Sarah Nizarali is a first-year History and Iberian Studies student. She hopes to one day go into post-colonial studies and research the Lusophone and South Asian world. In her free time, she tries to run away from commercialisation, tucking herself into tiny coffee shops, independent films and the mountains.
[Featured Image: A large group of students and staff holding orange and yellow posters (many reading ‘our pensions axed’), striking outside of Strand Campus back in 2018].
To those who plan to spend the 14 days of strikes skiing in the alps, drinking hot chocolate, slouching at home or crossing picket lines, this is an open letter to you on why you should be striking too. As of February 24th, Kings along with 74 institutions will take the streets to fight for our future. Although KCL is officially only striking for pension schemes that preferably don’t leave them stone broke, this is part of a much bigger movement to stand against gender discrimination, inequality and the marketisation of universities. Over the last 10 years higher education institutions have gone through drastic change. In this process they have become like a vicious corporation, becoming cash-cows hubs that will do anything to maximise its profits even if it means a 51 working week and refusing pensions. It’s funny because the exact place that has the money for a dean, and an assistant dean, each of whom have secretaries, management, admin staff doesn’t have the funding to provide the labour force a pensions scheme that won’t suck them dry. As higher institutions become more and more conservative it is only time before you are attacked. And Yes I know pensions have very little to do with you. But unless you want your university to render into a corporate shit hole (more than it already is), I’d strike too.
The dispute over pensions is largely roots from the Universities Superannuation Scheme’s decision to change pensions from a defined benefits scheme to a defined contribution scheme. This means that pensions go from being a fixed amount determined by ones salary and years employed to a pension pot that is invested into the stocks and shares. Essentially meaning that the value of your pensions carry a great risk of going up or down. But hey, who wouldn’t want to pour their retirement savings into a casino? The USS is also increasing pension contributions from 8 per cent of salary to 9.6 per cent, even though that there has been a pay decline of 17% since 2009 and pay is not exactly adjusted for inflation. This leaves us with an over-worked, underpaid labour force fighting for survival.
Yet KCL is one of the few universities officially only striking against the USS’s pension scheme. A majority of universities are also striking against indifference to pay, equality, casualisation and workloads (the 4 fights). For a strike to take place 50 percent of the UCU members at KCL must vote with a 50 percent majority of in support of each ballot. A few months ago, UCU members voted if a strike for pensions and the 4 fights should take place. The pension ballot passed overwhelmingly but King’s reached a 48.5 percent voter turnout for the 4 fights. We are one of the few institutions only striking for pensions although these problems could not be more entrenched at kcl. The 4 fights along with the pension dispute has worsened as universities starting behaving like a private company: driven by profits where the the richer get richer and everyone else, poorer. It has boiled down to lowing costs while maximising efficiency. Hence increasingly proportion of staff is put on short-term contracts not because they are less qualified they too have a phd and are experts in their field, but shorter contracts means that you are not entitled to give out higher benefits or pay in comparison to though on permanent contracts. Women, who are the biggest victims; they will regularly get paid lower and be put on shorter contracts. Apart from appalling job insecurity this has caused, the termination of student quotas in 2015 has meant that universities can recruit as many students as they please. In effort to use as many as possible students as cash-cows, without sufficient funding, staff are handed more students than physically possible to teach. The changing environment has come with new insane expectations: academics are expected to churn out research like it is some sort of product waiting to be put on the market. The goal is: monetising education, Yet what is bone rattling is that some did not vote at all for the 4 fights ballot but did so for the pensions. Does this mean some don’t see these issues credible to fight for? Maybe be those who are more secure in their jobs, historically to be white and male.
It is a little, or very painful that King’s did not make the second ballot, but in no way does that mean these strikes are not about gender equality or casualisation. These strikes give us the opportunity to critique the system in front of an audience that is listening and in front of a university that is quite scared with the ruckus students can cause. Teach-outs will take place predominantly throughout Strand ranging from topics such as securitisation to Tony Blair that you are encouraged to take part in. A couple of departments will subtly threaten to deport you (hi War Studies), or mark you absent, but that just means they are scared of what you may do. These strikes on a grande scale are a push-back on the overtly market-driven reforms that are causing liberal education to die a slow and painful death. Considering the government in power today, it seems like it will only ever get worse. It is crucial to stand in solidarity with staff, while they fight for our rights. Nobody strikes by choice; staff get pay cuts and go through mental distress too. Hence it is really time for the university to stop behaving like Amazon and start displaying some humanity. King’s, you are not selling a product, I am not a consumer and I will refuse to indulge in your scheme of human exploitation. And so should you.
There are multiple ways you can get involved, a good start is liking the UCU KCL page on Facebook where regular updates and student-led initiatives are posted.