Lecturers started a three-day strike today against the use of a subsidiary company to hire staff outside national agreements that underwrite pension, pay and working conditions.
This morning I was on a picket line at the entrance to Falmouth University as part of a three-strike with my fellow lecturers there.
In the scheme of things, a strike by university lecturers makes less of an impact than a strike by train drivers, refuse-collectors or even barristers. Classes go untaught, but the life of the nation beyond the groves of academe continues unimpeded.
But all is very far from well in those groves. Like workers in so many other areas, lecturers are sick of seeing their pay and working conditions degraded. And what has been happening at Falmouth is rightly seen by the union to which I belong (University and College Union, or UCU) as a serious threat to staff across the whole of the university sector.
The dispute at Falmouth is not about pay, although 13 years of below-inflation pay offers have led to a real-terms reduction of 20 per cent in the value of lecturers’ pay since 2009. Many lecturers at Falmouth and elsewhere are on insecure part-time contracts that have left them highly exposed to the cost-of-living crisis, and some of my colleagues are now having to resort to food banks to survive.
UCU is currently balloting its members nationally on industrial action in pursuit of better pay deal, but the strike at Falmouth is more about the basic integrity of the university and the way it treats its staff.
In September of last year, against the strong objections of UCU, the university started hiring all new academic staff through a private subsidiary company, Falmouth Staffing Limited. The justification given for this was that it would enable new staff to be placed on a cheaper pension scheme than the one that all other academics working at post-92 universities have a contractual right to join: the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS).
The right to join the Teachers’ Pension Scheme is based on a national agreement between post-92 universities, teaching unions and government. It’s a government-backed scheme, which means a lecturer’s pension is not impacted by the vagaries of stock-market investments, but grows based on length of service and salary.
The TPS is a ‘defined benefit’ scheme, which means that people reaching retirement age know how much they will receive as pension, depending on how many years they have paid into it. Although it has adapted over the years in response to changes in the retirement age and so on, it remains a rock-solid scheme that holds out the promise of a secure retirement at the end of a lecturer’s career.
Management at Falmouth University, however, decided that the employer’s contributions to the scheme were more than it wished to pay. But if Falmouth continued to employ academics through the university itself (as at all other universities) it would be unable to renege on its obligations as part of the national agreement.
Solution? Set up a private company to employ staff outside the national agreement, and put newly- hired staff on a much cheaper, stock market-based scheme.
This is bad not just for the long-term financial security of staff (though it is very bad in this way) but also because it enables the university to evade all other commitments made through national agreements to which universities are party, including agreements on pay and working conditions. While the university has assured the union that it will keep to such agreements, these assurances, without a contractual obligation, give little reason for comfort.
What’s more, staff hired by the subsidiary are already discovering that their rights have been seriously eroded in other ways, too. If a lecturer is working for a university that is part of the national agreement, they build up important contractual rights over time through their continuity of service, including maternity rights and the right to sick leave. These rights are transferred with them if they move on to a job at another university. But this is not the case if you are working for a private company outside the national agreement.
Staff hired by the private subsidiary have also discovered, to their shock and anger, that they no longer have the right to be represented by their trade union in the same way as other staff. When we balloted our members on industrial action in this dispute, the legal advice was that we could not ballot staff who had been hired by the private company, as ‘technically’ these are not working for the university with which we are in dispute. And this despite the fact that it is the rights of these staff that are most affected.
Only one other university in the country, Staffordshire University, is attempting to avoid its obligations to academic staff in this way, and lecturers there have also been resisting fiercely. UCU is deeply concerned that if this goes unchallenged other universities will follow suit and all the hard-won agreements that protect our members’ rights will eventually become worthless.
As Dr Jo Grady, General Secretary of UCU, said on a visit to Falmouth staff last week:
“If we allow Falmouth, through its staffing subsidiary company, to get away with this here, it will give a green light to other institutions who want to rip up our nationally agreed contracts and agreements through the back door… What you are doing and the fact that you have voted in huge numbers to take action here is crucial for you – but it’s crucial for the sector.”
Falmouth University management have been at pains to point out that staff who have been working for the university under older contracts (with the university itself) are not affected by the withdrawal of pension rights. They assumed, I think, that there would therefore be little resistance from these longer-serving staff.
They could not have been more wrong – and they clearly did not grasp the essential principle of belonging to a union, which is solidarity with your fellow workers.
Despite not being able to include employees of the subsidiary in our ballot, we nevertheless received a 90 per cent vote for industrial action on this issue. More than anything, our members see this as a matter of basic fairness and integrity. They do not want to see a two-tier workforce, with some of their colleagues being employed with lesser rights.
We’ve also had strong support from leading academics at other universities, from Falmouth alumni, from the National Union of Students and from many current Falmouth students, who understand how important this is for the basic integrity and reputation of their university.
If the two-tier workforce is allowed to stand, it will rapidly make it far harder for Falmouth to recruit the most talented and ambitious academics. Why would they choose to work for a private company that does not recognise the rights they would enjoy if properly employed by a university?
What’s happening at Falmouth is a microcosm of so much that’s happening elsewhere – the erosion of rights, pay and working conditions that has led workers to draw a line in the sand and say: enough is enough. It’s also an object lesson in why it’s so important for people to join a union. Without unions, none of these hard-won rights would exist.
I felt a real swell of pride on the picket line today to see that so many of my colleagues at Falmouth were ready to turn solidarity into action, to say a loud ‘No’ to the destructive and divisive approach being taken by management, and to defend the rights of everyone with whom we work.