The current wave of industrial action, in which academics across the UK’s higher education sector are striking in order to defend their pensions, has, to use the words of our Vice Chancellor, acted as ‘a lightning rod’, exposing a range of concerns around the ‘marketization of higher education’. It has shown that academic citizenship and engagement is alive and well. Colleagues care intensely about the direction of travel in universities and are resistant to commodification, in its many guises.
The UCU, in particular the Bristol branch, has done fantastic work. Many students have made common cause with academics and members of support staff, creating new spaces for collegiality and solidarity. This feels like an important moment. Senior management must respond to the concerns which are being aired, and support the creation of appropriate democratic forums which allow universities better to reflect the views (and there is no doubt that those views will be some or all of the following: inchoate, based on partial understandings and information, mutual incompatible, and impractical) of those who work and study within them.
The dispute has also seen an outpouring of creativity. All the evidence suggests that the university staff is overworked. When we have time on their hands the results are both unexpected and impressive. Within the Law School alone, we have made banners, composed limericks, made cakes, brownies and industrial quantities of sausages, arranged teach-outs, and participation in the student-staff solidarity group. We have marched, picketed, chanted, and made lots of noise with repurposed kitchen equipment. We have explored the legal status of UUK, and sought to inform ourselves and others about the powers and responsibilities of the USS trustees and the pensions regulator. Emails threads have become long and unwieldy. We have lobbied the VC, UUK, students and alumni, engaged in new ways with the UCU, and sought to reach out to non-striking staff.
On a more personal note, I have, rather glibly, said on more than one occasion that one of the unexpected benefits of the strike is that it has allowed me to spend some time thinking about things other than Brexit. But, on reflection, and to judge by the length of this, it is more true to say that the USS strikes have allowed me to see the Brexit process through a new lens. There are, it turns out, all too many connections between the two battles (the one, to defend fair pensions; the other, to shape and prevent and/or attenuate the adverse economic and socio-political effects of Brexit). Some are significant, others no doubt less so. As I’m not working today, I thought I’d compile a few of them. I’m hoping to generate some pause for thought and, perhaps, to entertain. The register is, but only in places, somewhere close to academic. But it is a strike day, and I don’t feel the need to maintain that register throughout. Obviously these are personal reflections. I would be very interested to hear what, if anything, others think of all this.
The rightness of the cause
In both battles, I, and many others, have become convinced of the rightness of our cause. We can see the flaws in the November valuation and the assumptions on which it was based, we can see the need for employers and employees to share the risks inherent in pensions provision, we can see the fact that actions of senior management and the government are jeopardising the standing of higher education in a time of crisis, and we can see the need to democratise our universities. Similarly, we can see the economic consequences of Brexit, we can see the incompetence and abdication of responsibility on the part of the government, we can see the intolerable strain facing EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU-27, and we can see the need to strengthen, not to sever, our connections with our neighbours. We are finding it difficult to understand how there could be some (within our own institutions, and among our fellow citizens) who take the different view. We know that they are there, and that they exist in large numbers, and in powerful positions. One response is to pretend that they are not really there. Another is to mock and sneer. The result is that positions become entrenched and that much needed dialogue does not occur. We must learn to do things differently. The key is to explain the reasons underlying our convictions. The aim should be to persuade others of the rightness of our cause. To show, in detail if needed, what the consequences of particular changes might be. To make a case for the sort of university, and the sort of country, we believe in. As academics, we should be good at this sort of thing. Shouldn’t we?
Both battles rely on complex economic calculations. Much of the data required to analyse the effects of changes to pension schemes, and the economic effects of a major change in the relationship between the UK and its closest partners, lies in the hands of those whose decisions and policies we are fighting against. Some is withheld; so the data which does emerge is partial. Nevertheless, in both battles, we have fought, using legal and other means, to uncover information (for example, institutional responses to the UUK consultation survey, and the Brexit impact assessments). We have shared the information we have unearthed widely. That work is crucial, and it has revealed much about the way in which the other thinks and acts. We have also made our own studies of the likely effects of change, which have been shown to be robust. And, to reinforce the sense of rightness mentioned above, we have seen that the evidence all points the same way. It says that the UUK could and should have provided university staff with a significantly better pensions offer, and that Brexit will have significant, negative economic effects.
