Why the UCU strikes are bound to be insufficient to ensure equality

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Jan Deckers, Newcastle University

Jan Deckers, contributor to Justice and fairness in the city, talks about the UCU strikes, currently underway.

“Members of UCU, the University and College Union are on strike over a proposed change in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), or pension scheme. The crux of this proposal is a transition from a Defined Benefit to a Defined Contribution scheme, where it will be much less clear what benefits employees will receive when they retire. Whilst employers would reduce their contributions from 18% of salary before tax to just 12%, employees would shoulder greater individual risk due to individual (rather than collective) portfolios being gambled on the stock market.

We are all in this together, right? The fight over pensions essentially pits the hierarchies of higher education institutions against those who are lower on the echelons of power, as the executive heads of UK universities and colleges make up Universities UK, a charity that, amongst other things, negotiates pensions with USS. Whilst not all vice-chancellors and principals are united in the push for changes in said pension scheme, the rift suggests a worrying trend as salaries of senior academics have increasingly been criticised as unfair.

In my work I consider how salaries ought to be allocated within large organisations, and I have provided my own organisation, Newcastle University, as an example. I argue that decisions about what people’s salaries, and therefore also their work pensions (or deferred payments), ought to be are best made by starting from an egalitarian baseline. Any changes from this baseline must be justified by reference to a number of criteria. These include: controllable effort; duties in relation to unpaid work; health care needs; morally significant debts; and historic unfairness.

Let us take each of these factors in turn. It is important to start from an egalitarian baseline where every employee is paid the same amount for each hour worked as, in the absence of countervailing evidence, treating people equally demands that we assume that they work equally hard. In practice, however, people’s commitments vary, which is where controllable effort comes in. Whilst it may be unfair to discriminate against those who may be naturally or culturally predisposed to be less committed, it seems fair to reward those who voluntarily work harder. A pat on the back in the form of a bonus payment can incentivise hard workers to keep up the good work or to work even harder.

Where governments fail, employers should also compensate for employees’ varying duties in relation to morally important unpaid work, for example for the many hours of care work that is predominantly carried out by women. Their health care needs are as important as everyone else’s. This is why employers must more generally vary payments so that those with complex or expensive health care needs that are insufficiently addressed by governments and insurance schemes can afford the health care that they deserve. Payments must also consider morally significant debts, for example, those that some employees may have accumulated to qualify for their jobs. Finally, payments must also take into account historic unfairness. Yes, some who have been overpaid in the past may justifiably be paid less in the future.

“…without explicit attention and careful calibration of these morally significant factors, the battle over pensions is likely to be dominated by the narrow self-interests of individuals and their institutions.”

There is no evidence that careful consideration of these criteria has altered decision-making in large organisations, and a dearth of evidence that they have been discussed in the academic literature, in spite of this neglect resulting in significant negative health impacts. My fear, however, is that without explicit attention and careful calibration of these morally significant factors, the battle over pensions is likely to be dominated by the narrow self-interests of individuals and their institutions.


Credit:  Flickr: Nick Efford (CC BY 2.0)

Many of my colleagues know that there is something rotten in the state, but one does not need to become a comrade to know that the occasional handouts, usually around Christmas time, to poorly paid staff are not quite sufficient to trigger significant change for the better. Unless current discussions regarding this pension scheme engage in serious discussion about these criteria, it is my concern that especially those who will be the worst off may come to rely even more on charity, rather than on fairness, from those who wield power over them.

It might be argued that the fair pay and pension scheme that I have sketched here is not fair either as it falls foul of what I call the ‘brain drain’ objection. A charity such as Universities UK might seek to justify a less egalitarian scheme by appealing to some notion of the greater good or the lesser evil. If a more egalitarian scheme was implemented, it might lead to people with big brains leaving higher education, resulting in a loss in economic power and an even greater deficit in the pension scheme than that envisaged by Universities UK, which is based on a rather dire prediction. Whilst the ‘brain drain’ objection must be taken seriously, it is rather ironic that this prediction suggests that there is little confidence in the future of higher education in the UK, at a time when the managers of various institutions have awarded themselves significant pay rises for their efforts to secure this future.

In all this, it must be emphasised that this lack of solidarity has a significant inter-generational component. However, not only younger academic colleagues stand to lose a lot. Now that many students in the UK have to pay tuition fees for which they enter into significant debt, these same students will lose out once again as they face the negative consequences of strike action, for example through class cancellations.

Justice and fairness in the city_for web [FC]

Justice and fairness in the city, edited by Simin Davoudi and Derek Bell was published in 2016 and is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £19.99. Jan’s chapter from the book is available to read free here.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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