Sociology and the USS Strike

This has been written in response to the BSA’s statement about the current USS industrial action. The BSA statement is non-committal. However, as sociologists working in British universities, especially as sociologists with expertise in work, employment and economic life, we take a strong position in support of the UCU strike. We suggest that is both sociologically important and important to us as working sociologists.

1) The dispute over pensions is rooted in marketisation and the social construction of markets, social processes central to a critical sociology.

This dispute involves the radical worsening of our pensions, but its underlying causes lie in the marketisation and financialization of our sector, including burgeoning student fees, the privatisation of loan books and the growing dependence of institutions on the financial sector. The neo-liberal transformation of higher education is not new, but culminated last year with the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017. This furthered the process of turning students into consumers and, with universities competing to produce the best ‘student experience’, accelerated university capital building projects and the associated reliance of universities on securing loans from financial institutions. The HERA and the newly created Office for Students has also provided a framework for universities to fail, something that was once considered anathema. It is against this background, with universities exposed as never before, that senior managers have sought to sell us out – offloading institutional pension ‘risk’ onto individual members of staff.

If this dispute highlights the growing marketisation of the sector, it hinges on the social construction of accounting norms. The employers’ association Universities UK (UUK) have claimed that they are acting because they must, in response to a £7 billion deficit. But UCU has highlighted that the size of the deficit increased by £2 billion between September and November, as different assumptions about ‘risk’ were incorporated, and dispute whether there even is a deficit. This is not an abstract discussion. Rather, the valuation dispute lies at the heart of UUK’s proposed changes. If there is no deficit there is no justification for change. Yet the valuation has not materialised from thin air; rather, member institutions in UUK have played a critical role, in pushing assumptions, including about sectoral weakness, that have inflated the deficit. Notably, the disputed valuation rests in part on the potential of university failure. While an incredible scenario (this is, after all, a scheme involving some very wealthy institutions, including Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial), the HERA with its focus on institutional failure has made this appear more credible.

2) The strike exposes, and is a fight back against, processes that are worsening the working lives of sociologists in UK Higher Education

As a professional association, the working lives of sociologists is a central concern for the BSA. Over the last twenty years we’ve seen an explosion of casual contracts and employment practices that are not so different from those used by Sports Direct, including staff on repeated fixed-term or multiple zero-hours contracts and the use of outsourced or arms-length companies like Unitemps. Early-career colleagues spend years going from one form of precarious employment to another, hoping to get a permanent post by middle age. In a sector that has seen 15 percent real terms pay cuts over the last decade, even permanent work has been devalued, but at least a defined benefit (DB) pension scheme provided a secure wage in retirement. By scrapping DB and moving to a less-generous and less predictable defined contribution scheme we remove our security in old age. If our pensions depend on the investment market, and our willingness to take individual risks or, once we have retired, on our ability to make decisions about how fast or slow to draw down what we have accrued, then some of us will be losers. This will exacerbate inequalities, with those least able to withstand the ‘shocks’ of the market least able to cope. We already know some groups have more precarious careers in higher education, BAME groups, women, LGBTQ+, the disabled, and those from working-class backgrounds. This will extend those inequalities into retirement and means that academic careers will more frequently both begin and end in conditions of economic and social precarity.

This change to pensions is a dramatic pay cut for every USS member in the sector. Pensions are not a ‘gift’ from generous employers but deferred wages. University employers have already reduced their payments to the USS scheme. This current proposal translates those payment reductions into dramatic cuts that will fundamentally impact the living standards of academics and their families. If we are not careful the profession may become the preserve of the affluent middle classes who are already advantaged in educational terms and may be less dependent on earnings to fund life in retirement.

3) Participation reveals the possibilities and transformative effects of social action.

Sociologists of labour know that strikes can be transformative. As we take part in the collective act of withdrawing our labour, not only do we challenge the asymmetry of the employment relationship, but also become able to see possibilities that were previously invisible. In small ways this reveals itself in the conversations we have on the picket line. For instance, in the suggestion from a colleague, participating in his first strike after joining the union recently, that ‘the union should be involved’ in choosing the successor to a recently resigned Dean. At first glance this is not radical, but the logic underneath it – that the union should be consulted on hiring decisions, including at the most senior level - substantially undermines core management prerogatives. Alternative possibilities are made apparent through conversation and interaction, as we re-gain an understanding of one another as part of a shared intellectual and educational project – rather than individuals competing for resources, ranked by excellence or split between academic silos or across the academic and professional divide.