The need for clear narratives
Clear narratives are effective. The Leave campaign was critical of the status quo, and, throughout the referendum campaign, was not forced to articulate any ‘vision’ of what a post-Brexit Britain might look like, or to indicate how improvements to the status quo might come about. Supporters with mutually incompatible visions of post-Brexit Britain campaigned together. Similarly, the UCU found it easy to create support for a strike. The deal based on the November valuation was the last in a long line of negative changes to our pensions, it would have huge economic effects (especially on younger staff), and was driven by Vice Chancellors and UUK, whose commitment to universities’ ‘human capital’ is, at best, unproven.
Achieving Brexit has, of course, proved to be rather more difficult than many leavers were pretending before the referendum. In the wake of the referendum, and the triggering of Article 50, there have also been tensions among ‘remainers’. There are splits between those seeking to stop Brexit, and those seeking to attenuate its effects. Some Brexits may be better than others; and there are different views on the acceptability of a ‘soft Brexit’. There are, it seems to me, some lessons here for the UCU campaign. We all want to see a fair pensions offer, but what would we be prepared to accept? Is CDC a viable way forward, or do we insist on DB? What about accrual rates and indexation? What changes to UUK and USS governance will we settle for? And how many other ‘marketisation’ issues are now part and parcel of the dispute? I am not meaning to suggest that these questions are as intractable as, for example, those facing Theresa May in relation to Ireland (it is, unicorn technology notwithstanding, impossible to simultaneously leave the customs union and single market, avoid a border in Ireland, and avoid a border across the Irish Sea). But I do think that the juxtaposition between Brexit and the USS dispute is interesting. The UCU is facing a difficult situation; and it can perhaps learn something by doing many of the things our government has failed to do in relation to Brexit. It should acknowledge and reconcile itself to the fact that members’ views will diverge. The nature of the choices and trade-offs ahead should be clearly signposted. And decisions should be made in an inclusive way, ensuring that dissenting voices are heard. Whether either the UCU, or those opposing Brexit, can coalesce around a clear narrative in the days, week and months ahead, may be one of the key questions which ends up deciding the way in which the battles are settled.
There is a lot of nonsense written about negotiations. Rather unsurprisingly, there are similarities and differences between the two sets of negotiations. Here are some.
In both negotiations, there is an ongoing relationship at stake. We will, on Monday, be back at work. The UK, whilst leaving the EU, is determined to have a(n albeit hollow) deep and special relationship with the EU. No deal is, therefore, not an option. What matters are the default rules. In both cases, they are rather complex. Contrary to what many suppose, the UK, in the event of ‘no deal’ in March 2019, will not just emerge, blinking into the light, ‘subject to WTO rules’. Some sort of deal has to be done in order to enable even that to occur. In the case of the strikes, many have assumed that in the event of ‘no deal’, we go back to the November valuation, and that there is insufficient time (before the June deadline) to make changes. But, this point is contested; many VCs (including Hugh Brady) have disowned the November methodology, and in any case (as I understand it) enforcement of the statutory June deadline by the Pensions Regulator, is, ultimately, discretionary. We need to study the default rules closely. They have or should have, a big impact on the negotiating position of each side.
