USS Strike: A list of blog posts and resources

One of the most inspiring things about being involved in the UCU USS pensions strike has been the outpouring of generosity and solidarity that colleagues have demonstrated towards each other online. If you have been following the  ucustrike, USSStrike and ExeterOccupy hashtags on Twitter, you will already know what I mean.

Just as emboldening and enlightening are the myriad articles and blog posts which have told the story of this strike from a range of perspectives: from personal posts explaining why individuals do not want to strike, but feel compelled to nevertheless, to Michael Otsuka’s forensic examinations of the USS pension ‘deficit’, to Liz Morrish’s exhortations to use this ‘teachable moment’ to create a vision for a better future in Higher Education.

Here are a few that I have collected. I hope you find them as useful and inspiring as I have.

USS deficit traced to 1997 employer contribution cut by 4.55% of salaries, by Michael Otsuka

‘Had employers not reduced their contributions into the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) from an 18.55% level in 1997 — which is higher than what is now claimed the limits of affordability — the scheme would not now be in deficit.’


‘There are some other very positive things have come out of this strike, and more will follow. Perhaps the most conspicuous gain is that there has been a mass recognition of the value of solidarity, together with the sheer joy of strikers finding they do indeed belong to a community.’

Why I don’t want to go on strike, by Anonymous

‘Like many of my colleagues, when I voted for strike action on this issue of academic pensions, I thought we would be striking for a day or perhaps two in line with previous action. When the announcement of 14 strike days was made, I was devastated. But for those who say they understand our point of view but think we should find another way to make our point, please remember that if we walk away from our union and what they ask of us, we have no-one to protect us or our rights as workers.’

Why We Strike, by Waseem Yaqoob

‘What is proposed is a textbook case of the dismantling of a shared good through financialisation. If our pensions are dependent on investment performance, risks that were once shared will be borne by individual USS members.’

Why I am supporting the strike, by Anonymous (an open letter to students on Google docs)

‘Some may be cynical about the effectiveness of strikes. While cynicism is understandable given the government’s bulldozing of policies in the face of popular unrest, the alternative is doing nothing and simply accepting disempowerment at the face of a faceless administrative ‘logic’. Obviously it is up to the individual if they choose to support the strike, but what is certain here is that this decision is neither frivolous nor desirable. Resist.’

Why I’ve asked students not to attend lectures for the first time – University lecturer explains the strike is about ‘much more than pensions’, by Rowan Tomlinson

‘We stand to lose the safety net of a guaranteed pension income (a ‘defined benefit’ pension) and instead our retirement security will depend entirely on the way markets perform. Under the new system, individuals will be left shouldering all the risk and the institutions who pay us will be completely insulated from it.

In my own case, if I pay into my pension for the next 30 years, the change will see me move from an annual retirement income of £22,000 to one that might, if I’m lucky, be worth £10,000 a year.’

Six points on the eve of the UCU strike, by Jamie Woodcock

‘There are two points worth noting about this pension scheme. First, while employers pay into the scheme, so do we. Second, the pension scheme has already partly been sold out. This means that early career academic workers already get a worse deal in USS. Instead of their pension being based on their final salary at retirement (which would mean more) it is now based on their career average (which would be less). Furthermore, academic workers in post-92 institutions are on a different pension scheme.’

Against the marketisation of our education, by Josh Newman

‘It is clear that the significance of this strike action goes above and beyond personal retirement funds; it is a stand against the aggressive marketisation of public education.’

The rotten boroughs of the Isis and the Fens: 
On the implausibility of the Registrar’s denial of disproportionate Oxbridge influence, by Michael Otsuka

In an article in the Guardian entitled ‘Universities strike blamed on vote by Oxbridge colleges’, Richard Adams reports that “the employers’ backing” of “policies resulting in the harsh cuts” to USS pensions “may have been distorted by giving a number of small, wealthy Oxford and Cambridge colleges the same weight in a crucial survey used to set policy as large universities were given”.

