Only two days into 14 days of planned strike action by academic staff in Queen’s University, the University of Ulster and 59 universities across Britain and the front page headline of the Times ran “University chiefs split as strikes cause chaos!” Some university bosses went so far as to publicly criticise the plans to scrap defined benefit pensions and declared support for the strike.

88% of UCU members voted for action on a turnout of 58% – that’s the largest turnout the University and College Union (UCU) has ever recorded in a national ballot and reflects massive anger at this attack on their pensions, which would mean the average lecturer will be around £200,000 worse off in retirement. Most staff will lose 50% or more of their pension. The Pension Regulator has claimed that the fund is in deficit but research commissioned by UCU shows the pension fund is in fact in surplus. The employers refuse point-blank to consider increasing their contributions!

The strength of the strike shows that university workers have had enough of marketisation and privatisation. This strike is primarily about saving pensions, but it expresses anger at real pay cuts of 18% over the last decade, the largest gender pay gap in universities in the Western world and increasing casualisation and attacks on conditions. For most university workers, particularly the low-paid and casualised, there is a feeling that they have been pushed too far.

Channel 4’s Dispatches has revealed that university Vice-Chancellors have claimed an astonishing £8 million in ‘expenses’. The Vice-Chancellor at Queen’s University receives a salary of £327,000 and their equivalent at the University of Ulster is not far behind on £311,000. Meanwhile, the Chief Executive of the lecturers’ pension scheme received a 17% pay-rise worth an extra £82,000 this year.

The strike at Queen’s has been strong, with lively rallies and a regular Alternative University where the striking staff give lectures in the nearby Crescent Arts Centre, open to the public. Despite the media’s attempts to divide, the strikers have been widely supported by students, with a YouGov poll showing just 2% blaming staff for the strikes but over 50% blaming management.

As we go to press, Universities UK bosses have been forced to go into formal arbitration with the union. The strike should be an inspiration to other public sector workers who have been subjected to similar attacks. The trade union leaderships should give a lead to these workers and prepare for coordinated action to defend pensions and win pay increases across the public sector.

By Kevin Henry