her colleagues, she would rather be putting her skills and experience to work and, again like most of her colleagues, resents being forced into this position by recalcitrant employers with, pretty evidently, other priorities than their staff or the education of their students.

Those students were sufficiently unimpressed by their vice-chancellor to have occupied his office this morning; and the marches are still demonstrating a high level of support for the strike by university staff:

https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/live-bristol-students-occupy-university-1297803

And some lecturers are also less than enthusiastic about recent developments:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/04/letters-universities-deans-lake-district-churchill-ed-sheeran-impress

Everyone (except, perhaps, the hawks and hardliners) must hope that the scheduled talks move things towards a resolution. But, as the poet said, ‘Today the struggle.’ So for now the strike goes on.

 

 

 

 

Wrenching pension tensions

Fuseli-incubus-nightmare
(‘My God, that’s no way to run a university. What are these creatures?’
Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare, c. 1790-1791 version. )

It’s getting on for ten years now since the Times Higher Education’s ‘The Poppletonian’, Laurie Taylor’s weekly bulletin from that hotbed of learning and stringent academic standards, featured as the ‘Thought for the Week’, the famous contribution by Jennifer Doubleday, Head of Personal Development: ‘What if the hokey-cokey is really what it’s all about?’

I wondered then – and I wonder now. On the home front, even taking precedence over the Punch and Judy Brexit show at the moment is the ongoing strike in defence of university pensions. Have there been surprises? Not really. The major news outlets, for the most part, refer to ‘the lecturers’ strike’: perhaps they genuinely don’t realise that it’s other professionals—librarians, clerical and technical staff—too. Lazy journalism, anyway, as is the consistent presentation of the £6.1 billion pension fund ‘deficit’ as an established fact rather than a projection based on disputed figures. There may have been surprise at the degree of contempt with which university employers evidently view their staff, who are, after all, the people who keep running the campuses from which those employers derive their astronomical salaries. But perhaps nobody’s surprised at all, given the violent changes inflicted on the higher education system in recent years and some of the people that have been put in charge of what used to be endearingly called ‘centres of learning’. I suppose the term is ‘profit centres’ now.

Things are beginning to liven up, anyway. After the Minister for Universities called on Universities UK and the University and College Union, to ‘get back to the negotiating table, without pre-conditions’, UUK agreed to resume talks – but they would not ‘re-open the Joint Negotiating Committee decision made on 23 January’. It was precisely because of that decision, of course, that university staff went on strike in the first place.

See https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9358/University-and-College-Union-response-to-UUK-call-for-talks

Then, too, articles and documentaries are appearing now which suggest a strong family resemblance between the revelations about expenses claimed by vice-chancellors (and their senior colleagues) and the MP expenses scandal of glorious memory. And more people seem to be querying the very odd arrangements whereby some vice-chancellors are pulling in up to £90,000—on top of those teeteringly high salaries—for sitting on that very committee which proposes slashing the pensions of university staff.

So much of this stuff is what we call in this country ‘how things are done’ or, if we’re feeling bold, ‘conflict of interest’—if it occurs in other countries, we seem to know precisely what to call it.

 

 

 

Something to be resisted

Hands-off-pensions-G-Jane-Atkins
(Photograph: Jane Atkins, via The Guardian)

At the kitchen table, the Librarian is looking at the newspaper. ‘What a bloody mess.’ Perhaps the word wasn’t ‘bloody’. A comment on the times: I have not the faintest idea what she is referring to – there are just too many candidates, even sticking to the United Kingdom: the Brexit fiasco (or the fiasco of the level of comment upon it); the Labour policy on Brexit fiasco; the transport fiasco; the benefits or homelessness or education fiascos; the prisons fiasco; the higher education fiasco; the housing fiasco; the local council cuts fiasco; the tax evasion fiasco; the fracking fiasco; the foreign policy fiasco; the Tory leadership fiasco. I surrender.

In fact, she’s referring to the higher education fiasco: a fiddle here, a twiddle there. Either you acknowledge the benefits—to everyone—of a population as well-educated as possible or you don’t. So either you fund higher education properly or you don’t. And, of course, even in the higher education sector, there’s more than one bloody mess. This one—the forthcoming universities strike—is coming up fast.

The Guardian reports that ‘Universities UK (UUK), which represents university employers, has proposed that in order to overcome a £6.1bn deficit in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the fund should switch from a defined-benefit scheme that gives a guaranteed retirement income to a riskier defined-contribution plan, where pension income is subject to stock market movements.

A UUK spokesperson said the proposed pension changes were a necessary step, made in the best interests of university staff, to put the USS on a sustainable footing for the long term.’

‘Necessary’, ‘best interests’, ‘sustainable’. Nice, but not actually true. Try this:

‘University employers have provoked the largest vote for industrial action ever seen in the higher education sector. They have done this by overseeing what they present as a financial crisis for the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), and by threatening enormous cuts to the pensions of hundreds of thousands of university staff. None of this is necessary. It is the result of the misrepresentation of USS finances, and the desire of a new breed of university managements to cut their pension liabilities and thereby ease the financing of new buildings and campuses.’

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/30/university-staff-are-right-to-be-striking

Yes, this kind of behaviour, this kind of pretext, is becoming all too familiar—and is something that needs to be resisted. As it will be.