In both negotiations, institutions matter. The relationship between the EU Commission (charged, on the basis of a tightly drawn, regularly revised, mandate, with conducting the detailed negotiations with the UK) and the EU-27 is, I think, a good model to follow. It makes the ‘divide and rule’ approach, so trumpeted by the UK, almost impossible. The UK’s approach, in which the government has sought to minimise the role of Parliament and the devolved administrations, and in which discussion even within Cabinet (one Chequers away-day notwithstanding) is tightly circumscribed, is I think, better avoided. The idea that showing one’s hand is a sign of weakness has been thoroughly debunked (these negotiations are not, in turns out, just like games of poker). Turning to the USS dispute, UUK has lost of the support of many of its VCs. It is unclear that UUK has a mandate to agree to anything. ‘Divide and rule’ is, in this context, easy. One urgent concern is that UCU must find a structure which enables the national leadership to take into proper account the opinions of its members. This may be difficult to achieve within the constraints agreed at ACAS, but it should be an urgent priority. Openness and transparency are important; but it is important for members to recognise that ‘red lines’ will be blurred, or crossed, by our negotiators in pursuit of agreement.
As hinted above, leverage also matters. The UK government used to trumpet ‘they need us more than we need them’ regularly, and some (including within Government) still appear to believe this to be the case. In fact, the preservation and integrity of the single market are rather more important to the EU than the maintenance of tariff free trade with the UK. The UK is more exposed to the EU than the EU is to the UK. The Article 50 process is designed to make life difficult for withdrawing states. The clock is ticking. And the EU knows that the UK cannot, notwithstanding the views of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, countenance the possibility of ‘no deal’. In the pensions dispute context, university staff have considerable leverage over Vice Chancellors. The strike hurts universities. Important work is left undone. Students can (and do) complain vociferously. But, of course, the strike also hurts university staff, and there is something about the employment relationship and the framework of legislation circumscribing the use of strike action, which means that VCs also have considerable leverage over university staff.1
Planning is also important. It is well documented that the EU side is rather better prepared than the UK. It has published position papers, and a full legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK has not provided a coherent response. The agenda has been set by the EU, which is in a position to dictate terms. The position is simple; you stay in, you take a Norway (or Norway-type) deal, or you accept a Canada (or Canada-type) deal. No cherry-picking. Tell us what you prefer, and we will plan accordingly. The UK’s problem is that none of these outcomes is thought to command public support. We still don’t know what the Government’s preferred arrangement is. And the clock is still ticking. I am not sure that we can be reassured by the fact that we have yet to show our hand. In the USS dispute, it is not clear to me how much detailed planning has been done by either side. We know that many universities responded to UUK’s survey in a rather cavalier way. I’m afraid that I don’t know much at all about the background to the September and November valuations, and the ways in which they were arrived at. Looking forward, we do not know much about the existence or location of the ‘red lines’ of any of the key players (these include the UCU, UUK, individual VCs, the USS trustees, and the Pensions Regulator) and so it is difficult to know how they might intersect. We know that VCs are unhappy with both the November valuation, and this week’s deal. We know that UUK and UCU might be willing to concede some ground. Likewise, UUK know that we will return to work. They know that we know that pensions are under strain, and that there are genuine questions relating to affordability in the pensions context.
Both battles are complex. Both are conducted, as indicated above, under time pressure. The Article 50 clock is ticking. The June deadline for the Pensions Regulator is approaching even more quickly. The response, in both cases, has been to accept a period of transition. There are disputes relating to the length of the transition period, and indeed, in relation to its very purpose. Brexit transition was, when first mooted, said to be necessary to enable Member States, people and businesses to make plans and adjust to the new regime. Before long, it was said to be necessary in order to allow time for discussions on the new regime to conclude. ‘Conclude’ is now becoming ‘commence’. There is even doubt as to whether the transition period will be able to last until the new relationship is agreed. If it does not, or even if there are hints that it might not, I fail to see how it can serve any useful purpose, or what reassurance it can offer to anyone. As regards the substance of the transition arrangement, nothing very different to the status quo is on offer. In relation to the USS dispute, the statutory framework sets up a three year cycle. There is growing agreement that the urgent task facing the UCU and UUK is to agree a ‘quick fix’ solution, so that the Pensions Regulator can approve the scheme in June. Complex questions can be parked until next time. There is now set to be a battle in relation to the terms of transition; in particular given the vocal opposition of so many to the ‘status quo’ November valuation. Both sides seem to recognise that positions accepted at this point, even if only for a short transitional period, may be difficult to reverse. The instinct that the transition arrangement will become the default position for the next round of negotiations seems to me to be right.