USS deficit traced to 1997 employer contribution cut by 4.55% of salaries, by Michael Otsuka

‘Had employers not reduced their contributions into the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) from an 18.55% level in 1997 — which is higher than what is now claimed the limits of affordability — the scheme would not now be in deficit.’

The crisis of legitimation in Higher Education, by Clive Barnett

‘You can tell that University administration has become dysfunctional when it becomes normal for everyone to refer to senior managers from the VC downwards by their first names.’

Made in Westminster: The source of the USS ‘crisis’ – and the solution, by Sean Wallis

‘[The USS ‘crisis’] is the result of the misrepresentation of the finances of the USS, and the desire of a new breed of university managements to cut their pension liabilities and thereby ease the financing of new buildings and campuses.’

The staff stress and sickness epidemic occurring in Universities across the UK, by the We are Higher Education Network

‘Access to Counselling Services by staff employed at Higher Education Institutions in the UK between 2009 and 2015 has risen by 77%, with a rise of 64% of staff referrals to Occupational Health services during the same period, the preliminary findings of a study reveal.’

Picket lines and strikes are what real politics looks like, by Alice Hawkins

‘Sidgwick Site at 9am on a Monday morning: this is what real politics looks like. It’s a steadfast, ongoing display of resistance. It’s the acting upon principles that can’t be reconciled with a simple continuation of day to day existence. It’s uncomfortable, it’s challenging. It’s the navigating of boundaries; physical, ideological, and ethical. It is sacrifice.’

USS is the tip of the iceberg. Our pensions system is a hot mess, by Christine Berry

‘As a current postgraduate student, I’m supporting my striking lecturers all the way. But I also think it’s crucial that we use these strikes as a wakeup call. What’s being proposed for USS members is no worse than what faces millions of us when we retire – and probably better than many of us. The difference is that, like the frog slowly boiling in a pot of water, we don’t realise it.’

An end in sight for the neoliberal university, by Iida Käyhkö and Charlie Macnamara

‘In the last two weeks, University College London’s (UCL) academic board and its students’ union have both passed votes of no confidence in the governance of the university. These votes represent the first steps in the rejection and replacement of corporate models of governance—a core pillar of the neoliberal university project, for which UCL has been a flagship.’

“You break it – you own it”: Why employers must pay for the 2.4bn rise in the USS deficit, by Michael Otsuka

‘According to the ‘Pottery Barn rule’, you break it, you own it. Employers have broken the valuation. And they must own the consequences.’

A few things Vice Chancellors might learn from the USS strikes, by Liz Morrish

‘This strike is not just about pensions and nobody chooses insecurity. The campaign for sustainable careers will continue and will be led by a newly energised and mobilised group of young people. Empowered, as managers would say.’

The incoherence of UUK’s attitude towards risk, by Michael Otsuka

‘USS’s current troubles, and UUK’s proposed solution, reflect an incoherent attitude toward risk on the part of our employers. Their responsibility for the difficulties we now face can be traced to a consultation in February-March 2017.’

Thoughts for UCL (and perhaps other) students about the pension strikes at university, by Andrea Sella

‘As you know the universities are currently enjoying something of a bonanza of money. Everywhere you look universities are building and repairing gleaming new buildings. It’s exciting and all of us love the swish of big glass door and the comfort of a well-padded seat in a lecture theatre. The thinking is that we have to compete on the world market and we need to invest, right? Where is the money coming from? Well a good chunk is coming from the government which passes to us the money that make up your fees – that you will repay later. In addition, universities have also been allowed to expand – student numbers are much much higher than they’ve ever been. That means we need more buildings. They cost money. So there’s something of a financial wheeze here – the fees are off balance sheet because they’re loans. Someone will have to pay out eventually and this is an increasingly, and rightly, becoming a contentious issue.’

Higher Education Matters: A Personal Reflection, by Ernesto Priego

‘What stands out to me is that the British universities’ strike does not seem to be part of mainstream society’s concerns, at least not as represented by its media coverage and the conversations one may have in public out and about. It looks like, at least in terms of the public discourse triggered by mainstream media coverage, the UK only has capacity for one or two important issues at a time.’

