While high school students over the States are boycotting classes for gun control and bus drivers of KMB striking for fairer remuneration, employees at UK universities also refuse to remain silent. Lecturers at multiple Universities are now striking because of a new proposal for their pension scheme. In this Snapshot, we will explain the causes of the strike. We have also interviewed three current students at the University of Cambridge, hoping to analyse this movement from a local, international and Hong Kong perspective, and further reflect upon the role and value of student movements and strikes.
*Answers to the interview only represent the stance of individual interviewees and do not represent the view of the Society
Cover photos credit: Alvin Wong
【What is the USS and how does it work?】
The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is one of the largest private pension schemes in the UK and is the principal scheme for academic and comparable staff in UK universities and other higher education and research institutions.
Under the unchanged USS, all members are subscribed to the USS Retirement Income Builder (USS RIB), an accumulation scheme that gives certainty about future pension benefits. Members contribute 8% of their salary every month, matched at 18% by employers, the value of which is protected against inflation. At retirement, members receive income based on their contributions every month, equal to 1/75 of their salary; alternatively they can take 3 times their total pension savings under the USS RIB as a one-off tax-free lump sum. They may also only take part of the tax-free lump sum payment in exchange for a higher monthly income.
For members earning beyond an income threshold (£55,000/year), the USS Investment Builder is a mandatory alternative that can offer a higher amount of savings, but contains risks of uncertainty (this alternative is optional for those below the threshold). Similar to the USS RIB, members contribute 8% of their salary every month, matched at 12% by employers. A ‘match’ mechanism also exists for the first 1% of voluntary additional payments into the USS Investment Builder to be matched by employers. These savings are invested in options chosen by the member, such that the savings’ value is now based on the investment and thus can fluctuate according to market conditions.
【How is the USS being changed?】
The proposed new scheme consists only of the USS Investment Builder, meaning the defined/guaranteed portion of the pension benefits are now removed. Instead, the scheme will base benefits on how well investments perform, meaning value of pensions can both rise and fall. The ‘match’ mechanism that benefitted voluntary additional payments is also proposed to be removed.
Employer contributions are proposed to remain at 18% of salary, though only 13.25% go directly into pension savings, whilst the rest cover death and incapacity payments,
deficit recovery contributions, and scheme running costs. Moreover, benefits already earned before the changes are made are not affected.
新提出的退休金計劃只包含上述的USS Investment Builder 選項，設有固定退休保障的USS RIB計劃則被移除。因此，所有計劃內的僱員的退休金都
【Why is Universities UK (UUK) proposing a new scheme?】
Universities UK (UUK) is representing the views of more than 350 higher education employers on USS reform proposals. UUK states that difficult economic circumstances and increasing costs of paying out future pensions (by over a third since 2014) are exacerbating their deficit, which has reached £6.1bn. Moreover, they say an additional £1bn each year is required to keep the scheme as it is - which universities and staff cannot afford.
【Why is the University and College Union (UCU) opposing it?】
The University and College Union (UCU) represents over 110,000 employees in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education and training organisations across the UK. UCU opposes the changes proposed as they estimate losses to retirement of 10-40% to employees.
As the value of existing benefits are to be protected, the changes also discriminate new entrants to the education industry, costing them £200,000 on retirement. UCU believes this phenomenon attacks the future of represented universities. Moreover, they argue that loss of new entrants will only create a worsening spiral of deficits for the USS, as no additional income is received to fund existing pensioners.
Discussions between UUK and UCU ended without an agreement, and the proposed changes above by the UUK were passed through by their chair’s casting vote. In response, UCU has opted to place sustained pressure on employers.
On the 19th January, votes for industrial action by the UCU showed that members were largely in favour of strike action, with 88% voting for action consisting of strike and 93% for action short of strike (ASOS). For members employed by the University of Cambridge, that number reached 89.4% and 95.8% respectively.
Strike action began on 22nd February, with a planned 14 days of strikes spread over four weeks. Strikes entail doing no work at all on strike days, and refusal to enter university premises except to join picket lines. ASOS is to be conducted from the first day of strike on non-strike days to the end of the industrial action, which includes ‘working to contract’ (only working minimally as required by contracts), not taking on voluntary work, not rescheduling classes, and not covering for any colleagues.
Q: Why is the strike relevant to students?
The strike is important and relevant to all students simply because the proposed pension changes will have a detrimental impact on staff who work hard to provide us with a good education. The proposed pension changes seek to switch pension income from a guaranteed amount to one which depends on investments. Given that the University’s pension scheme (USS) is in a financial deficit, it is very likely that staff will lose a percentage of their retirement income. Students should stand in solidarity with staff.
Beyond this, though, the proposal to make pension income dependent on investments is deeply concerning and reflective of the wider issue of the marketisation of higher education. It logically follows that the university will have to up their investments in lucrative areas, which are often not the most ethical, if staff are to receive a decent pension.
