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Slashing pensions is a betrayal of staff and students

"It is in no-one's interest to destroy the existing academic system and replace it with something much worse."

For many of us in the university sphere, being able to protest about something we’re passionate about is a pastime that we’ve had the fortune to experience first hand. Whether it be protesting certain political leaders or fighting for the rights of marginalised groups, taking action for something that is important to us isn’t an uncommon notion.

This fact has become even more magnified in light of the strike action being taken by academics across the UK. These strikes come in the wake of a proposal by the UUK to change the USS pension scheme. The proposal would cause detrimental cuts of up to £200,000 from academics’ retirement funds.

A group of professors from Royal Holloway have decided to partake in the upcoming strike. I had the chance to correspond with Gregory Claeys, a Professor of History of Political Thought at RHUL, via email in order to gain an academic’s perspective on the situation. He explained to me that there were four issues central to the cause.

The first issue is that the proposed cut profoundly violates an agreement made between administrators and the academics who chose to work at Royal Holloway on the basis that they would receive the existing pension scheme upon their retirement.

‘Many of us could work or could have worked elsewhere,’ Claeys says. ‘I left a better paid job in the US and turned down a job which (it now transpires) would have paid a better pension, in Germany, to stay here. So the proposed reduction of up to £10,000 [per year] in pension payments is little more than a broken promise for those already in the system.’

The second issue, he explains, is that the reductions to academics’ pay over the past decade provides little appeal for potential applicants. With the added slashing of pensions, becoming an academic in the UK is even less attractive to anyone trying to enter the field. ‘Many departments have lost colleagues to the US, Australia, Germany and elsewhere, where salaries and pensions are better,’ Claeys comments.

Moreover, if universities decide to go through with the cuts, it would betray any sense of trust once held in the system. ‘How can we persuade new colleagues to [work here] when there is no assurance that the employment offer made by the College will be honoured down the road?’

The third reason academics are striking is because the administrators making the decision to cut pensions are not subject to the cuts themselves, a severe injustice to the professors they employ. ‘Not only are salaries amongst senior managers much higher than the academic average,’ Claeys says. ‘Some set their own salaries, and can add to their pension pots pretty much as they please.’

The final concern from academics (particularly those at Royal Holloway) is that the College has enough money to continue the current pension plan for the academics they’ve hired, but instead, chooses to focus on building new facilities. ‘It is as important — probably more important — to invest in staff as [it is to invest] in buildings,’ Claeys argues. ‘We have the means to do so. It’s just a matter of will at the top.’

Despite good cause for protest, academics have faced criticism from students who are concerned that the tuition money (a fee which has, within the past year, been raised) they paid to the university won’t be exchanged for the education promised. This, however, should not fall on the shoulders of the professors on strike, but rather to the vice-chancellors who aren’t willing to budge on the prevailing matter, and ultimately, whose decision it is.

‘In sum,’ Claeys concludes. ‘It’s pretty clear to me that this action, while regrettable, is wholly justified. It is in no-one’s interest to destroy the existing academic system and replace it with something much worse.’ We, as a student body, should stand in solidarity with our professors—just as we would at any other protest we might partake in—and demand compensation from the vice-chancellors of our universities who are solely responsible for the interruption to our education.

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