On the first day of UCU strike action, Jeff Hyman, Emeritus Professor, University of Aberdeen and Honorary Professor, University of St Andrews writes about what is at stake in the proposals for massive pension cuts.
As I approach my 75th birthday, relatively relaxed in the security of my USS pension, I reflect on memories stirred by the current impasse over university provision.
The first is a newspaper advert of at least 50 years vintage, possibly by the Prudential (or the “Pru” as it was affectionately known), detailing a worker’s career history. The first image shows a young man accepting the job, with the paraphrased throwaway comment that “they tell me the job has no pension”, through “I wish that I could look forward to a pension” to finally, the grey-haired and desperate: “I dread retiring without a pension”.
A second image is of research conducted nearly forty years ago on the positive contributions of employee representatives as trustees on occupational pension boards. Following the collapse of proposals for worker directors on the main boards of companies, it seems remarkable today that legislation was passed in the 1970s which allowed for parity representation by employees or their nominees over pension funding and allocation decisions.
This progressive approach links with the comment made a quarter a century ago “that it is generally conceded … that working people should have a right to participate in the making of decisions which critically affect their working lives” (Bean 1994).
Both pension fund participation and participative rights generally only flourished following determined and persistent trade union efforts over many years. These advances are now threatened.
The prospect of an uncertain or reduced pension not only undermines the working conditions and lives of thousands of current and prospective university academics, but the capacity of universities to attract and retain those on whom a modern and civilised society depends.
For an older generation which naïvely assumed that working conditions would continue to improve in a wealthy society, the call to take collective action to defend advances made years ago is not one taken lightly.
Yet we owe it to present and future generations that they should not “dread retiring” without a secure pension equivalent to the one which I and my retired colleagues continue to enjoy. Or that hard-won employment rights be overridden by management diktat.
So solidarity and strength to you in the struggle!