Pension strike: university staff are getting a ‘Die Quickly’ pension plan. It won’t work, by Ewan McGaughey

‘In a ‘Defined Benefit’ (DB) scheme, your employer guarantees you income from retirement till death, based on your contributions. It doesn’t matter how long you’ll live. This is mostly what the university pension, USS, is now. In a ‘Defined Contribution’ (DC) scheme, you get money on your retirement. But if you live longer than you expect, that could run out. If you live fewer years than you expect, your family could inherit what is left over. Universities UK has a new plan to make all pensions ‘DC’. We should call these what they are: ‘Die Quickly’ (DQ) pensions. You’re better off not living into old age, when money runs out. DC means DQ.’

The Pensions Strike: A Personal View, by Marianne O’Doherty

‘Over the past couple of weeks I have had a lot of conversations in corridors with staff in my institution. Very few of them have been explicitly about the strike. What people really want to talk about  is workload. That’s because my University, along with many, many other Higher Education Institutions in the UK, has a massive problem.’

Reclaiming Our University, from University of Aberdeen

Originating at the University of Aberdeen, the movement Reclaiming Our University has written a Manifesto to reclaim the academic world and reshape it in a more communal sense (in our case, the University of Aberdeen). [Free pdf download of the manifesto at the link above]

The lecturers strike offers universities a radical future, by James Smith

‘As Stefan Collini puts it, “from being depicted as some kind of anarchist militia bent upon disrupting society while sponging off it, students have come to be regarded as the front-line troops of market forces, storming the walls of those obstructive bastions of pre-commercial values, the universities.”’

Regimes and spaces of austerity: inside the British university, by Graeme Hayes

‘I am an academic working in a British university, and I am currently on strike. Alongside many of my colleagues – administrators, librarians, lecturers, graduate students – in the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), I am taking industrial action in order to persuade Universities UK (UUK, the body which officially represents Britain’s universities) to commit to meaningful negotiations over the reforms they seek to impose on our pensions scheme (known as the Universities Superannuation Scheme, USS).’

A beginner’s guide to the USS dispute, by David Kernohan

‘The move from a hybrid DB scheme to a DC one (though technically the new scheme would remain a hybrid) moves the risk of volatility in investment performance from the employer to the employee. It significantly reduces the reliability of retirement income forecasts.’

Manifesto for the University of the Future

‘In our universities, market-based principles and metrics have been elevated to state-endorsed norms. The resulting dystopias and their symptoms are well described.  To complement growing resistance, an alternative vision is required. Here we propose to reclaim our universities based on a plan for The University of the Future. We present a manifesto in which we, the academics, the staff and the students reclaim our places in our universities.  We are the universities.’

The Means and Ends of Higher Education, by Clive Barnett

‘Week 4, and it looks like the combined stupidity of the UUK and lack of preparedness and care by individual University senior leaderships before the current UCU strike action started means that lots of University staff in the UK are still out on strike, not teaching students, not librarian-ing, not providing professional support to researchers, not, public-engaging, and not doing lots of other things they’d rather be doing.’

Why I’m a striking lecturer: I want to stop the slow death of public education, by Becky Gardiner

‘Like most strikes, this one is about much more than money. My favourite banner on the picket line reads “Against the slow cancellation of the future”, a phrase popularised by the late cultural theorist, Mark Fisher. In the grip of neoliberalism, we begin to believe that there is no alternative, Fisher told us.’

A public good: the pension dispute and the idea of the University, by Colin McFarlane

‘In a recent piece in The Guardian, Sally Hunt, Director of UCU, ended with a simple but fundamental injunction: we must the case anew for the University as a public good. To an outsider, it may seem odd that she would end a piece about a quite specific issue – the attempted transformation of pensions from a Direct Benefit to Direct Contribution scheme – by making a point about the University as an idea. But it is precisely this sort of connection that so many people are increasingly making and discussing.’