This dispute has also highlighted the social and unpredictable nature of political action. In 2016 the Conservative government introduced a Trade Union Act, described by the TUC as ‘the most serious attack on the rights of trade unions and their members in a generation’. The Act set new hurdles for industrial action, including the requirement that unions achieve a 50 percent turnout in any ballot to proceed to take industrial action. Given that UCU’s previous highest ever turnout was barely 45% in 2014, there was reason to think strike action would become almost impossible. Yet, in this dispute the nationwide turnout was 58%, surpassing 50% in all but eight of 68 pre-92 institutions (another four met this threshold in a second ballot), with 88% of members voting in favour of strike action. That dramatic increase in turnout (with four branches achieving over 70% turnout) occurred because unions locally and nationally responded to the new legislation by recognising that what they had previously done would not work. Instead local activists worked incredibly hard, using social media, but also doing ‘old-fashioned’ organising: holding departmental, school and divisional meetings, going door-to-door or getting on the phone to talk to colleagues. This achieved the required turnout, and as a by-product engaged previously passive members and attracted thousands of new members, members who are now bringing their creativity to the action. This is perhaps most visible in a nationwide programme of teach-outs, offering public education, including public sociology, to our students, one another and the wider community. In short measure, therefore, UCU, faced by a significantly more hostile industrial relations context, has become a more member-led union. It is not clear whether this will persist, but it’s an exciting prospect for anyone interested in the transformative effects of collective action.

Why the BSA should be involved

Like in the 2008 financial crisis, this dispute exposes the social basis and material consequences of the adoption of particular economic and accounting practices. It also highlights the increasing orientation of our sector to the market and takes place in a context of deteriorating conditions of employment. This is the background to why so many of us are participating in strike action. Excitingly, our participation in this action is opening up new possibilities that highlight alternative ways of being sociologists and academics in the UK. The BSA should be part of that transformation.

Rachel Cohen
Irena Grugulis
Paul Stewart
Jonathan Preminger
Dawn Lyon
Maria Adamson
Vanessa Gash
Mel Simms
Rebecca Taylor
Lynne Pettinger
Vanesa Fuertes
Scott Taylor
Sundari Anitha
Réka Plugor
Harry Pitts
Ben Fincham
Tim Strangleman
Jane Parry
Silke Roth
Abigail Marks
Vanessa Beck
Wendy Olsen
Susan Halford

The Power of Association: please add your voice

The BSA acts as a collective voice for sociologists. To do this we need evidence about what matters to our membership. If you are in a pre-92 (USS) HE institution, please fill in this quick anonymous survey to provide some information and your views about the current UCU industrial action.  

Short individual statements:

The sociology writers that have inspired me are those who show how people still manage to be social even when the structures that face them seem to deny them key elements of their sociality. I’m thinking here of James Scott’s great argument in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, and wonderful ethnographies like Claire Stacey’s The Caring Self. I’ve also been inspired by Charles Lemert’s lovely book, Social Things, and his argument that we should look for how people are everyday sociologists.

We should be everyday sociologists, not just academic sociologists.

We should manage to be social even when structures seem to deny us space to be so. We can and should show solidarity with each other in institutions that increasingly undermine collegiality. We can stand for the principle of social resourcing of pensions when faced by neo-liberal accounting systems that lead us inevitably towards individualisation.

If we want to be everyday sociologists, we should be support the UCU pensions strike.

Marek Korczynski, University of Nottingham

Any time those of us working in higher education protest about our working conditions or pay, a couple of predictable things happen: we get reminded how lucky we are and we get accused of not living in the real world. This time round, with this strike, the structural conditions are unique. The functional privatisation and ferocious neoliberalisation of much of British higher education means we look less lucky as employees and, for better and worse, it seems clear we’re firmly in the real world. Students are supportive, members of other unions on campus are supportive, and there’s cross-generational consensus. Despite, or because of, the terrible situation university employers have created, this is a unique moment of action.

Scott Taylor, University of Birmingham

Work in UK academia has become progressively more challenging in recent years. The widespread causalisation of the sociological profession creates a context that both fails to support staff on casual contracts and risks undermining the terms and conditions of other staff. The proposed pension reforms certainly undermine those terms and conditions. The cuts will mean very real hardship for some staff in later life. Together with casualisation, the cuts risk making UK academia a very unattractive profession.

I am taking action to help defend the profession and make a career in academic sociology a secure and attractive option. A sociological analysis of the current industrial dispute helps us make the links between the current pension dispute and the wider ways in which employment in the sector has changed. Negotiation is always the best option. But when negotiation fails, we need other options. Our strike is an expression of the frustration of our employers not listening and not joining these dots.

Mel Simms, University of Glasgow

Occasionally, PhD students in the US ask me about the job market in Britain, because I worked there for ten years after my PhD. Ten years ago I would have said that pay is not great, but for junior academics relatively strong job security makes it possible to pursue interesting and risky research agendas. But over the years, the situation has become less rosy. And now this conflict. I don't know what to tell PhD students about Britain. How do I explain that academic work is so devalued that universities are willing to provoke a 14-day national strike?

