Students protest against pension reforms outside Senate House

Image credit: Beatrice McCartney

Marking the beginning of a four-week strike, Cambridge University staff and students protested early this afternoon outside Senate House against the proposed pension reforms, which would leave university staff up to 40% worse off over the course of their retirement.

The student-led protest, which began at 12pm outside Senate House, occupied the majority of the square outside Great St Mary’s, forcing pedestrians to walk past them in single file. Daisy Eyre, CUSU President, gave a short speech in support of the strike, attended by hundreds of staff and students affiliated to Cambridge University.

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Cambridge Defend Education led an earlier protest at 8am this morning alongside members of the Rebel Architects Faction at the university’s Architecture faculty. Banners reading ‘Support our Staff’ and ‘Strike to Win!’ were displayed outside the faculty building along with smoke sparklers designed to attract attention.

Similar action took place at Sidgwick Site on West Road, with an official picket line in front of all entrances to faculty buildings. A large separate group of protesters were stood outside the University Library. The picket lines were peaceful, with no reports of disturbances so far.

Action is due to continue with a separate meeting, organised by the Universities College Union, in Great St Mary’s at 2pm today. Students are currently taking part in a ‘sit-in’ on the Senate House lawns.

Speaking to TCS, Cambridge Defend Education said: "Cambridge students march in support of striking staff On Thursday 22nd Feb, more than 200 Cambridge students held a rally and marched through Cambridge city centre in support of their striking lecturers and staff. Students demanded the fair treatment of staff and condemned the central role that Cambridge and other elite universities have played in dismantling pensions that guarantee staff a decent retirement.

"The march processed past the University Library to the Sidgwick site of the university before occupying Senate House Lawn, where campaigners led chants including “They say marketise, we say organise!“ and “Students and workers, unite and fight!“. The march, led by student campaigning group Cambridge Defend Education, was spontaneously organised following a rally in support of the UCU strike organised by the Cambridge University Students’ Union.

"The group of students, who carried banners and flares, cheered and shouted as they moved through the town around market square, down Senate House Passage and Burrell’s Walk, then past the University Library to the Sidgwick site. After speeches encouraging students not to attend lectures or classes on strike days and to donate to the UCU strike fund to support staff in hardship, the crowd moved along Silver St to occupy the Senate House Lawn, where they had an impromptu picnic lunch. Amy Clark, spokesperson for Cambridge Defend Education said “UUK and university managements are attempting to divide students and staff, framing this strike as damaging to the ‘student experience’. But students know that what really damages their education is fees rising while staff suffer real terms pay cuts and worse conditions, and increasingly extortionate rents to fund shiny new buildings. This wage grab is part of the project of turning education into a market, and putting what ought to be a shared public good up for space."

Whilst students have seen university fees rise up to £9,250 a year, university staff pay has fallen 14% in real terms since the introduction of the fees six years ago as part of universities’ efforts to reduce liability. The ‘attack’ on university staff pensions, known as USS, of which the seven thousand Cambridge staff on permanent or short-term (3 year) contracts are active members, is the third in six years, with workers forecast to lose between 10-40% of their pensions, dependent on stock market performance. Current strike action is the consequence of a breakdown in negotiations between the University and UCU.

Yesterday evening, the University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, released an email sent to all staff and students declaring the University’s position on the strikes. Toope states that the University ‘deeply regrets’ the forthcoming strike action, and understands the ