Rob Copeland of UCU tells us about the two linked disputes which have led higher education workers in the UK to begin an 8-day strike. Employers are refusing to listen to experts when it comes to the management of the pension scheme, while pay and conditions continue to deteriorate. Rob, who is Chair of our Higher Education and Research Standing Committee, says that the stability of the profession and the quality of education are in danger. ETUCE and member organisations across Europe stand in solidarity with UCU.

ETUCE: Why has UCU called higher education staff out on strike?

Rob Copeland: We are out on strike for two main reasons. In fact, there are two legal disputes, but they have similar causes.

On the university pension scheme, employers are refusing to listen to an independent expert panel who reached a very different conclusion about the cost of the scheme. They used a different method to calculate these costs, but employers want workers to pay more for the current system. Years of employer-led reforms have left academics with on average £240000 less in their pension pot. Now we worry employers are preparing a more fundamental attack on the scheme like the one we fought off last year.

On pay and working conditions, we’re striking because of declining pay, failure to tackle pay gaps related to gender and ethnicity, unsustainable workloads and precariousness. Employers are refusing to negotiate a meaningful national agreement. On pay the offer is below what we are demanding. On other issues they refuse to negotiate a UK-wide agreement at all, because they claim these are issues for each university to manage individually. We utterly refute that assertion.

ETUCE: Why are you back on strike again after last year’s industrial action?

Rob Copeland: Well, on pensions the employers aren’t listening to the independent expert group that they agreed to set up after the last strike. The problems with pay and conditions might sound like they are just about our daily work, but it’s actually about defending the attractiveness of careers in academia and thus our ability to deliver quality education. Since 2009, pay has effectively been cut by nearly 20% in real terms. The entire profession is very fragile right now and there is a lot at stake for higher education staff and our students.

ETUCE: What is the impact of international solidarity from ETUCE and member organisations?

Rob Copeland: I think it’s really important for boosting the morale of our members. This is a long strike and it’s important to know that not only the students are with us, our colleagues overseas also support us. It’s helpful to know that so many of the issues we face are common struggles: deprofessionalisation, workload, precariousness and discrimination.