On Thursday the 22nd of February, the first day of UCU strike action in defence of pensions, Liverpool Marxist Society joined lecturers at the University of Liverpool on the picket lines. During this time we got the opportunity to interview Dr Anastasia Tataryn, lecturer in the Law School and member of UCU at the University.
What is this strike in relation to and what is the dispute about?
The dispute is about the cuts to the pension scheme that have been rolled out. Our pensions are with USS. Normally, what would happen is the employers at the University would be paying 18% of our salary into our pensions. They have now decided to cut that down to 13% and essentially what they’ve done is changed the scheme so that now there’s no guarantee to the amount that will be in our pension. It’s basically susceptible to fluctuations on the stock market. What we had before was a sure sum that we would be guaranteed at retirement, that would be our pension, and now they’ve basically let that loose to the wind and say that it will depend on the market. So essentially it is about pensions but, on a bigger picture, it is actually about the further breakdown of any job security that we have in higher education and links then to the modern neo-liberalisation of universities.
What has been your experience of that process? How has education changed and is this strike and issue a symptom of that?
I think that traditionally, what we were told when we entered into this career path, is that universities were the last vestige of a place where you could have academic freedom and a place where we could do research that wasn’t in the private sphere. It was something that was not only a public institution, where we would offer education that would be open and free to students, but also a place where we knew we were protected and could research things that were outside of the private sector. That we could have the job security to do that. But, what’s happened in the past 5-10 years is that, increasingly through different ways, this has been cut back on, or at least reframed, in the sense that we’re now working for a corporatized university. Not only are there tuition fees imposed on the students but the whole model that we’re now forced to conform to, as researchers, as lecturers, and then as employees of the university, is streamlined towards this corporate structure. This means that we now have targets that we have to meet, we have more constraints on our research, more constraints on what we can say because we’re told that we now represent this university that has a strict party line. All of this is something that is very new to the higher education model and very new to people who finished PHDs thinking that we would be in a space where we could actually think outside the box, and do radical research, and now more and more we’re told that, a) we can’t do that and, b) we don’t even have the job security to actually be creative or to even invest in our students. That whole break down between lecturers and students has been enforced through tuition fees and this kind of client/provider relationship where students expect us to give them a certain product and we’re meant to teach accordingly, to very strict ends orientated means.
So far what has been the response from the lecturers themselves during this period. Also, what has been the response of the union?
I think that the union didn’t even expect this much support for the strike and the numbers of members have grown considerably since the strike, since the ballot even, so that’s really really positive. In terms of the response for lecturers, I think generally there’s just a widespread dissatisfaction with the way that our jobs are changing and with all of these cuts on our job security. Whether people are out on the picket lines or they are not I think everyone knows the tides are turning and there’s a lot of fear and anxiety about what’s happening.
What are your thoughts on the scope of this particular action? The UCU took action a few years ago. How does this strike compare?
In the past the UCU, and their actions, have been focused on more particular issues such as salary and also precarious work. Things like the precarity of new lecturers and the lack of job security for people who are entering into teaching only contracts and fixed term contracts. I think that, with this action, specially because it is a pension issue, this now effects people across the board. Senior professors as well as junior lecturers. It’s something that has much broader scope and it’s not just lecturers. We’ve been on the picket line here and I’ve been reminded that it is admin staff as well that are affected by this cut so this action, in particular, opens on to a lot more of the UCU membership. That’s not to say that I don’t think that people should have been not in support of the previous actions but I just think that this one cuts closer to home for people who just basically want freedom after they retire. It’s a very kind of broad reaching. It doesn’t even matter on your politics basically. I think a lot of people are in support of it because of this.
What has been the impact of the marketization of education on the relationship between lecturers and their students? How do you feel that has expressed itself? Do you feel you’re getting much support from students on campus?
The support from students has been outstanding. We’re so thrilled. It’s incredible what the guild (EDITOR: Liverpool Guild of Students is the Student Union at University of Liverpool) has done and, also, on an individual level I’ve had a lot of students come and talk to me who are very supportive and that is just wonderful. Actually, it gives pause for thought about all of this critique that students are now just expecting a product and this relationship is changing and everything. I do know that there has been a difference, even I’ve been teaching for six years, and within those six years I do feel like there is a difference in the way that students speak about assessments and about the expectations that they have from lecturers. I think two things are happening. On the one hand, there is this shift between what students expect from the lecturers but then, on the other hand, I think that students are more copped on than people give them credit for and I think that they’re aware that there is a fight that needs to be fought to protect higher education and specially with fees. If the two are linked, which the guild has done really well to link this with more of the changes in terms of fees and tuition in higher education, then that’s where we can get a really broad base of support.
Where next from here? What will happen in the future, after the 14 days of strike action?
None of us want to be on strike and that’s the bottom line. This is awful for everyone involved and we do not want to be doing this so, the hope is that it won’t last fourteen days. The hope is that Universities UK will actually come to the negotiating table. Having said that, if we have to be on strike for fourteen days we will and following that there has been discussion from Sally Hunt (Editor: General Secretary of the UCU) from UCU, that there’ll be action short of strike, so basically working to contract. I think, its hard to tell so I can’t make predications but, I think what’s most important is that the management, Universities UK, actually see that we’re serious about this and we will strike for those fourteen days and we won’t back down. I think that’s actually unexpected actually because I think, based on previous actions, they haven’t believed that we would actually come out in this force so, yeah, we have to do what we can and hope for the best.
Do you have any message you’d like to give to students who are unaware of the issues around the strike or about how they can get involved in support of the action?
The Guild has done incredible work so, first and foremost, I’ve told all of my students to really reach out to the guild, get as much information as you can from them. In terms of my personal things too, I think its important for students to realise that we don’t want to be doing this but we’re doing this not only for our pensions and for our future and for the future of higher education and for better relationships between everyone who’s involved in universities and for work in the future. It’s not just universities and our pension schemes that are being cut. this is happening in labour sectors across the board and I think all our students, we care so much about their future and about their job prospects after graduation so, this is all part of the same struggle to just make sure that there are jobs that are available for them in the future, that will give them job security, that will be respected and that will actually support futures for everyone, for all of us so yeah, I think students really really have avenues, especially because there are so many good student leaders in Liverpool and across the country, so they have avenues where they can get involved and they can get information and just be in solidarity with us rather than feel that we are somehow trying to sabotage their degrees.