Why are professors striking at universities across the United Kingdom?

by Elizabeth Pratt

LONDON — On the surface, the ongoing University and College Union (UCU) strike may appear to be about a significant reduction in pensions. However, there is much more at stake than just retirement dollars—students and teachers alike are banding together to protest the increasing marketization of academics.

According to a lecturer in the University College London (UCL) English department who requested anonymity, the strike is aimed at addressing a growing propensity for universities to place expansion above academics.  

“The UCU is currently striking about pensions,” the lecturer said. However, the lecturer noted that the strike also aims to resist “what is being done by the university in terms of marketization” and “the commodification of education.”



The UCU will continue to strike until March 16 unless an agreement is reached before their proposed end-date. UCL staff who are members of the UCU will not be doing anything related to work on the days of the strike. This includes not holding lectures, answering work emails, or conducting research. Staff who are not part of the UCU will still be performing work related tasks. Strikers can be found outside all entrances to UCL buildings, and signs saying “official picket” mark the picket line.

The Commodification of Education?

The term “commodification of education” refers to the trend of education becoming based on free market principles. Opponents say that the marketization of education results in less appreciation for the value of a challenging education and more for aesthetic improvements that attract students’ money.

Commodification has increasingly been achieved through physically enlarging university campuses and modernizing existing buildings, which happened at UCL when the provost and the chair of the ruling council entered into a £1.25 billion expansion deal to create a new campus in East London.

In order to cover this expenditure, UCL borrowed £280 million from the European Investment Bank, the largest loan in British University history. This expenditure is detailed in UCL’s 2017 Annual Report and Financial Statements, as well as the cost of the current pension scheme and possible changes to it. As more funding goes toward building projects, less goes toward salaries and pension schemes for the lecturers who are the foundation of the university.

UCL, like other universities in the UK and in the US, is funded by tuition fees, various grants and contracts, investment income, donations, and endowments. When the university is struggling financially and has deficits to make up, they must attract more funding in one or many of these categories or cut expenses. This is the dilemma UCL currently faces regarding from where the funding for pension schemes will come.


The commodification of education is not new, nor is it unique to the UK. According to The Atlantic, in 1975, when access to higher education was increasing but the number of high school graduates was shrinking, the revenues of less well-known colleges and universities across the globe began to diminish. Some were even in danger of closing, so they began to market themselves to attract students. This marketization, which includes methods such as colleges promoting themselves in commercials and distributing promotional items like frisbees, has since continued.

More distinguished or established universities did not have to resort to such business models to survive, but they did so instead to attract the most competitive in the applicant pool and to appear more selective in world rankings.  

The US News & World Report publication of the first college rankings in 1983 reinforced the idea that the “higher-education landscape…operates like a marketplace in which institutions compete to convince the best students to buy their product,” according to the same article in The Atlantic. Treatment of education as a business worries academics because they say it encourages students to go to colleges that may not suit them best, simply because it may have better marketing strategies.

A researcher at UCL, who requested to be referred to as Elana, described why she is concerned about the university’s desire to expand by building a new campus in East London.

“I’m striking because…the future of education as we know it is at stake…the government…opened the door to this marketization of [education]…of [treating] students as customers, paying fees off, having to basically bear the weight of universities…expanding,” she said.  

An Unsteady Pension Scheme

University faculty and staff worry because they believe UCL is prioritizing growth at the expense of contributing to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). The USS is a privately funded United Kingdom pension scheme and UCL’s main pension scheme, which is already in debt.

UCL’s decision to take on additional debt instead of attempting to first eliminate the USS debt indicates how university expenditures on non-staff costs, like building projects, results in the university contributing less to staff-related costs, such as pension schemes. Combined, these loads are heavily straining UCL’s finances, and have been since 2016. When addressing UCL staff two years ago, Provost Michael Arthur expressed concern about the university’s financial sustainability.  


