‘Stop the Cuts – Defend Higher Education’ joint Brighton and Sussex Universities workers and students meeting, 11 October 2011
Report from Dave Hill (Brighton Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition)
Yesterday, meeting at Brighton University, TUSC members and supporters joined with public sector workers, lecturers and students from the Universities of Brighton and Sussex, and union and student union reps, to discuss the privatisation and cuts facing Higher Education, and to plan for and build support for the expected 30 November public sector general strike.
The 30 November Strike – which could see the largest number of workers taking industrial action since 1926 – is centred around the government attacks on public sector pensions, but speakers repeatedly linked the struggle over pensions with the struggle against the neoliberal/ ConDem (and New Labour) attacks on the Welfare State, on benefits, and on public services through privatisation (of universities, schools, services and of course the NHS). Speakers also attacked the government for attempting to fundamentally alter the purpose of education, denying any role for individual and social fulfilment – across the Humanities and Social Sciences as well as Science and Technology and Business Studies. Education’s critical edge (and subjects) are being replaced by a narrow focus on ‘education for work’.
On pensions, Carole Hanson (UNISON Branch Secretary, University of Brighton) pointed out that, under the ConDem law and plans, public sector workers will be working longer and paying substantially more, to get a massively reduced pension. Carole’s public sector pension would cost her an additional 3% of her salary – an extra £90 a month on top of her existing public sector occupational pension. In addition to this hike in contributions, public sector retirement ages are being harmonised with the State Old Age Pension age of retirement, and the amount paid out over retirement will be far less! Public Sector pensions will, in future, be based, not on the final career salary, but on a career average salary – generally substantially lower, especially for women workers who often work part time or take career breaks to raise children. In addition, public sector pension increases will be tied to the CPI (Consumer Prices Index) instead of the RPI (Retail Price Index). The CPI is a lower inflation rate which excludes housing costs, meaning pension payments will decrease in real terms as inflation rises.
This is theft and robbery. It is little known that the Local Government Pension Scheme is not subsidised at all by the taxpayer – it is fully self-funding. So the ConDem changes are a tax – an extra tax – on public sector workers.
Carole (and the other speakers) called for united action across all the different sectors of public service. Various speakers also called for private sector workers to support the action, too, and for students to join the picket lines and express solidarity with the strikers.
David Cichon, president of University of Sussex Student Union and activist in Sussex Stop the Cuts, called for students and university workers to work closely together over the coming period, to build a strategy together which is capable of uniting the energy and dynamism of student activism with the industrial power of workers organised in trade unions.
Luke Martell, president of UCU at the University of Sussex, explained the details of the government white paper on higher education and its consequences. Already, arts and humanities subjects have received a 100% cut to HEFCE funding, whilst HEFCE funding has been cut by 80% overall – which has in turn opened the way to moving the costs of Higher Education from public funding to students (£9k fees for EU students, much more for others) and workers, through mass redundancies, privatisations, real terms pay cuts and pension cuts. At Sussex, UCU members began ‘working to contract’ on Monday as the first stage of industrial action against the now implemented changes to the USS pension scheme – students present discussed how they could support this action.
Jack Poole, activist in Brighton University Stop the Cuts, called for students to unite with University workers to fight cuts to higher education, and to help build confidence in University workers to take strike action on 30 November. He also explained how young students, workers and unemployed have been recreating the ‘Jarrow Crusade’ against unemployment, 75 years since the original march, by marching from Jarrow in the North East to London, culminating in a rally in London on 5 November. He also explained that the 'work longer' element of the pensions attacks had a direct and urgent impact on young people as it means higher youth unemployment (currently 1 in 5 18-24 year olds is unemployed) as workers are forced to work well in to old age before being allowed to draw their pension.
Speakers such as Carole, and Phil Clarke (NUT branch secretary), Dave Hill (TUSC and UCU) also highlighted that the 30 November one day public sector strike was a beginning, not the end, of what will likely be a long campaign. In the words of some speakers, not just to protest at the pension changes/theft, not just to oppose the attacks proposed by all three main parties (Tories, LibDems and Labour) on the Welfare State and Public Sector, but also to replace the three of them, to forge ahead with a socialist alternative to neoliberalism and to Capitalism.
Last term I was teaching at two different universities – Middlesex University in London, and the University of Athens in Greece. This term, I am teaching at neither. But for very different reasons. At Middlesex University most of my hours have been cut as part of 300 full-time equivalent redundancies across the university workforce. A result of government cuts and policy on higher education.
At Athens University I am not teaching for a very different reason. Universities in Greece are closed for a very different reason! They are occupied by staff and students against the cuts and changes in higher education! That’s what we should do here – occupy all universities and colleges, and, like in Greece, recognise that a one day public sector general strike is not enough – it’s necessary to have a united, cumulative and lengthy campaign uniting workers, students, campaigning groups, direct action groups and socialist/Marxist groups, with the strength of the organised working class and its trade unions.