10 Things I’ve Learned from Being on Strike, by Clive Burnett

People bring different things to a mobilisation: knitting, cakes, crochet, placards, nerdy skills, sociable skills, organisational skills, bells, sunglasses, insider knowledge, incisive analysis, babies, dogs [not cats], Canadians, plastic building bricks (apparently), layers, obscure Latin quotes that don’t piss people off, anger, relief, and irony, hugs, Duncan, playlists, retweets, cynicism, sacrifice, coffee.

On Taking the Time to Perceive, Think, Write, and Share as Self-Preservation, by Ernesto Priego

My point is … to recognise that certain processes such as listening, reading and writing in a focused and concentrated way, on specific media that imply and require specific spatiotemporal performative conditions, requires, indeed, from a singular time and space, and that time and space is increasingly rare and more and more precious, to the point of feeling revolutionary, precisely because it breaks with the pragmatism, speed, order and flow of currently expected behavioural patterns.


Let me tell you about Defined Contribution pensions, because that’s what our colleagues in the US have. It isn’t a pension as we know it. It is a financial product which fluctuates with the stock market. They try to tell you they are giving you choice in managing your money, but when management use terms like ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ you need to set off the fire alarms. You want a guaranteed income and you’re not being offered it.

Gathering at the Picket Line -UCU Strike 2018, by Emily Henderson

Despite my ‘expertise’ in higher education, this is not a gathering that I am attending in order to showcase my latest work and ideas. This is more like one of those conferences that feel like a luxury – where I am hoping to listen and learn. An interdisciplinary fiesta of debates and conceptual frameworks, a mingling of unlikely characters, of different energies and practices. An ethnographic site, always, but a generous learning experience about union activism and protest and political collectivity.

What the strikes have taught me so far …, by Alex Woodall

I was consciously leaving piles of work behind (some of it already delayed due to large workload), at a time when I was already incredibly stressed and dealing with things at work beyond the remit of my contract. I was leaving unsupported the team I manage. I was not doing things – my own CPD for example – that ultimately would have left me better off. I was not communicating with colleagues on the management team, including my own line manager. I took striking, withdrawing my labour – not doing any work and consequently not being paid – very seriously. I did not check my work emails, or even use the time for ‘work-related’ research and writing. I have been completely on strike. And it has been stressful.

Sadness and Solidarity – The strike as utopia, by Grace Krause

The strike has enabled us to have some long overdue conversations on the nature of this suffering and the way it has affected us personally. Throughout an excellent Teach-Out on the topic  and so many different conversations I have had over the last three weeks, often with complete strangers, the intensity of suffering and injury caused through the way we work has become abundantly clear to me. Through the focus on mental health we often allow ourselves to think of this suffering as form of individual defect which needs treatment. But really, when we are talking about rising numbers of depression and anxiety in academics we are talking about people who feel so overwhelmed with their workloads they can no longer cope.

Can universities cut staff pay for the strike as they please? “No way”, says the law, by Ewan McGaughey

Many democratic countries do not allow employers to deduct pay for strikes, when lawful strikes are the employer’s fault. In the UK, if you make a contract with someone but they break the deal, you can withhold your performance. The question is, who breaks the contract first?

Doing University, by Chris McLean

Externally imposed metrics such as PEF, TEF, and (the almighty) NSS do not capture the values of excellence that we all collectively negotiate and  understand.  I am sure that many academics will recognise the ‘work’ that is imposed as they try to reconcile their own ideas of the ‘good’ research proposal, with the standards of excellence that are externally imposed through the demands of funding bodies or the need to demonstrate ‘impact’.

Embracing the Dinosaur of Solidarity, by Liz Morrish

There is a new spirit about to transform relationships in UK universities, and a boldness and fearlessness among the staff. The Dinosaur of Solidarity has been more than a metaphor. She/ he has been an important inspiration on the picket lines and on Twitter. We are not about to see her/him extinguished by a managerial meteor just yet.

#No Capitulation: How one hashtag saved the UK university strike, by Nicole Kobie

After weeks of freezing picketing at more than 60 universities across the country, news broke on Monday evening of a deal between union leaders and university bosses. Dejected university staffers — managers, librarians, lecturers and other workers — thought they’d once again lost the battle to protect their pensions. Then came a rallying cry: #NoCapitulation.

