We’ve had enough! Lecturers, especially juniors and sessional teachers, must stop whining about their pensions

On Monday, the national UCU strike will be in its sixth day. A disgruntled commentator wants to let you know that moaning isn’t enough: it’s time to act for the livelihoods of members of staff across the country!

There are fundamental facts of reality that those chattering about the restructuring of USS pensions – from (guaranteed monthly income) Defined Benefits to (market based, lump sum) Defined Contributions1 – need to consider. I particularly want to address sessional teaching staff, young academics and dedicated teaching staff; as well as all those students who are taught by these academics. I’m sorry but it’s time for a reality check. You need to stop moaning. And you need to bring an appropriate end to all this nonsense.

Firstly, yes, yes: academics have trained for a considerable number of years beyond undergraduate education, before they are even qualified to apply for the most junior academic jobs. While graduate salaries averaged £22,000 in 20162, those choosing an academic vocation will need to forgo earnings, and for a good while. Humanities or Social Science academics will undertake a one or even two year master’s degree, and then, of course, academics do need a PhD. These are at least three years, although four years is more realistic, and, ok, completion statistics are probably actually compiled over a seven year period for good reason.3

However! Some of this further education might be funded, right? Now, it is true that a staggering three-quarters of Postgraduate Taught students pay their own tuition and living themselves costs, often through significant debt.4 But, PhD students can get support for a combination of tuition fee payments and a stipend; although admittedly the ESRC’s tax free 15K is well below potential earnings outside academia where the mean salary of postgraduate students entering employment is estimated to be as much as 55K, and this is quite a lot higher even if they do have to pay tax.5 And, it is also true that in 2012/13 a fairly significant 38% of UK doctorates were actually entirely self-funded6, potentially through even more debt7; and yes, ok, this is a form of revenue that some universities do openly talk about “exploiting8 (which is a bit harsh). However, hard working doctoral student can earn money by taking on sessional teaching: working on, admittedly, a rather Dickensian ‘piece work’ basis, getting paid by the hour (likely £14 at Warwick 9), as and when work is available. This should be good, even if the University has allowed poor procedure to “cause financial hardship for some”10. But it’s these sessional staff members that often whine the most about the pensions issue and the strike, as the impact on their income is rather catastrophic: loosing potentially all their household income and undermining their ability to get future jobs. However, I still think it’s time you gave serious thought how you respond.

After all, once you do get through that PhD, have obtained teaching experience, ideally a teaching qualification, there are contracts going for teaching! At the University of Warwick you can start earning just under 30K a year (as a Teaching Fellow). Now, this the same as the average UK income for a graduate of 30 years old, though depending on your disciplinary specialism, many could likely earn much more in industry, finance or business.11 This is of course also a first ‘real’ job, and definitely doesn’t quickly financially compensate for the previous 5-10 years of non-earnings; it won’t immediately help repay the likely significant debts; and it’s only now that those with PhDs will even think about contributing to a pension.12 However, you have to remember that this work brings intellectual and ethical satisfaction, right? You do something that you perceive matters fundamentally to society: you help students learn and hopefully find meaningful roles in life. Of course, none of this pays the bills or adds to savings, but you have moaned enough. I get it.

Now, it’s obviously relevant that of all the staff employed at Warwick, about 40% perform both research and teaching, while the remaining specialise in either research or teaching.13 The latter category are of course responsible for a tremendous amount of undergraduate teaching and pastoral provision. Now it arguably sits in tension with the University of Warwick’s discourse about teaching excellence14 15, that the majority of those dedicated to teaching Warwick students, 55% of them, do work under a double handicap: being on both part-time and fixed-term contracts. Now, 12 month contracts do make it a lot harder to get a mortgage, and much riskier if you are prepared to take on high interest payment for this incredibly privileged opportunity—so yes, to a large extent these teachers are subsidising the University’s ability to operate without risking long term investment in the necessary labour to execute its function. But moaning about this is widespread, and people in this position are the second loudest on pension reforms: whining about how, part-time fixed term contracts are disgraceful, and how aside from the emotional reward of supporting students, it’s only the prospect of a guaranteed, fairly decent pension, that helped make it worthwhile. Blah, blah, blah.

Something these staff should consider is that if they have the fortitude to hang on, put off having a family, rent rather than buy a house, survive on their passion and dedication for some number of years, there is some chance they can obtain better conditions. There are after all opportunities to become permanent, perhaps working as a Senior Teaching Fellow! Now it is true that of all the staff dedicated to teaching in the university, only 190 (therefore, 24% of dedicated teaching staff FPE), are both full time and permanent. So yes, the competition you will need to face to live your vocation, to invest in improving teaching quality for students, is pretty stiff, and many people won’t make it.

