At the UCU rally in Dundee rally on the day the strike began two weeks ago, Dr Kate Cross spoke about the burden that threatens to fall on those who’ve done Everything They are Supposed to Do. Kate’s speech brought the pressures facing young academics to the surface, and brought the Caird Hall audience to its feet. As the industrial action enters its third week we publish the speech and a moving clip.
I’ve been asked to speak about the effect that the proposed pension changes will have on me, as an early career academic. So naturally I’ll start by telling you about my recent trip to the dentist. The only comment she made about the state of my mouth was: “It seems like you’ve been clenching your teeth a lot lately – are you aware of that?”
So I told her about my pension.
I’ve been paying into USS since 2006. I was working as a Teaching Assistant while doing my PhD. I was grateful for this job. I was working full time to earn half of what my graduate peers did, but I was doing what I loved. I took on all the extra tasks that were asked of me – all the things that no-one else wanted to do but would ‘look good on my CV’. And although I didn’t exactly have money to spare each month, I thought I was being really sensible by getting into the pension scheme right away – that this was tough now, but it would pay off later. I was Doing Exactly What I Was Supposed To. Everyone told me so.
After my PhD, there came a few years of 12-month contracts, here and there. I was grateful for those too – especially given that they were full-time. I did everything that was asked of me, even if it wasn’t what I signed up for in the job spec. I volunteered. I did Everything That I Was Supposed To. And I hoped that if I kept Doing Exactly What I Was Supposed To for long enough, and did it well enough, eventually I might get a permanent lectureship. OK, so my first few applications were turned down… and then the next few… but I just needed to hang in there, because although it was tough now it would pay off later.
A few months ago I got that lectureship and oh god, I was grateful! I am one of the lucky ones who didn’t get forced out but was invited to stay. I get to keep Doing Exactly What I’m Supposed To. Only now, that pension I was hoping to be able to live on when I’m old is worth… Well, probably about half of what I signed up for, but nobody seems to be quite sure. Now the message is: “Sure, it’s tough now, but stop complaining, you’re too expensive.”
So I’m beginning to wonder about this whole Doing Exactly What I’m Supposed To thing. It’s clear that it means precisely nothing to the people who decide how much my labour is worth. So far what it has earned me is the right to keep Doing Exactly What I’m Supposed To. For less.
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So what am I supposed to do now? I am supposed to believe that providing staff with pensions presents an ‘unacceptable risk’ to my employer, while working for the next 35 years with no idea how I’ll support myself if I’m lucky enough to get old is presumably an ‘acceptable’ risk for me. I’m supposed to get on with giving my labour to the university for less than I signed up for, less than they signed up for, less than it’s worth. Preferably with a smile. I’m supposed to be grateful that my situation isn’t worse – as if ‘it could be worse’ is a justification for anything. As if that should shut me up. I assure you I am quite capable of being outraged about pensions AND zero-hours contracts AND pay cuts AND a gender pay gap AND a staggering lack of diversity in academia because these things are all related anyway.
Another thing I’m supposed to do is refrain from taking part in strike action. Because I’m Supposed to ‘think of the students’, as if being taught by anxious and underpaid staff is somehow a good thing for them. As if the future academics among our students aren’t now facing decades of being underpaid, undervalued, and financially insecure.
So, like you, I have decided not to do Exactly What I’m Supposed To Do. I’m going to do Exactly What I Have To Do instead. And that is remain on strike until a resolution is reached to treat University staff like we’re actually worth something.
Before I go, I want to say something about mental health.
This situation is hard. Contemplating poverty in your old age is anxiety-inducing. Being told ‘suck it up, it’s not our problem’ by your employer is a bit of a knock. And when we consider it in the broader context of what’s going on in the sector, or in society in general, it can be very frightening.
It’s also hard because many of us have friends and family who… have opinions that we find difficult to understand. They might find our decision to strike rather baffling. Nasty things might be said. Trust might be damaged. Some of us are finding that our social relationships are suffering at a time when we need them the most.
And it’s hard to deal with a sudden increase in financial pressure. Like the kind you get when you have 14 days’ pay docked.
If you wanted to design a situation to test people’s mental health, then we’d be in a fairly good model of it. So if you’re struggling then I would like to say that you’re not alone. And if you’re struggling then I would like to say that that’s important, and it deserves to be taken seriously. And I don’t have anything like a solution, just a plea: please do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe and well for today. Everything else will just have to wait until tomorrow.