The senior management team (SMT) at Goldsmiths, University of London has refused to publicly condemn the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions that have resulted in staff at the university taking industrial action.
On 22 January the University and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action, with 81 per cent of members backing the move and a further 93 per cent supporting action just short of a strike.
Walk-outs have been planned by 61 out of 68 universities, with Goldsmiths UCU members voting overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed strike action.
Seven universities who did not reach the 50 per cent threshold required for action as set out by the Trade Union Act 2016 are to be balloted again, with a deadline of 16 February. The proposed strikes are set to take place on the following dates;
- Thu 22, Fri 23 February
- Mon 26, Tue 27, Wed 28 February
- Mon 5, Tue 6, Wed 7, Thu 8 March
- Mon 12, Tue 13, Wed 14, Thu 15, Fri 16 March
Goldsmiths has a rich and proud history of political activism, but it seems that the SMT is becoming increasingly out of touch with the staff and students that make the college such a vibrant and great place to come and study.
When asked directly if the SMT planned to support those who are choosing to strike, a spokesperson for the college said: “Goldsmiths is not in a position to resolve the dispute locally.”
However, a member of the Goldsmiths UCU branch has confirmed to [smiths] that the organisation wrote to the warden, Pat Loughrey, asking him to publicly condemn the changes but he replied declining to do so.
Management at Warwick, Loughborough and Glasgow universities have all publicly denounced the planned changes. Vice-chancellor of Warwick, Stuart Croft, criticised the “increasingly conservative changes to the USS” in a published letter to Universities UK’s (UUK) chief executive.
Goldsmiths Students’ Union has said in a statement that “management and the body negotiating on their behalf hold the cards and the ability to reach an agreement so that staff do not have to strike.”
In an unwavering show of support for staff released on 2 February, the statement continued: “Strike action is a final resort for staff and a decision not easily made – after all staff will not be paid for days they are striking on.
“For students who are angry about the strike it is important that this anger is directed at management, not the staff who teach us on a daily basis.”
Gholam Khiabany, equalities representative for the Goldsmiths branch of the UCU told [smiths] that “there is significant and undeniable evidence that students are supportive of their lecturers, something that universities were not imagining.”
Khiabany also moved to reassure students who attend university on the days that strike action is planned, saying that there will be no animosity shown towards those planning to cross picket lines to access buildings. He also confirmed that the library will not be picketed.
It is estimated that some members of staff could lose up to £200,000 from their pensions if the changes are implemented, and the college confirmed on 2 February that members who strike will not be paid for their absence and it remains unclear if there are any plans to compensate them for their loss of earnings.
The college did say however that withheld salary would be donated into the student hardship fund but did not clarify how much it anticipates this figure to be, when it plans to make the donation or outline a concrete procedure of how the transfer would take place.
A statement on the university’s website is asking “UCU members who intend to strike to ‘self-declare’ to ensure that their pay can be transferred.
Not everyone is eligible for the fund as students “must be receiving an element of living cost support, rather than just tuition fees.” The application form to the fund confirms that students with international or EU status are ineligible.
However, a webpage dedicated to the scheme says that international/EU students may be eligible but “only after visiting the Student Centre first”.
Hanna, an EU student who is in the final year of her BA politics degree, says Goldsmiths needs to be clearer about what is happening to the withheld funds.
Speaking to [smiths], she said: “I am fully in favour of the UCU’s industrial action, but I do think there are unresolved issues with regards to the withholding of salaries. We can only speculate as to how much surplus cash the university will be in receipt of if the strike action goes ahead.”
“The university needs to stop pitting the staff against the students in this situation and reimburse both.”
At the time of writing it remains unclear whether those who are ineligible for the student hardship fund will be compensated for losses to their teaching time.
Although the UCU announced its decision to strike on 22 January, it took until 2 February before the college communicated any information in an official capacity to staff or students about the proposed action.
Delays in communication meant that many students were left confused and frustrated by the situation, often having to rely upon national reports in the media and individual departments and members of staff who had been left to fill the void.
Some took to social media networking sites to speak with their peers in order to try and understand what was happening:
Disputes arose between the UCU and UUK, the representative organisation for UK universities, after the latter proposed alterations to UCU members pensions, citing a £12.5 billion shortfall in the scheme’s liabilities. The UCU disputes the figure as “overly pessimistic”.
Changes to the USS would see UCU members’ pensions switched from a defined benefits scheme to a defined contributions scheme.
Effectively this means that pension contributions would be decided by returns on the stock market and the speculation of bankers in the City, as opposed to a guaranteed amount.
Goldsmiths Students’ Union is to meet with the SMT on 6 February to relay its support for staff and convey the anger felt by many students.
It is also welcoming students who want to discuss the strike to attend Thursday’s Student Assembly where a motion on the strike has been submitted.
Words: Matt Mathers
Image: Wiki Commons