Why we are standing on the picket line: a view from Cambridge Marxists

In Cambridge, we have witnessed all kinds of twists, turns, and contortions by those who have sought to justify scabbing on the inspiring strike action currently being taken by UCU members at the university. But cutting through the musk of vacuous excuses, self-serving assumptions and empty soundbites, there’s only one thing we can say for sure about the UCU strikes: if this dispute is lost, it would typically leave lecturers almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than their current pension scheme. If you don’t think this is fair, then you’ll support the strike. If you don’t care, then you’ll try to undermine it.

One of the methods being used to undermine the strike is to deliberately isolate the question of pensions from anything else that is going on now or has been going on in Higher Education over the last few years. The fact is that any attempt to explain this attack on university staff that does not consider the increasing role of marketisation is inherently contrived.

The failures of capitalism

Marketisation has positioned students as consumers and university staff as a mere accessory of a profit-motivated business. This has been detrimental to staff and students alike. In 1980 there was the abolition of the remaining subsidy for overseas students’ fees. In 2006 ‘variable’ fees were introduced. Now non-EU students can be extorted up to £25,275 for studying here and domestic student fees have been tripled, leaving graduates with crippling debt and anxieties over how to pay this money back. Casualisation of employment in the Higher Education (HE) sector has been consolidated and accelerated throughout this period. Now over half of academics teaching or doing research at universities are forced to endure some form of a precarious contract.

Cambridge University has perhaps the easiest way of underplaying their use of casual contracts: the collegiate structure. As well as the overall university administration, each of the 31 colleges that make up the university has its own administrative structure. This allows the university to under-report the very widespread use of casual contracts in colleges, obscuring the ways in which university staff are exploited by their bosses. Not only does this affect the quality of life of university staff, encumbered with low-pay and very little job security, but it directly affects the quality of education that is provided. Now is the time to realise that this is a shared struggle between students and workers.

Universities UK (UUK), which is made up of university senior management, is currently attempting to squeeze even more money out of university staff. The changes would transfer more of the risk of the USS pension scheme onto the workers, and reduce the amount of money available to these staff in retirement. The idea of a £6 billion deficit in the pension scheme emerging is a total fabrication by UUK, one based on a false valuation of the scheme. This whole dispute has arisen out of the logic of marketisation, and not out of a genuine pension crisis. Education is being subsumed by capitalism. UUK is attempting to cut staff costs in order to turn universities into big businesses.

The global financial crash of 2008 plunged capitalism into crisis and the bosses’ only way out has been to recuperate the losses from their workers. They have attacked wages, pensions and working conditions, justifying it with a vacuous claim that there is no money. Yet billions sits uninvested in banks in the UK alone. This cash is simply the unpaid wages of the working class. This money could be capable of not just sustaining education but improving it a thousand fold; and to resolve the housing crisis and properly fund our NHS. In the hands of the bosses, this wealth sits idle; the capitalists have little incentive to invest. Never let anyone tell you that there is no money: the problem is not how much, but who owns it.

Our shared struggle

Every right workers have today has been won through the struggle of collective action; it reflects the immense strength of the working class. For though it is the bosses who own the majority of wealth in society, it is the workers who actually produce this wealth and provide the services we all make use of. This is why industrial action is so useful. The withdrawal of labour displays the true value of workers in society and has proven to be the best defence of pay, working conditions and rights. Therefore, standing on the picket lines and participating in the class struggle is real education; it is politics in action. With the uncertainty offered by a world still consumed by the last capitalist crash, and saturated with austerity, we need to know how to defend ourselves against exploitative bosses.

If the strike is defeated the higher education sector stands to lose a lot. This means that we all stand to lose a lot. Universities’ sole purpose will soon become that of a business, creating profit rather than providing exceptional education. This is why student support of the strike is vitally important. Showing solidarity and joining the strike is therefore not a moral question but a political one: will you fight for your education?

Beyond the slogan

Demanding compensation from universities is to buy into the language of consumerism. The staff striking chose the profession they did because they love to teach and contribute in their field of study. They are certainly not depriving us of their invaluable knowledge out of malice, secretly wanting us to fail. As students we would be legitimising the marketisation of HE by letting the strike divide us from our lecturers through the demand for compensation. We should throw of all of our energy behind winning this dispute and not risk fragmenting the movement. The NUS has expressed solidarity with striking lecturers. Moreover, a survey recently undertaken by the Times Higher Education Supplement found that most students blamed UUK for the dispute, rather than the UCU. The connection between the strike for pensions and previous student movements against fees and cuts is inextricable; we are facing a general attack on our universities.

It has been suggested that the support for the strike amongst lecturers has been overestimated because not all lecturers are members of UCU. Yet in Cambridge alone, the UCU branch has grown from 900 to 1300 members, part of a nationwide surge that saw the national website crash! Support for the strike was underestimated. It has also been suggested that those staff who continue to work during the strike are simply expressing their ‘right to work’, even though, by working, they are de facto damaging the right to work for their colleagues and future generations. The right to work is only a meaningful right if it is a right to decent work with decent pay and conditions. By attacking the wages and conditions of university workers, the world of education will be left as a preserve of the rich; those who don’t need the income from lecturing to sustain themselves.

It is in light of this that we urge students to stand in solidarity with our striking lecturers. The very minimum being asked of us is to not cross a picket line; not to undermine the strike. Not crossing a picket line means not entering any university building or site on strike days. Entering through a concealed entrance is crossing the picket line. During the miners’ strike, a miner entering the pit via some secondary entrance would have been undermining the strike just as much as one crossing a visible picket line. The point is to disrupt (that library book can probably wait), to bring activity to a halt, and this means that we must not enter university sites in order to win this dispute. But we urge you to go further than this. Showing solidarity with university staff is more than an empty slogan. It means standing shoulder to shoulder with those who provide you with your education on the picket lines. It means donating to the fighting fund by making the sacrifices that you can. It means calling on other unions to resist the cuts. It means doing all you can to win this dispute.

If this dispute fails, education will be left at the mercy of the bosses and their allies in the Tory government. Higher education will be sent down a path that makes it an exclusive jaunt for the wealthiest in society.

That’s why we are standing on the picket line.

by Khaled Malachi and Keelan Kellegher, Cambridge Marxist Society