It is also true that like all academics, you will be given a notional contract of 37 hours, but it will be contractually stated that “‘staff are expected to work such hours as are necessary to meet the responsibilities of’ their position (including weekends if necessary)”, and therefore, far more work than Dolly Parton ever even imagined in her critique of the 9-to-5. Indeed, you will likely need to spend whole weekends and many evening desperately trying to provide high quality feedback within a timescale useful for students, meetings admissions deadlines; and of course, work Saturday open days etc. And although it is true that although on paper you get loads of holidays, you will probably never ever use anywhere near all of these, because you will likely work most of the summer preparing new teaching, trying to research and write; I suppose this might be because it’s the only way to get recognised and promoted, but it’s also because you just love it so much, right? Indeed, like me and at least one other colleague I know, you might well even end up spending your Christmas Eve night working: but ‘hello’, there are other Christmases. And, you shouldn’t overlook the flexibility: if you need a morning off to go to the dentist, and you are not teaching, and there is no urgent student welfare needs, or meetings, or admin you haven’t yet done, which ok is rare, you can go! Plus, if all this does become rather too much, you can rest assured that universities are increasingly investing in welfare councillors to meet the demand from for both students and staff.16

Also, if you can navigate a promotions system – and the current structural bias against those more passionate about student learning than research publication17 – you might be able to move up the ranks. If you can just hang on through your twenties, thirties, a good chunk of your forties, maybe into your fifties; if you will just forgo weekends, evenings, holidays; continue to put off having a family; you can reach a top fixed pay bracket of 50k! You can be one of the 810 members of staff, out of a total of 6,310 at Warwick (13%), who have done pretty well.18 And of course, then you can go on to negotiate wages beyond this: in 2016/17 there were 144 staff members earning between £100-149,000, and some few even more!19 You too could be a high earner! So what’s the big deal about the pension?

Of course, it is very, very unlikely that you will actually see any of this reward. The most populous academic wage bracket at Warwick is the midrange of the Higher Education Academy’s bandings, about the same a Teaching Fellow at Warwick (based on rough translation of HEA 2015/16 bands to Warwick pay scale). Also, if you are a female or minority ethnicity, obviously your chances of any serious payoffs drops significantly20, although, no one is making you have a baby, right?

However, come on! Just because the pension reforms are based on an arbitrary set of unrealistic assumptions that are entirely contradicted by USS’s own ‘most likely’ future predictions (which show the fund is solvent and sustainable just as it is).21 Just because you see this as part of neoliberal transfer of power from labour to capital. A conspiracy that creates an entirely artificial problem, and solves it by cutting your benefits while the finance sector continues to do very nicely: as fund managers draw their much higher wages and the Chair of the USS Board no doubt continues to take up to £90,000 a year for their services.22 Alternatively you might be one of the ‘class war’ people, identifying that its Oxford and Cambridge management that want to drag down the whole USS, based on a self-image as too big/important to support less resilient institutions with the audacity to care about offering Higher Education for students Oxbridge won’t even think about inviting to interview.23

And perhaps, yes, yes, you are angry and/or terrified that this unnecessary reform transitions the HE sector away from a good standard of guaranteed income for retirement (which should be the societal standard for everyone), towards an entirely market based (risk based) lump sum payment ‘pension’. One that removes monthly income and instead ironically offers to ‘liberate’ you to make your own investment decisions at the age of 65-70, taking on all the responsibility for making the right decisions: which, if you get wrong will see you without enough money to live on until you die. You are also probably unhappy as reforms see employers’ contributions to pension slashed from 18% to 13.25%, meaning everyone will almost certainly be worse off. The fact that Warwick’s HR presented this change so poorly, making it look like employer contributions to actual pension values will stay constant (below), and obscuring redirection in bullet points, might have irked you further.

Although, perhaps, what you really resent, is that this 4.75% deduction from the actual contribution to your pension – now unrecognisable as part of the remuneration package you signed up to when you took your job – are in the most part being used to secure significant Defined Benefit pay-outs for longer term members: a level of intergenerational unfairness so extreme that at least one VC in the UK, Warwick’s own Stuart Croft, has publically lampooned proposals, and suggested that if anyone need to see their pension change, it’s the higher paid not the currently most vulnerable.24 Given this supportive approach at the very top of university management, perhaps you reserve the greatest vitriol for those longer term USS members, some of who currently stand to lose some of the least, now taking it upon themselves to deploy ‘strike breaking tactics’: demanding you declare intensions to strike, reorganise you teaching or face further 25% pay deductions for Action Short of a Strike (ASOS)25, and therefore, in summary, attempting to nullify the only legal and democratic tool left you have to protest this utterly disastrous travesty.

So, I know this is all a bit much, lots of people think so26, but for Pete sake, staff and students, stop whining and moaning.