“We have 42 days of expenditure in the bank,” Arthur said in the June 10, 2016 issue of the Financial Times. “If all the money stops, we cannot pay your salaries in 42 days’ time. That is not a sufficient surplus for a financially sustainable institution…these are things that have to be dealt with.”

The focus on expansion while the university is in severe debt and unable to sustain pension contributions worries many of UCL’s UCU members.

“Nothing has really changed between the lecturer and the student when it’s in a room like this, when we’re talking about literature,” the lecturer said. “However, everything has obviously changed in the relationship between the lecturer and the student in terms of the way the institution conceives it…students are turned into consumers now.”

The lecturer in the UCL English department credits this unease with the administration’s focus on the top, rather than the whole, of the institution.

“I would value academics a little more and management and vice chancellors a little less because the university is about what happens in the seminar rooms, not about [their] macho building projects.”

Regardless, some university stakeholders are more focused on the immediate problem of pension cuts. “There is a very big attack on our pensions, and it’s not about greed,” said Rachele De Felice, a Senior Teaching Fellow in the English Department at UCL and the Program Convener for the MI in English Linguistics.

“Pensions are a form of deferred benefit. We take a cut of our salary every month because we know that in our retirement we will enjoy some kind of financial security and until now, this has been something we have been able to plan around because there has been a very clear, defined benefits formula that tells us roughly how much to expect,” she added.

De Felice explained that this security later in life is extremely important in a profession where people enter the work world much later than in other professions.

“Until now, one of the benefits for this delayed start was relative comfort in old age,” she said. “Now that’s being taken away from us…our employer is also reducing the contribution it pays in, so even if nothing else changed, even if the stock market is suddenly perfect, there would be materially less in than there is at the moment, and that hurts.”

De Felice was uncertain how she would be affected if an agreement were not reached.

“It would make me wonder whether one should stay in this profession, should encourage the younger generations [to go into academia] …we don’t want to mislead them into false hopes and expectations,” she explained.

According to a Feb. 26 statement from UCL provost Professor Arthur, employers have a different view on changing the USS pension scheme.

“To maintain the scheme as is, [employer] contributions would have to rise by approximately £1 billion per annum. A sustainable solution needs to be reached by 30 June 2018 when, by law, the valuation must be completed.”

Since the USS pension scheme discovered in a recent valuation that pensions were not sustainable due to poor economic conditions and the £6.1 billion deficit of the scheme, pension contributions from employers either have to increase to remain at the current level of contribution or overall pension inputs will shrink.

According to Universities United Kingdom (UUK), the representative voice for universities on education policy, if employers were to make contributions of this size, funding would have to be reduced elsewhere in the budget. For example, the cuts may have to come from the teaching and research budget or the student services budget.

Although Arthur stressed that UCL would not be forced to such extremes, one cannot help wondering where the funds would come from if UCL is already so deeply in debt.

UCL and other employers hope to reach a compromise with the UCU that establishes maintainable contributions to the pension scheme; however, UUK states that they cannot maintain current benefits, hence the deduction in employers’ contributions to the USS pension scheme.

Negotiations first took place between UUK and the UCU on a national scale, but because no resolution on the change in the USS pension scheme was reached, the UCU went on strike. Negotiations were resumed on Feb. 27 in hopes of attaining an agreement between the UUK and the UCU.  

The Impact on Students

Despite the current frustration on all sides, lecturers, researchers, UCL leadership, and UUK are trying to keep students’ needs in mind.

The UUK said in February that each university must create “contingency plans” to minimize the disruptions, such as cancelled lectures, that result from the strike. UCL has not yet addressed what it will do to mitigate the impact of the strike on students. Some options suggested by the UCL Student Union are financial compensation for missed lectures and a change in the exam schedule to reflect the lack of information students have received due to cancelled lectures.  