Q: Is this just a “British issue”?
This is by no means just a British issue. All students are implicated in the strike as it affects almost all departments. As international students often pay far higher tuition than British/EU nationals, a particular concern might be the quality and value of teaching which might diminish if staff are not confident that they will be able to retire on a decent pension.
Jun Pang — 3rd Year HSPS student, member of Cambridge Defend Education
Q: How will you convince an international student who is paying more than £20,000 a year for the education here to join in?
International students need to realise that the strike has implications for all of us. UCU isn’t just fighting for pensions – its members are exercising their right to engage in industrial action in order to defend their right to fair employment. Many students who have expressed broad support for the strike but who are continuing to cross the picket line say that the strike is inconvenient, and that it is obstructing their learning. But that is the point of a strike – to be disruptive, to shut the university down, to show that workers will not accept precarity and a loss of dignity and respect while lying down.
It is important to remember that the extortionate fees we pay to go to this university are not going to the lecturers and educators who make this place what it is – a place of critical thinking and learning. Instead, they are going to management officials, to infrastructural projects that do nothing to improve our educational experience. Looking at the UCU strike from the perspective of an individual consumer is incredibly myopic; you may be losing three supervisions, or two weeks’ worth of lectures, but our teaching staff and all future potential academic staff are losing the possibility of even the most minimal amount of financial security and stability.
Do not forget that lecturers on strike do not get paid for the days that they are striking – for many, that could amount to as much as a 6% loss of their annual salary, in addition to the proposed cuts to their pensions. Do not forget that striking lecturers who offer to reschedule supervisions are doing so out of a dedication to their profession – they are not being paid to engage in this labour. Do not forget that our lecturers would rather be teaching – that is their vocation – and they are striking not only for themselves but for the sake of the public good of education.
I believe in the liberatory power of education as a public good and in the importance of labour rights. In Hong Kong, the education system has been a political battleground (e.g. in the 2012 Scholarism protests) and industrial action has recently gained traction – people are mobilizing for the freedom of knowledge for future generations, and demanding better socioeconomic conditions in the face of growing disparities between rich and poor. It is our duty as those with privileged access to education to fight for a better society that works for the many, not the few – I firmly believe that this is a duty incumbent on us regardless of whether we are at home or abroad.
Q: How do you think the strike shed lights onto student movements in Hong Kong?
The USS strike has demonstrated to me the power of collective mobilisation in pursuit of coherent and meaningful political goals. It has rallied staff and student unity in support of fair employment rights, decolonisation, divestment, anti-neoliberalism and anti-marketisation – in such a crucial political moment, this is a particularly important and stark warning to the powers-that-be that the demands of the people will not go unheard. Participating in the strike has returned to me the same feeling of hope that I felt in Occupy in 2014 and in the summer of 2017 as a reporter covering the imprisonment of the NENT land right activists and Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow. This time around, I am helping to organise breakfast runs to picket lines, speaking with striking staff – I am trying my best to put political beliefs into action.
We cannot do much as individuals – but again, it is a mistake to see the strike in individual, myopic terms. When we come together, we achieve so much more, and we gain and learn so much more from one another.
Q: 你怎樣說服一位每年需要交超過£20,000 學費的海外學生支持這次罷工？
Alvin Wong - exchange student at Cambridge University from the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Q: What are the differences between the strike and student movements in Hong Kong?
“Students and Workers, Unite and Fight!” This chant marks the difference. When I was on
King’s Parade yesterday, I could not distinguish between students and lecturers. We were all standing next to each other, chanting the same slogan, fighting against the management for fair pensions. Teaching staff and students were united to battle against the common enemy.
However, it has quite not been the case in Hong Kong. When students attempt to push forward initiatives, teaching staff often choose not to play a role in the movements. For example, in the recent “Mandarin Incident” in the Hong Kong Baptist University, where students were trying to push the management to review the discriminatory graduation criteria (only Hong Kong students are required to pass the National Mandarin Test to graduate, while mainland students and international students have no such requirement), there was no sign of teaching staff taking part in the whole movement. Student movements in Hong Kong are, in the end, “student” movements.
Q: Some may say that the new pension scheme is part of the marketization of university education in the UK. To what extent do you think Hong Kong’s universities are affected by this trend of marketization?
Universities in Hong Kong may not be commodified in the same way it is happening here, but marketization has no doubt topped the agenda. Universities have been trying to ask for more funding from the government and donors by establishing greater reputation. They employ more international staff, attract more international students, and establish new faculties and subjects which no one has heard of just for the sake of being ranked higher in the QS ranking. What the universities care, is not the education provided to the students, but the QS ranking so that their universities can be marketized with a better gift wrapper.
A friend of mine in one of the universities in Hong Kong told me, “our university is higher in the QS ranking this year, but my lectures have only got worse.”
“Students and Workers, Unite and Fight!” 這個口號就恰恰展現了兩地學生運動不同之處。當我昨天（