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Militancy on the March

British universities have been under threat for decades as (whatever party is in power) the government’s control machine has gone into overdrive, interfering in every aspect of their life. Funding is in chaos, with students racking up unbelievable debts, while scholarship, research and scientific investigation are threatened by a tick-box model devised by uneducated bureaucrats. To these woes there is now added another, far more immediately dangerous enemy: trade union militancy. With academic pensions as a conveniently appealing cause, the academics’ union, the UCU, is masterminding a strike to stop university teaching on 14 out of 20 days over the month. The victims will be not only the students, but also – especially if the strikers’ demands are met – the universities themselves.

University strikes, until now, were barely noticeable, at least in Cambridge. A few lectures were cancelled or rearranged, some examiners replaced; colleagues who took part in the strike were regarded as amiable but over-ideological eccentrics. Life went on for the most part as usual.

But this time all is different. Lectures have almost entirely ceased in some faculties; extra-curricular seminars and talks by visiting speakers have been cancelled or moved off university premises; senior academics brave the cold on the picket-line, eager to put their armchair socialism into practice – as the union’s website claims, picketing ‘is an enjoyable, sociable and sometimes even sunny experience!’. Although students are denied lectures on philosophy, history or mathematics, the union wants them to show up to ‘teach-outs’ on vital topics such as ‘How UK policy fuels war and repression in the Middle East’ and ‘Neoliberal Capitalism versus Collective Imaginaries’.

For the militants running the so-called industrial action, the revolution has come. Two weeks into the strike, ordinary academics have been cowed into acquiescence. Those who continue teaching are all but forced to do it surreptitiously, with an ashamed, apologetic air, as if they were engaged in some crime. Expression of opposition to the strike produces an even sharper gasp of surprise and disapproval than open support for Brexit.

But all who care about teaching and learning, and about the universities, which exist to protect and promote them, ought to oppose and condemn the strike. Academics should not strike, especially when the aim is, as here, a bad one.

It is wrong for academics to go on strike: by striking, they deliberately injure their students. Just as the rail unions make the passengers suffer in order to put pressure on the companies to settle whatever the cost, so injuring students through strike action is the academic strikers’ aim. They make no secret of it. They want, as they will tell you, ‘to make the students sue the universities’ and to do so they must harm the students’ studies and their lives. And they are succeeding. In Cambridge, for instance, it looks as if in some faculties, almost half a term’s university teaching, that is, almost a quarter of the whole year’s teaching (since there are few lectures in the final, exam term) will be lost. Moreover, it is a far worse thing for academics to use students as pawns than for train drivers to use their passengers in this way. The academics are their students’ teachers: they stand to them in a relationship of trust, protection and authority, under the aegis of the higher authority of the discipline they are practising. To destroy this relationship – and all the more, to do so from self-interest and greed – damages the universities and desecrates academe itself.

The universities face further damage if the strike succeeds. The union’s posters announce that university teachers’ pensions are to be axed, cut by hundreds of thousands of pounds. They even show a big axe. They want to suggest that universities have decided on an arbitrary and immense cut in overall remuneration. The real story is different. Employers are not planning to pay less for pensions. Rather, the problem is that the university pension scheme (USS) is legally bound to pay out more to cover its existing pensions – based on a fixed formula – than its assets allow. Like other pension funds, the USS must stop the risk of further debt if it is to remain solvent. So it plans to change to a scheme of the sort used for most funded pensions, where the value of each person’s pension is based on exactly what has been put into it by the employer and employee. But the UCU opposes the reform. It demands that the USS continue with the present arrangements, and so gamble recklessly with the scheme’s solvency, and it gives the dubious justification that the USS’s assets are worth more than they admit, and that market conditions will perhaps change. The UCU’s proposal not only risks its members’ future pensions. It puts the whole UK university sector in danger, since the USS is underwritten by the universities’ collective assets and, in a pension crisis, these could disappear into the black hole of its debts. The universities would probably survive, but without the wealth that gives them still some measure of independence and so enables them to flourish as world leaders in science and humanities. Even today’s level of underfunding in the USS pension scheme is a smouldering threat to the best UK universities and their endowments. The strikers are proposing to throw oil on it and fan the flames.


Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy in Cambridge. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy. A Very Short Introduction (2016). For Politeia he has written Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities (2018), co-published with New Direction, and Back to School! Preparation, Not Cancellation (2020) co-authored with Louise Moelwyn-Hughes and Dominic Sullivan.

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