According to De Felice, collaboration related to the strike has been especially strong between students and the UCU at UCL. This support is not fortified by general support for trade unions according to a 2015 poll in The Guardian. Britons exhibit 51% trust in UK universities while only showing a 47% trust in trade unions. This data would indicate that if the public had to support one of the negotiating parties in the debate, they would choose universities. This can be compared to a favorable view of labor unions in America—61 percent of Americans support labor unions according to a 2017 Gallup poll.

“It’s been great talking to so many students and getting [their] support and seeing [them] really engaging with the facts of the arguments. They’re passionate but they’re also informed and they’re saying very thoughtful and articulate things about the situation and that gives me comfort because I know that we are doing something right in the way we are engaging with our students,” De Felice said.


Sarah Al-Aride, the Education Officer of UCL’s Student Union, also commented on students’ support for lecturers. She said that the student Union has offered support to spread the UCU’s work and the ideas of lecturers. “Coming from students themselves…it helps to forward the message of solidarity,” Al-Aride said.

Al-Aride credits lecturers as the reason why students come to university in the first place, and explained that if they are not satisfied with the conditions of their employment, students will lose out.

The UCL Students’ Union wrote an open letter to the provost in hopes that any negative consequences of the strike for students will be addressed. The provost has not yet responded, but the Students’ Union is hoping he will answer questions regarding such things as refunds for missed classes and extenuating circumstances for final exams.

It is this student engagement in the UCU’s struggle that sets apart strikes in Britain from strikes in America. This is perhaps because American students do not utilize mass strikes as a way to protest university policy, according to an article in The Atlantic.

Student participation is not the only way British strikes differ from American ones. The current conflict is between the UCU and UUK, a non-governmental body that is merely a policy representative of universities in Parliament. In America, teachers’ strikes often involve demands made on the government for change in educational institutions because in America, education is regulated by the government (see article on West Virginia teachers’ strike for comparison).  

Al-Aride believes UCL is, in fact, thinking of students as they continue to deal with the strike and negotiate with the UCU.

“UCL have assured us that they’re trying their best to ensure that no student is disadvantaged in their education,” Al-Aride said.

Faculty React

UCU members are not the only group unhappy with UCL leadership. In Feb. 2018, a majority of 100 academics at the university strongly backed a vote of no-confidence in the running of the institution. Their concern is due to the administration’s focus on building projects at the expense of their support of academic staff and consultation with the governing council.

Nevertheless, not all university stakeholders believe the strike will provide solutions for these institutional problems. Another longtime lecturer at UCL, who also asked to remain anonymous, disagrees with the notion that striking is a good way to protect students from the commodification of education that stems from expansion.

“I understand why some people would object very strongly to the new fee regime which they would see as commodification and it undoubtedly has some big downsides, but it has also enabled expansion of the university,” the lecturer explained. “It has enabled more young people to get places at universities because they have expanded, [and] it has created jobs.”

The lecturer noted that ten new jobs were created in his department over the past three to four years due to expansion of UCL.


“This is all based on students paying [£9,000 tuition] fees. Now I can understand why that’s objectionable to some people, but the alternative to what’s being described as ‘commodification’ is to go back to the system we had before where a very small number of young people…went to university…I think it’s impossible to see how it would work with nearly half young people going to university. [This could not be afforded] without a commitment to major increases in general taxation.”

This same lecturer also suggested an alternate method to striking to grab the university’s attention: ask faculty to refuse entering their scholarly research into institutional repositories. That solution, the lecturer said, would place pressure on the university without damaging the students because the universities would be losing the high reputation that is associated with large outputs of scholarly work from their academics. This tactic would mean that lecturers could continue to teach students while standing up to the university.

As university finances dwindle and the trend toward martketization continues, strikes like these across the United Kingdom will likely continue and grow.

Elizabeth Pratt is a junior at the University of Michigan with majors in History and English. She is studying abroad in England during Spring 2018. Elizabeth took the photos included in the piece. The cover photo is from Aine Fox/PA from the Independent.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

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