The University and College Union’s strike action is about pensions. Employers in the USS scheme want to end guaranteed pension benefits and to replace them with a defined contribution scheme which would be vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. This transfers what for employers is a shared low risk across institutions, to high risk for individual employees. Pertinent to criminologists are the discourses of risk and ‘affordability’ that have surrounded the justifications offered by Universities UK, the employers’ association, not to mention the highly questionable risk calculations conducted by USS. They reveal the deep politicisation of conceptions of risk and how these shape material circumstances.
The changes to the USS pension scheme represent a huge diminution in employment standards for all of those in the scheme. A decline in the value of pensions does, however, hit some harder than others. Women are more likely to work part time and to take periods of parental leave. Across the higher education sector, they also earn less than men. This means that, disproportionately, their pensions are already lower in value. Increased use of casual and insecure labour across the sector also means a generation of academics whose pension contributions are delayed and/or interrupted, assuming that they do eventually find a permanent post. As criminologists we are concerned about gender and generational justice and this is also why the strike is important to us.
It is not simply the effects of substantive pension cuts on academics and other colleagues in higher education that we need to consider. There must also be some thought to how these cuts affect and shape our students – the criminologists of tomorrow. We take for granted, as academics in the UK, that if in a permanent position we can rely upon one job to sustain our lives and plan for our retirement. However, in numerous countries across the West and Global South, many university staff moonlight in second positions. Drastic reductions to our working conditions, of the kind presaged by the pensions raid, are likely to spell later retirement, and possibly taking second jobs to maintain living standards. Indeed, increased casualisation already entails teaching at more than one institution, or holding more than one job, for many. The associated stress on mental and physical health induced by degraded employment conditions will have a detrimental effect on teaching and learning in the classroom.
Particularly alarming during the current strike (although not entirely unsurprising) has been the alacrity with which some universities have threatened punitive sanctions against their employees taking lawful industrial action. This is clearly of concern for criminologists given our analyses of the ways in which punishment and control operate, especially under neoliberalism. Threats of 100% pay deductions for refusal to reschedule classes missed during the strike (for which payment has already been withheld) are clear attempts at strike breaking, as are the ‘milder’ threats of 20-25% pay docking. Institutions are beginning to retreat from this position, demonstrating the importance and continued relevance of collective action. Of significance is the willingness of senior management to treat their colleagues, who make the university what it is, in this punitive way. It is important for us as criminologists to challenge the punitive workplace, both for our future colleagues and to take a principled stand against this behaviour. We fully acknowledge that the lowest paid and most insecurely employed experience the brunt of such punitive workplace practices, which is why we must seek to resist them.
It should not be forgotten that as academics we are also workers. The long apprenticeship through postgraduate study, the dedication to critical thought, and the passion for education, are overriding values that sometimes blind us to the tide of managerialism that constantly washes through our working lives. We often bristle at the prospect of additional administrative duties, perhaps because we have separated our academic labour from the world of work and absorbed it, unhealthily, into our selves. This is why strike action is never something academics take lightly; it disrupts not just our place of work but our sense of self. We are taking strike action now because the somewhat inevitable blurring of a work-life balance within the academy is being, at best, misunderstood; at worst, abused. Precarious working and retirement conditions renders research as output, learning as content, critical thinking as an unmarketable indulgence. Enthusiasm is not just infectious; it is a pedagogical imperative. How enthusiastic, and therefore effective, can one be as a criminologist lamenting the neoliberal penal state while simultaneously acquiescing to just such a turn in higher education?
The teaching of criminology is a lens through which we see academia reflected back at us. We find ourselves encouraging students to think critically about the difficulties facing the criminal justice system. Significant funding cuts and pressure to meet targets have been accompanied by a consumerist mandate which might lead to inequalities of justice. Customers of the justice system are encouraged to complain about the service that they receive and while the powerful often elude justice, it is propped up by the more disadvantaged within society. These issues are mirrored in our academic lives – we are what we teach.
We might find familiarity too in Durkheimian notions of strain. In the pursuit of an academic career we must be writers; teachers; administrators; presenters; networkers; counsellors and thinkers. Competing for scarce funding resources we are placed under increasing strain but continue in our endeavours because we are passionate about what we do but have, until now, hoped for some future adequate remuneration in the form of pensions. The resultant strain means that many of us no longer wish to continue to be conformists or ritualists, but are rebelling against the prevailing discourse and seeking to challenge our roles within the University.
Universities rely upon our good will, our sincere belief in Criminology as a discipline and the benefits of its promulgation through tertiary education. So, when we are confronted with such bad faith negotiations as those levied by UUK, universities run the risk of undermining that good will, of draining its enthusiasm and sincerity. This is the end game of neoliberalism, and if management are so short-sighted as to deny the existential threat posed to critical thinking in the social sciences more broadly, but perhaps most pointedly Criminology, it is our duty to provide them with some perspective. Picket placards have been proclaiming to students for the past fortnight “Our Working Conditions are Your Learning Conditions”. The groundswell of support from students up and down the country, on picket lines and online, demonstrates they are all too aware of this. We strike to reassert our power as workers, our lives as labours of love, and because our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.