Instead, it is absolutely essential that you commit to action: Complain, Persuade, Organise and Strike in solidarity of the national UCU campaign, and in support of Stuart Croft’s public condemnation of current proposals:

Complain: Write to non-supportive Heads of School and detail your complaint. Express yourself in general terms about the way you view the situation, ask them to justify any threatening discourse and lack of support for structural vulnerable individuals, are they with our university community or with Oxbridge?; (staff) do not indicate your intentions with regard to Industrial Action; and demand a personalised reply. Write to the VC and let him know you support his public position 27, but ask how his public objections to proposed reforms fit with pay deductions on a 1/260th basis and 25% for not reorganising under ASOS.28 Also sign the open letter authored by the UCU. Most importantly, write to the President of UUK, Janet Beer, and Chair of USS, David Eastwood, demand they justify these proposed changes and their lack of willing ness to consider alternative options; demand replies.

Organise:  Students and staff can join and promote the Student Staff Solidarity group. If you are not a member, join the UCU, even for a month! – Postgraduate students who teach can join for free. The union bargains for wages, which fee paying member fund for the benefit of all staff: thought this mechanism will likely be undermined if the current strike is not successful. It engages in support for women, minorities and casualised workers. It will provide legal counsel if you are unfairly treated by your employer. Identify your Department Rep and make contact; offer them support; if you do not have one, offer to act as UCU Representative. Ask the UCU Secretary, Claire Duffy, about joining the Strike Committee: specifying if you have interests in the Communications, Picketing or Staff Student sub-committees.

Persuade: Talk to everyone you can about your complaints, in particular staff must explain to students why the issue matters so much to you. Students can explain to friends and support your lecturers; staff should talk to your colleagues. Find places to write commentary and articles on particular pensions injustices: for casualised workers and women who will be most impacted by reforms.

Finally, please participate in the Strike!Withdraw labour on designated days, contribute to a massive turnout and work to contract (including not logging into email, tabula etc) to further disruption. Do not communicate your intentions to management, wait to be asked directly after any participation – otherwise say nothing. Refuse to reorganise your work or help do so, especially outside of daily contract hours (marking, admissions). Report coercion to do this to UCU immediately. Start preparing your communication materials and join the pickets on Strike Days, offer you time to the Teach-In being organised by the Student Staff Solidarity group.






  1.  https://www.ucu.org.uk/why-we-are-taking-action-over-USS
  2. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/graduates/graduate-employment
  3. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/phd-completion-rates-2013/2006040.article
  4. http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/documents/publications/measuringdoctoralstudentdiversitydecember2016-pdf/
  5. https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/postgraduate/postgraduate-education/what-do-postgraduate-students-earn/
  6. https://www.vitae.ac.uk/doing-research/are-you-thinking-of-doing-a-phd/how-to-apply-for-a-doctorate-in-the-uk-and-get-funding/who-provides-funding-for-uk-doctorates
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/series/the-self-funded-phd
  8.  See page, 6. https://www.city.ac.uk/_media/city-site/documents/about/education/academic-committees/senate/2017-18/13.12.17/Item_35.3.1_Research_Enterprise_Cttee_Senate_13_12_17.pdf
  9. http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/humanresources/internal/payroll/stp/stp_role_profiles_17-18.docx
  10. https://warwick.ac.uk/services/humanresources/internal/payroll/stp/announcements/?newsItem=8a17841b5f2acca4015f48dc9a9a68ee
  11.  https://www.nature.com/news/biologists-lose-out-in-post-phd-earnings-analysis-1.19009
  12.  https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/graduatesintheuklabourmarket/2017#graduates-with-undergraduate-degrees
  13. Smith, A. (2016). Teaching Fellows: What are they good for? Teaching Fellows Forum. University of Warwick. Analysis of HESA statistics for Full Person Equivalent (FPE), reproduced with kind permission of the presenter.
  14. https://warwick.ac.uk/about/strategy/goalone/
  15. https://warwick.ac.uk/about/strategy/education
  16. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/academics-face-higher-mental-health-risk-than-other-professions & https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/blogs/required-reading-everybody-knows-someone-who-has-broken
  17.  https://0-search-proquest-com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/docview/1855411578/C62F6E0BCEF54208PQ/1?accountid=14888
  18.  https://warwick.ac.uk/services/finance/resources/accounts/accounts1617.pdf
  19. https://warwick.ac.uk/services/finance/resources/accounts/accounts1617.pdf
  20. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/may/26/gender-pay-gap-in-academia-will-take-40-years-to-close; https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/times-higher-education-pay-survey-2017
  21.  https://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/dennisleech/entry/is_the_uss_1_2/
  22. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/uks-top-paid-vice-chancellors-earn-more-sector-pension-fund
  23.  https://medium.com/@mikeotsuka/oxfords-and-cambridge-s-role-in-the-demise-of-uss-a3034b62c033
  24.  https://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/execteam/entry/an_update_on_1/
  25. https://warwick.ac.uk/insite/news/intnews2/ucu_strike_action_update_and_guidance/
  26. https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2018/02/16/w-yaqoobgmail-com/why-we-strike/
  27. https://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/execteam/entry/which_way_forward/
  28.  https://warwick.ac.uk/insite/news/intnews2/ucu_strike_action_update_and_guidance/

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