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Why I will vote Yes to suspend industrial action

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After intensive strike action, Universities UK have now come forward with a proposal to staff in universities on the Universities Superannuation Scheme which the union has put to members to be voted on.

There has been intense argument on social media about which way to vote. It is clearly very important that all UCU members vote in order to come to a sound democratic decision on whether the offer about pensions is good enough, and we can suspend (not end) strike action and go back to teaching as normal, or should we reject the offer and continue to strike.

I have been on holiday and will have to come back onto email in order to vote. I have done my best to look at material about the offer while also taking time off with my young daughter. I am going to vote in favour of accepting the offer.

The offer is a substantial move from the employers' original position, which was that they would not negotiate - they have gone with the union to ACAS to do so, and that they were determined to move from a defined benefits scheme because of a massive deficit in the pension budget. They have now agreed to a joint board chosen equally by the employers and the union which will re-valuate the deficit, and they have recognised that the vast majority of those of us who have invested in the pension fund want a secure defined benefits scheme rather than what one speaker at a rally described as the 'chocolate teapot' of a pension which they tried to make us accept.

Why would we not accept this offer? So far as I can see, people against it have no trust in UUK and expect them to renege on their offer. There has been a lot of detailed unpicking of the wording of the offer, suggesting it is full of little loopholes.

I do not trust UUK either, but I trust the process. I trust that ACAS and the union, who have brought us this far, will watch over my interests. Sally Hunt raised her serious concerns about the pension proposals from very early on and the union worked extremely hard to get us to come out on strike at all. I believe they have a good understanding of what is going on.

People also complain that the proposal should not have been put to members, as it is merely a suggested process not a complete cave-in by the employers. I say: Let's be magnanimous. We, the employers and the British media (see articles not only in The Guardian and Times Higher Education Supplement, but even in the Financial Times) know that the employers were caught with their pants down. They were stupid to assume they could put such a poor valuation assessment of our pension fund in front of university staff, who include Emeritus Professors of Economics, Business Studies, Pension experts, Statisticians and many others who took their chocolate teapot apart in blogposts and explained exactly where the beans had come from. Let's allow them to pull their pants back up in private in the joint re-valuation committee.

We had to be allowed to vote on this proposal now, because if we left the vote any longer, we would not have time to vote before having to take strike action during assessment. We must have a democratic mandate if we are to do that.

Those who say Reject the offer, argue that we should not lose momentum. They believe the employers only want to get us through the crucial exam period and then will renege on their words.

I believe that the process will not allow them to do this, and that they are under scrutiny not just from our union and ACAS, also from interested media and therefore the public (including supportive students and their families). Exams are like spring. They come round every year (eventually). We are suspending our action, not ending it. If as the months go forward, UUK do renege on their recognition of the kind of pension we want to invest in, we will be able to strike during exam period next year.

We would be able to do that with continued popular support. I believe that if we drag the strike on this year in the face of an offer from the employers, we will lose the vital support we have had from students and their families, the media and many key politicians. (Perhaps that is what the employers hope will happen.)

But yes - we need to keep up pressure.

We need to do this by moving on from the battle over pensions. Perhaps it is not won yet. However, we need to leave picked personnel to take care of that for us (like union officers and our chosen members of the committee to re-consider the valuation of the pension fund, and lawyers who could oversee the process for us).

We should move on to other aspects of the neoliberalisation of universities. This is where the real deal is. Issues over our pensions arose because of the general trend of universities towards marketisation. There are several other fronts where we need to focus attention in order to win the war.

  1. We at the Open University are dealing with a vote of No Confidence, not just in our Vice Chancellor in person but in the whole Executive who have sought to introduce neoliberal principles to the detriment of our social justice mission. I regard this as a test case in education values: should education be market-driven, or driven by humanism.
  2. Coventry University have had an organisation imposed on them which means they can't stand collectively with the rest of us in the University and Colleges Union. We must defend our collective bargaining position.
  3. Casualisation blights our teaching and research provision.
  4. Our workloads have gone through the roof. Tiredness and stress are leading to health issues which affect most academics - while universities trumpet their support for student mental health initiatives.

I want to shift my efforts now to raising awareness of those problems, with my voice and my political will. (After I have had what's left of my holiday! wide eyes So far I've only had to sort out one poor student in difficulties so it's been a good break smile Oh, and I recruited another student for the Open University in Scotland who was unable to access traditional university and thrilled when she realised that she could study with us - for free, and without having to do a lot of GCSEs first. You owe me one @OUScotland.)

From a short walk in Roslin Glen.

Misty trees on a hillside Green bluebell leaves under the trees

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 8 Apr 2018, 12:10)
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Black cat and pink blanket

Casual attitude to workers

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Thursday, 22 Mar 2018, 12:40

One of the concerns of strikers at traditional universities is that if we lose the battle for secure pensions, the employers will seize the opportunity to break the union and its national pay bargaining power. They will look to employ people on casual contracts instead of offering permanent work with proper benefits like ... pensions. 

