A Few Things Vice Chancellors Might Learn from the USS Strikes

It is now the third week of strikes to protect USS pensions in pre-1992 universities. I have been following developments on Twitter, and I have also been able to join colleagues in Exeter and Nottingham at a teach-out and a rally, respectively. Once again, I apologise if I am unable to correctly attribute some of the insights below; the hashtag #USSstrikes on Twitter is too fast moving and not always searchable. Nevertheless, let me acknowledge that most of these remarks have been inspired by the observations of others. In my last post, I reflected on what I had learned from the USS strikes. It seemed to find an audience with many who were taking industrial action, so I thought I would distil some ‘take away’ points for vice chancellors who, I know, will be anxiously searching for ‘lessons learned’. I have a suspicion that just a handful of senior university managers – I think the collective noun for them is a ‘wedge’ – might furtively scan these pages. So hello Paul, Alistair, Patrick, Mike, Joanne, John, Andrew, Cara, Trevor and perhaps Shearer.

VC 2

The response to having their pensions downgraded and devalued has shown that USS members are just as risk averse as their leadership teams are. VCs and finance directors who felt they did not want to accept the level of risk presented to them by the UUK valuation of the pension scheme, find themselves crossing picket lines staffed by angry lecturers, professional staff and administrators who are understandably wedded to the prospect of a secure retirement. Despite the actuarial advisors AON Hewitt’s suggestion that “there is a growing body of evidence that younger employees are choosing different working  patterns and practices to their older colleagues” – the strength and composition of the picket lines has affirmed that actually, younger employees, too, would like a level of security and a rewarding career structure. This strike is not just about pensions and nobody chooses insecurity. The campaign for sustainable careers will continue and will be led by a newly energised and mobilised group of young people. Empowered, as managers would say.

USS Callard Aon snip

UUK were unwise to think they could mislead a body of university employees that includes forensic accountants, information and IT specialists, statisticians and economists. The work of philosopher Mike Otsuka comes in for a huge commendation as he was the person who first exposed the fact that Oxford and Cambridge had been allowed to exercise a disproportionate level of influence in the de-risking vote carried out by UUK. Our gratitude goes to social scientist Felicity Callard for her sterling work on the uncovering of the documents from the Employers Pensions Forum which formed the brief for the 2016 USS valuation.  This from Jan Machielsen, a historian, is just superb, on reasoning, ‘facts’ and passive-aggressive intransigence. It should now be obvious that nobody has been fooled by repeated claims that decent pensions are suddenly, after decades, ‘unaffordable’. And anyway, if this is what it costs to employ highly qualified experts and professional staff, then that is what universities have to prioritise in their budgets. It is offensive when VCs try and intimidate staff with that duplicitous allusion to “difficult choices’, and even in one case, of asking them to choose between gender equity accommodations and a stable pension. It is ludicrous when they choose to value the pension using a scenario which models all universities going bust at the same time. As one person wrote, it appears managers have even less faith in their own abilities than we have.

Academics have seemed remarkably, creatively self-managing in the past three weeks. They have organised rallies, teach-outs, compiled motivational playlists, drawn wonderful placards and even designed a knitting pattern for a USS strike woolly hat. Mine’s a size Small, please. All of this was achieved without a committee scrutinizing learning outcomes or a line manager conducting an appraisal. And some students were commenting that they had learned more in the teach-outs than they had in the previous semester’s regular classes. As one participant in a teach-out in Exeter asked, do we even need managers? The strikers are as angry and irked by the impediments to their daily working lives as they are appalled at the prospect of an impoverished old age. I think some slackening of the reins of audit might be necessary as vice chancellors decide to address the resentment some of their HR policies have generated.

For example, VCs might reconsider some of the structures of audit so that they don’t assume the appearance of control and surveillance. Out on the picket lines, Foucault scholars have introduced colleagues to the notion of the Panopticon. It’s with a sense of sardonic incredulity that we find it has lent its name to the lecture capture software, Panopto. It has not been easy for management to persuade lecturers of its benign purposes; even less so now that it has been recruited as a tool of strike-breaking. Foucault can be a difficult read, but easy to comprehend when you are living his nightmare.

Enough of nightmares, here are some gains. The workforce has become more united. Was it Clark Kerr who said a university is a series of fiefdoms united by a common heating system? It probably was; he had all the best lines. But now membership in the USS pension scheme has provided another occasion for bonding. Librarians, IT specialists, administrators, academics and lab technicians have all found common cause and solidarity. It might be that, as many have pointed out, the one expression of the collective still alive in universities is the pension scheme. It would be cheering to think that unity can be maintained and channelled to everyone’s advantage. My fond colleague @PlashingVole has remarked on a newly-discovered sense of utopia spreading through the assembled masses at teach-outs and rallies. There is hope and expectation that we will do things differently once the strike is won.

However, we can foresee management’s reluctance to embrace the changes which are being proposed by the rank-and-file staff of universities. One joker quipped that vice chancellors, for all their talk of agility and fleetness of foot, are not quite as responsive to change when it comes from below. So help them out, strikers, and, as a gesture of reconciliation, offer to organise a staff development teach-out on ‘changing together’.

My fears are somewhat more dystopic than utopic. I am anxious that some of the more uncompromising VCs of the non-striking pre-1992 universities might now seek to exert even greater control over staff and extinguish their aspirations towards greater democracy in governance. Thus we might envisage a new divide in UK universities between the bullying-intensive universities versus the merely bullying active. Here I am caricaturing a suggestion from Professor Edward Peck, Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University – his recent proposal for another new and unwelcome binary of teaching-intensive versus teaching-active universities, just to clarify.

As soon as the strike is over, real leadership, as opposed to management, will need to be exercised in rebuilding goodwill. Right now it is zero. This is critical because universities, and it appears, the economy, run on donations of labour and pro bono work. Here is a snapshot of a study released today.

Pro bono work

The wise VC will be absorbing a message of unity, creativity, a huge desire for active autonomy, cooperativeness and alternative ways of teaching and relating to each other. They will see that collegial bonding can be re-focussed towards a new unity of purpose. They will accept that academic work extends beyond the columns of a spreadsheet, and that to audit it, is like trying to apprehend a mirage. It will take courage to do things differently and be open to genuine consultation but it would be easier to resume the impulses to control because, in the words of Clark Kerr again, “The status quo is the only solution that cannot be vetoed.”







4 thoughts on “A Few Things Vice Chancellors Might Learn from the USS Strikes”

  1. I am close to many around 50 year olds known I think as the ‘insecurite’? Whose career choices did not give them pension rights, including those who entered the academic world knowing those rights did not include them. They accept there lot and see older generations who benefitted from pension rights and expectations of that security living through privileged times. Therefore not being realistic in where the money comes from and the acceptance that Pension providers let you down. Pension providers I understand are from the private sector, our democratically elected government represents the private sector. Once we have a government who represents both public and private sectors equally and fairly, untill then we are doomed and have to live with it. Because of the strength of private sector ideals currently all public servants have this dilemma, the universities are not unique. Each body has to support each other, University’s can still be elitist which doesn’t help their cause. And the real worry is most of us are no longer represented by Tory’s Labour or Lib Dems. We need new genuine representation. EE now I’ve said it!

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