Ian Greer, Cornell University, USA

Strike action does not start on the picket lines. It starts the moment the ballot paper is on the union member’s desks, with discussions in corridors, and with other colleagues. It is the moment the so far only ‘imagined solidarity’ (Hyman) in HE becomes a concrete Utopia (Bloch). The disruption of the strike allows to discuss and enact new forms of collectivism. If this shared experience will help align the diverse interests of the highly fragmented workforce in HE in the future is yet to be decided. The current UCU strike action brings long buried alliances and resistance in HE to the political surface. A creative disruption that has to prove its sustainability yet.

Kendra Briken, Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Strathclyde

The current industrial dispute represents a deepening of industrial relations issues. The union's activists have been able to connect the quality of education, issues of student inclusion, and the problem of commodification to the deteriorating working conditions of academics and their profession broadly in novel ways. Issues of economic and social redistribution and justice within the HE sector are at the heart of this struggle.

Miguel Martinez Lucio, Alliance Manchester Business School, Manchester University

Neo-liberal HEI’s have almost completed their journey into ethical and moral bankruptcy. Senior management are unmoved by the blood, sweat and tears that dedicated staff have poured into their work for decades. Students and staff have a shared interest in the future of HE. Senior management and VC’s have grown fat and detached off the back of student debt. They are insatiable. We are now told to ‘suck it up’ when our pensions (earned, deferred pay) are savaged – raided for profit. If Robert Maxwell were alive today he would have nothing but admiration for the USS as they gorge themselves on our efforts. I have never been so glad I am not a young academic. It is heartbreaking.

Alan Roe, University of Leeds

This dispute has become a lightning rod because it is seen by lecturers as the final insult after years of witnessing a decline in salaries, working conditions including employment protection. Attacking our pension, our deferred wage, is widely interpreted as a form of theft. The decision to move from DB to DC has no justification except in the markertised world of neoliberal finance and employees in the sector recognise this to be a political choice and moreover a choice about how our universities, and culture more broadly, are being run. The strike is important and widely supported precisely because people are making the link between the attack on our pay, our deferred pay, our conditions, and the government's austerity assault on British society. The perception of the erosion of the ‘university’ in part lies behind the heartwarming support we are receiving from so many of our students.

Paul Stewart, University of Strathclyde

It’s the economy, stupid
We’ve gotten used to hearing the refrain of TINA, “There Is No Alternative” in all kinds of contexts. Political decisions, including USS’s claim that there is no money for pensions, are naturalised as being what Economy demands: it is a beast that can’t be tamed. Economic sociology has taught me to question giving ‘economy’ this status and to see it as the result of decisions made by experts; formed through a concept of economy as disembedded in the social; created by financial instruments; and by a politics that denies it is political.

Feeling work
Like so many colleagues, I work hard for my students. I don’t just teach, I innovate in teaching. I don’t just fill in forms, I design and implement initiatives intended to enhance the student experience. I don’t just provide feedback, I bubble over with enthusiasm. I try to do research. I’m tired and cynical and I’ve run out of the capacity to do the emotional labour of academia. This strike is about pensions, but the feelings underneath are about exhaustion, irritation, stress and all those colleagues on the edge of burnout.

Lynne Pettinger, University of Warwick

I joined the Association of University Teachers in 1986 and have been a member of the UCU following the merger of AUT and NATFE in 2006. What hasn't changed in that time is my commitment to the fair and democratic representation of employees' rights. What has changed, profoundly, is the landscape of Higher Education. The entrenchment of managerialism, progressive marketisation and the structural devaluation of (very highly qualified and deeply committed) staff makes HE a very different workplace now. Of course this has a significant impact on those, like me, who have experienced the drip, drip, drip of change over time. It is of even greater consequence for the generations that follow, on whose shoulders the future of Higher Education rests. The proposed changes to our pension scheme is a particularly sharp and clear instance of these wider organizational changes. Enough is enough. The changes are not inevitable. They are the outcome of institutional power relations not a rational financial decision by disinterested accountants. It is not at all surprising that so many of us who are UCU members are taking industrial action en-masse or that the spirit of solidarity is stronger than ever. It is not even that surprising that 18+ Vice Chancellors and the Minister for Universities are calling on UUK to return to the negotiating table, to discuss the proposed changes. In order to secure a strong and prosperous future for our Universities, and all that Universities mean for our future, we must nurture the commitment of our academics not destroy it.

Susan Halford, University of Southampton

I have been a member of the BSA since 1993 and a member of AUT/UCU since the early 1990s. I have also been a union member since the age of 16. I have never seen a group of employees more angry than now. As my professional body I look to the BSA to make a really strong statement about this dispute both for current staff as well as, and perhaps more importantly future staff.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

Please note: This is an opinion piece and does not represent the views of the Association.  All comments are welcome.