As the UCU have been arguing for a long time, universities are already riddled with poor casual work practice. Research in particular is sustained by low paid insecurely contracted staff (see this blogpost). One tweet during the strike mentioned a passer-by's incredulity when it was explained to him that a group of science researchers looking into cures for a range of devastating illnesses were all employed on low paid insecure contracts. 

Teaching is not far behind, with postgraduate students scrabbling for hourly paid work, even though this only pays for the actual hour they are with students, not for any of the substantial preparation time needed. We are supposed to be gearing students up for better jobs - while on immiserating contracts ourselves. 

As so often, the Open University is well ahead of the curve here. Our teaching has historically been delivered on short term contracts, which have only gradually had some working rights attached to them. Our contracts are 'casualised' rather than casual. It looks like things may get better for us, but for the sake of those in traditional universities who wonder what casualised work might mean, I will explain. (NB teaching at the Open University is unlike that in traditional universities. A permanent academic team put together teaching materials with a highly qualified but casualised set of Associate Lecturers supporting student engagement through blended learning.) 

It is very difficult to deliver high quality teaching on a casual contract, and next to impossible to do this if you have to write the lectures as well. I have done that too - staying up til 3 am to write a lecture which I would deliver the next day, unable to give the students reading material until the day of the lecture because I was writing it the night before. Then the following year throwing all those lectures in the bin and writing a fresh set on a completely different subject. I wasn't needed to deliver the first set of lectures any more, but had found yet another short term contract to do something else which I always hoped would turn into a secure job. Every contract ended in praise and congratulations, never in secure work. It took me a long time to realise that for that, I ought to have spent as little time as possible on my teaching (or the public policy research I was also doing) and focussed on polishing abstruse research publications. 

Recently things at the Open University have improved. Previously, I used to get a redundancy notice a few months before teaching was due to start, followed by a surreptitious email from line managers telling me in vague legally restricted phrases not to worry too much. A couple of weeks before the allocation of student groups, I would suddenly get definite confirmation that I had the work.

One year I was hurriedly phoned up and verbally appointed two weeks before the start of a postgraduate module. I had to learn all the materials myself as quickly as I could, keeping just ahead of the students and constantly asking supportive colleagues (who were not paid for the kind help they gave me) 'stupid' questions about the assignments so as to be prepared to explain them to the students. I did not know if I would still be wanted the next year, so it was hard to motivate myself and carry on working on that module once the teaching had finished. 

I have colleagues who take on temporary management contracts in hopes of getting into a more permanent position via that route. They can't let their teaching go in case the management post doesn't become permanent. They are working themselves into the ground, but can hardly be expected to deliver as effectively on the quadruple hours they are having to put in. 

Because our contracts are strictly limited to the teaching period, we can't be asked to contribute to feedback and development of the module to improve it for the next year's teaching until a few days before it goes live. A clause has had to be inserted to say that for the month before the module starts, we should do some work towards it without receiving pay. I have sometimes struggled to find the money to travel to teach, because I haven't yet been paid for the teaching. 

Even as I write this post, I'm thinking I want to do two big loads of marking work I have got in hand, check over my slides for a tutorial I'm giving on Monday - but that maybe I should prioritise applying for a new teaching contract which has just been advertised. It's not in an area I particularly want to teach, but I can't afford not to try for it. 

I am a single working mum. The many disadvantages of casualised work have a big impact on my family life. The hugely variable monthly income (some months my pay is double what I get in other months) makes it difficult to budget and plan. From year to year, I am never quite sure what work I will have in hand. At one point, I feared I would have no work for six months of the year, yet be unable to claim any benefits or tax credits because I would have a potential upcoming contract for six months' time so be deemed to be making myself unavailable for work. When I was looking to buy a home, no bank would give me even the tiny mortgage of £5-10K I was looking for - they all said my contracts were too insecure. 

The National Director of Relate Cymru recently appealed to Welsh Government to review support for children's mental health. He linked rising demand for mental health support from children and young people to difficult family lives. The effect on my own family of my stressful contractual situation has been very severe. We lived for a long time with a sense of impending doom, fearing that at very short notice our means of living could be almost entirely snatched away. Ironically (yes, my teaching is so full of irony that I ought to set up a laundry!), my module materials include a film about people accessing a food bank near my home - which I have sometimes thought I might have to go and get food from myself. 

I did say the Open University is often ahead of the curve. They have been in negotiations for ten years to move Associate Lecturers like myself onto permanent contracts. These negotiations had foundered, and when he arrived at the university our Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks made them a priority. As well as negotiating over pensions, the Open University union branch and the university have continued to work on this as well as other major issues of employment and working conditions. The last announcement was that they still hope we will get our permanent contracts this summer. 

This may be a Pyrrhic victory. Proposals are being put forward to slash our contact hours with students and restrict us to giving them written marking feedback. More on why the union and ourselves feel this would spell the end of the Open University soon. First I want to talk about support staff and the way we in the Open University work as a team to deliver student learning. And before that, I thought I would talk about why this could be the best job in the world. 


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