Professional Services are Key to Winning the Pensions Dispute – Time to Embrace Us, by an HE Professional

There are many reasons why Professional Services have not as readily joined the action as academic colleagues. Some of which I highlight here. This has not been helped by UCU, which has not sought to reach out to Professional Services and engage them. The USS Pensions Dispute has been branded in the media as ‘The Lecturers’ Strike’, and therein lies the problem. It does not just alienate non-academic USS members, but also large swathes of the public that view academics as firmly part of the well-paid elite, who should just stop whining from their positions of privilege.

“Leadership”: Reflections from a striking LA (lady academic) in the NLU (neoliberal university)

LA: I’m going to write a monograph.

NLU1: You can’t do that, as it won’t count as much in the next research evaluation exercise, publish journal articles in top ranking journals instead.

LA: OK, look I published lots of articles in top ranking journals. I got the top score in the research evaluation exercise.

NLU1: That is great, but you really need to get a big grant (so you can keep on doing the work you used to do very well without an external grant).

LA: OK, I got a big grant.

NLU1: That’s great, but now we’ve decided that we’re mostly a STEM university, so we’re not so interested in your grant. We’re going to close a few programmes in humanities and social sciences, just because …

#NoCapitulation: Why the UK’s campus revolts will continue, by Des Freedman

I was cooking dinner on Monday night when my phone buzzed. And buzzed. Many times. News was coming through that UCU union negotiators had reached a terrible deal with university employers that would end the strikes taking place in 64 institutions over devastating cuts to our pensions. The union committee with the power to call off the action was due to meet the following morning which meant that members had just over 12 hours to consider their position.

The future of UK Universities: Vice-Chancellor’s blog, by Prof Stephen Toope

As I write this, my office is surrounded by loud protesters – students and staff expressing frustration at recent proposals to resolve the university pensions dispute. Over the last decade, pensions have had to be restructured three times, effectively downgrading benefits while increasing costs. Pensions are a key component of academic compensation, and people are understandably annoyed.

Dear Students, by A Lecturer

I know this might sound odd to you, but I’ve missed you. Every day that I have been on strike, I have thought of you. I’ve treasured your sympathetic and kind messages of support for the industrial action that my colleagues and I have taken. And I hear you when you say you are worried and anxious about what lies in store for you.

Why THIS Elderly Classics Prof. IS on Strike, by Edith Hall

My young colleagues who have joined the Universities Superannuation Scheme more recently are in a precarious position. And when they signed up for an academic career on a salary which is tiny relative to what they could be earning in other professions, they did so believing they would receive a fixed-percentage-of-earnings pension. They have been conned.

A letter to my students about the UCU strike, by Jason Hickel

To understand why [I’m striking], you need to know that what is at stake here is not really pensions.  What is at stake is the public university itself.

When tuition fees were introduced a number of years ago, faculty across the nation raised their voices in loud dissent.  We joined our students to march in the streets, day after day, facing down lines of aggressive police.  We did it because, like our students, we fundamentally rejected what fees do.  They commoditize education, they render students as consumers and put them at financial risk.  They individualize and atomize, and they break down the solidarities that underpin the university as a public good – as a commons.

Action Short of a Strike Must Recognize That 9-5 is Not Always Helpful, by Martin Paul Eve

A lot of the social media posts that I’ve seen recently about the UCU’s call for “Action Short of a Strike” (ASOS) are fixated on the idea that everyone’s contract stipulates that they will work from 9 in the morning until 5 (or 6) in the afternoon and that one should not work outside these hours. One should not send email, either, apparently outside these hours.


The problem with this is that, for many academics, this is not how life works.

USS Strikes and Brexit, by Phil Sypris, University of Bristol Law School

The current wave of industrial action, in which academics across the UK’s higher education sector are striking in order to defend their pensions, has, to use the words of our Vice Chancellor, acted as ‘a lightning rod’, exposing a range of concerns around the ‘marketization of higher education’. It has shown that academic citizenship and engagement is alive and well. Colleagues care intensely about the direction of travel in universities and are resistant to commodification, in its many guises.