The scope of the battle
Battles about one thing (staff pensions; and whether and how to leave the EU) can easily morph into battles about other things. The pensions dispute has been a ‘lightning rod’ and has brought a whole range of issues around marketization, equality, casualization and university governance to the fore. Likewise, Brexit has heralded a renewed interest in the ‘left behind’, and the UK’s standing in the world. It strikes me that the pensions dispute cannot be solved unless the solution reaches far beyond pensions. Similarly, the UK government faces not only the mammoth task of settling the withdrawal from, and the establishment of a new relationship with, the EU, but also the [insert larger animal than a mammoth, here] task of healing the social divisions and inequality which the Brexit vote has revealed. And it is interesting (if, I’m afraid, unsurprising) that the biggest losers in both battles are the already disadvantaged. I read a suggestion today that UCU had not considered the equalities dimensions of this week’s deal. Please tell me that isn’t true…
Decisions have to be made, on each side of the argument, about whether to choose to contain the dispute, or to let it grow to encompass other related issues. I am not sure what the best approach is. I am clear that there are links, and that ‘the Brexit vote’ and ‘the pensions strike’ are, for some at least, proxies for other, bigger battles. I guess I just think that we should reflect on whether and when we want a broad or a more narrow focus. Our meetings this week have suggested that there are, unsurprisingly, a range of views.
Playing the man, the ball, or both?
Both battles have become multi-dimensional. Yes, there is a great deal of detail, and painstaking, economic argument. There are valiant attempts to place Brexit, and the USS dispute in broad theoretical landscapes. But there are also personal attacks. We have heard a lot about pornstar martinis, ‘shady Brady’, and the remuneration of VCs and USS staff. We have also heard a lot about the tax affairs of the Eton-educated David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees Mogg, and seen the ‘bad boys of Brexit’ exposed. They are, it has to be said, easy targets. I find it difficult to avoid playing the man; but do wonder whether it risks being counter-productive. It is not, I think, the way to change minds, and it makes future relationships more difficult. On the other hand, it may help with regard to the next point…
Both battles require a wide support base. I concur with the view that political opinion on Brexit would have to shift dramatically in order for some of the available legal routes, which might enable Brexit to be stopped or delayed, to be used. Were opinion polls to be registering a 60/40 split in favour of remain (instead of the current figure, which is (ironically; well, for Alanis) 52/48 in favour of remain), we might see very different political constellations emerging. There are some key figures who might tip the balance. Just as Boris Johnson was significant during the referendum campaign, it may be that it will be Jeremy Corbyn whose moves become decisive in the months ahead. Similarly, there is no doubt that the dynamic of the USS dispute was changed by the fact that the UCU campaign attracted high profile support, both among the majority of students (whose support we should never devalue) and a raft of politicians, newspapers, and other opinion formers. Moreover, we obtained the support of many VCs, undermining the UUK position. But, there is now a risk that some of the UCU’s support may be beginning to wane. The news coverage of the rejection of this week’s deal was mixed, and there are reports that some striking staff have returned to work. Maintaining student support is key; we should endeavour to engage directly with students, both about the causes of the dispute, and about arrangements (which will be difficult to formulate) to ensure that they do not suffer adverse consequences in their assessments. In addition, it is important to maintain the pressure on VCs (and in particular those who look like they have the potential to make the ‘Johnson/Corbyn’ moves), and seek to convince more academic staff to participate in the action.
