The question of whether or not the current UCU strike is justified is an easily settled one, if one took a broad view. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 300,000 more pensioners were in poverty in 2017 than was the case in 2012-13. The entire aim of pension arrangements is to forestall eventualities such as this. As a society, we’re failing pensioners. In this context, the UUK’s (Universities UK) support for the decision to peg university staff pensions to the performance of USS’s (Universities Superannuation Scheme) investments is callous, at the very least. Analysis by consultancy firm First Actuarial, suggests that, due to these changes, a lecturer starting their career today will be £200,000 worse off in retirement.
There is no doubt in my mind that students should act in solidarity with lecturers. The arguments for not doing so depend, for their correctness, on us accepting the market-imposed logic of mutual disinterestedness between university stakeholders, whereby students simply demand the product (education) they pay for, and everyone else can go whistle.
But it is in all our interests to push back against every new form of marketization in our education system. Education is a public good which, like healthcare and housing, should be placed beyond the reach of the market. Markets are fickle, and fail; markets produce outcomes that are incongruent with our social values; markets place the fate of most at the mercy of a few. Education is too important to be placed there. This move, to place the burdens for market outcomes on staff, who, by and large, have no control over how their pensions are invested, is marketization in every way – including in name.
Anyone who believes that the marketization of the education system will stop with the pensions of lecturers is dangerously naïve. And, our failure to halt this step makes it all the more likely that future attempts to extend the “invisible” hand of the market to other areas of the education system will fail to be stopped. That is why much depends on everyone coming together to help the lecturers stop this. We must rise to the occasion. We rise, or fall together.