2018 UK higher education strike, a Wikipedia page

At a total of 14 days of action, this was the longest-ever strike in UK higher-education history.[3]

Letter to USS, via Google,docs, by Patrick Hagopian

What USS must correct most urgently of all, though, is the following narrative: that in 1996, rather than build up a healthy surplus, USS permitted the employers to reduce their pension contributions from 18.55% to 14%, on the understanding that there would be no reduction in benefits; that the employers reduced their funding between 1997 and 2009, when hard times hit us all; and that when the fund was found to be in deficit, rather than ask the employers to pay a surcharge to compensate for their earlier reduction, USS instead instituted a series of reductions of benefits to the pension beneficiaries.

Isabel Davis on why language matters in the USS industrial dispute

New revelations and favourable press coverage have caught university Vice Chancellors and Universities UK, the body which represents them, by surprise. One interesting example of this is at the University of St Andrews. On the eve of the dispute an email was sent to all staff at the university, signed by the Principal and Vice Chancellor, Sally Mapstone, and her senior management team. Parts of this email were widely shared on Twitter in the context of discussion about what universities were doing to punish their staff for exercising their legal right to withdraw their labour. It was read, then, in relation to other threats issued by a number of universities, including the University of St Andrews, to dock staff pay by 100% for action short of a strike, that is for working to contract outside of strike action.

Introducing “University Pensions and Athena SWAN”

We have created this blog to publicise and track information about the linked topics of pensions in the university in the United Kingdom and equality (of all kinds) in universities.

The particular focus for founding this blog is the current dispute over the USS pension scheme, leading to an ongoing strike within many universities.  We feel that the proposed change is potentially more detrimental to women and other disadvantaged groups than it is to men, and that this has not been properly taken into account. We also feel that since most (possibly all) relevant universities hold “Athena SWAN” awards, this is an important issue which should be relevant for those awards.

Therefore we are writing an open letter which will emphasise these concerns in much more depth, and invite people to sign it.

You can track activity on this topic on twitter using the hashtag #USSAthenaSWAN

Women to be hardest hit by proposed university pension scheme changes, by Martin Heneghan, Jo Grady and Liam Foster

University staff have taken the difficult decision to take industrial action against their employers as a consequence of the imposition of a significant cut to their income in retirement. University and College Union (UCU), estimates pension cuts will leave university staff on average nearly £10,000 worse off per year, totalling £200,000 over 20 years. However, this cut will not be spread evenly; women are set to be more adversely affected than men. Here we outline the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) and demonstrate that they pose a direct threat to the adequacy of women’s pensions in particular.

A ‘plain English’ history of the current pensions dispute, from University of Leeds UCU

In April 2017, the USS posted a ‘deficit’ of around £5.1 billion.

The ‘deficit’ is not an amount of missing money (in fact, the pension scheme funds increased in value in 2016-17 by 20% to around £60 billion) but is instead a calculation of what would be needed in extreme circumstances to ensure payment of all pensions going out now and of those to be paid to people in the future. That calculation makes a set of assumptions about things like future salary levels and stock market growth of assets, so different sets of assumptions can create different results. The 2014 valuation, for example, assumed salary growth of 16% over four years (It has been closer to 6%). The ‘deficit’ is always an intelligent guess of a future amount, not a fixed actual loss in the present day. The USS have an obligation to provide a valuation every three years.

Goodwill hunting after the USS strike, by Gail Davies

Scrolling through university end of year reviews, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something changed in 2018. Across articles, blogs and tweets, it is clear that large numbers of academics and others experienced what Sara Ahmed calls a moment of snap. This USSbrief looks back at this moment and reflects on the ways it has changed relations within academia. A snap is not a starting point. It is a moment with history; an occasion for recognising that ‘a snap can be what happens when you are unwilling to meet the conditions for being with others’.


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