Any strategy relies on a range of approaches. The case against Brexit involves groups within the major political parties making common cause (for example coordinating their efforts in tabling amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill), and the mobilisation of young and new voters. It involves making arguments which might appeal to those who have voted leave (though the polling rather suggests that their views have been entrenched). It involves an array of campaigns: on doorsteps, in the media, and on social media. In the USS dispute, there are again, a range of tools at our disposal, and a range of constituencies to try to convince. In my view there is space for strike action, for militant activism, for petitions, and for letters and communications to VCs and students setting out both individual and coordinated views about various aspects of the dispute. As an aside, I confess to finding it difficult to understand the way in which ‘converts’ are treated. Leavers disenchanted with the mismanagement of Brexit and signalling a willingness to change tack are treated like heroes. So too are academics who, 10 or more days into the strike, have been persuaded to join the union, and join the picket. Don’t get me wrong; a key task is to try to convert the sceptical, and it is good (and important in relation to the dynamic of the negotiation) to boost numbers. But I am not sure that ‘the converts’ deserve greater praise than those who have been involved in the dispute from the start. To go back to the initial observation, we all know that we are right, and I cannot help but wonder about those who are late/reluctant converts to the cause.
The power of social media
This has to be in here, to justify the hours I spend on twitter. Detailed information, forensic analysis, and inspiring solidarity are all easily accessible. Views are aired which do not find their way into the mainstream media. Connections and alliances are created in double-quick time. There is also a lot of humour (and how the fight against Brexit could do with a dinosaur of solidarity… I’ve had a couple of twitter exchanges with her already, and if I’m ever feeling brave enough, I might ask the question). There are, however, a lot of idiots. Some of them, it appears, have access to the UUK twitter account, and others are on the European Research Group’s WhatsApp group. We are grateful for their insights. Overall, the level of debate is uneven. People can choose to inhabit echo-chambers, and can avoid the views of those with whom they disagree. It is all too easy to get carried away. I guess social media is just one part of the tool-kit at our disposal, and that we have to learn how to use it to its full potential.
I hope that those of you who have persevered have enjoyed the long read. For my part, I feel as though the last couple of years have been something of a rollercoaster ride. The UK’s relationship with the EU, which I have spent my professional life analysing, is in the process of being transformed and dismantled. And, it looks inevitable that the transformation will be done badly, with catastrophic economic and social effects. The pensions crisis shows that the university sector too is on the edge of crisis. Livelihoods are affected, incentives for those looking to enter higher education are reducing, and, to widen the gaze, marketization and commodification are changing the nature of work (and relationships with managers, colleagues, and students) in the sector. It is heartening to see that there is resistance; but, as things stand, I think it is more likely that Brexit will go ahead and damage the UK, and that terms and conditions in the university sector will be further eroded, than that the momentum of change will be halted. One of the problems (think ‘project fear’) is that too many people are sitting back, hoping against hope that things will not turn out as badly as some (including me) are predicting (there must be obvious connections here with campaigns which focus on the effects of climate change etc). The economic effects of Brexit, and of the USS reforms, will only be felt in the medium to long term, and it is easy to be seduced into thinking that, somehow, those effects will be attenuated before that. But, clearly, it is also possible that things will turn out badly.
The stakes are incredibly high. One of the features shared by both disputes is the almost existential importance which rests on their outcome. The battle is for the future of the country, and future of higher education. Many are contemplating leaving the higher education sector, or choosing not to embark on (further) education in the HE sector, because of a sense that those activities are likely to become too costly, and insufficiently rewarding, both financially, and in more holistic ways too. Many are people and businesses are considering whether to live, work and trade in the UK, because of the increased costs and hostility they fear they might encounter. Friends and colleagues are making these choices, and our universities and countries will be much impoverished if they take the entirely understandable option of exercising their ability to ‘exit’.
In order to seek to prevent that, it is important that we grasp opportunities to shape the future as they appear, and, to borrow from somewhere, ‘take back control’ of our country, our universities, and our future (or, to borrow from somewhere else, to reclaim our ‘voice’). It is only if we remain committed and resolute (and ‘agile’, as the University of Bristol sees itself…), and work together to understand and confront unwelcome change, that we can shape the future. There is no doubt that the path ahead will be hard, and that it will make great demands on all of us, but ultimately it is a fight which, for me at least, is impossible to ignore.
University of Bristol Law School