Although missing the first page of most news outlets outside of the England, today was the first of three weeks of strikes at 61 universities in the UK. That number includes Cambridge, Oxford, and Durham, and over a million students from all over the country. There has not been a strike of this magnitude in the history of UK higher education, and students, administrators, and faculty are preparing for major disruptions to the academic calendar. Exams may be called off or, as some fear, “dumbed down” due to the possibility of three weeks (or worst case, up to five months) of lost teaching days.
The problem is simple: Universities UK, the organization that handles higher educators’ pension fund monies, has decided to change from a flat-rate system, where pension amounts are pre-set, to a plan that is tied into the stock market. The teacher’s union, UCU, is fighting back, claiming that educators face a £10,000 reduction per year in retirement monies. That equates to £200,000 in lost pension monies for the average academic.
Or does it? While walking the picket lines today, I engaged a number of academics on the issue. Although the amount of money academics stand to lose seems high, it is after all an estimate. What if, I asked, the stock market does well? Won’t pension payouts then go up, rather than decreasing by the claimed £10k per year? Most admitted that yes, that could happen.
But there is a legitimate fear amongst academics that money paid into a retirement account over one’s entire career may not end up equalling money paid out. And with the ever-decreasing pay for lecturers in the UK, especially in the humanities (which includes biblical studies and theology), the ability to recruit the best and brightest talent from the UK or overseas is doubtful. Indeed, the future existence of these disciplines in secular, higher education is called into question.
The strike may gain more traction in international news coverage in the coming days and weeks. But for now, here are some pictures from the first day of the strike here in Durham, brought to you exclusively by theLAB: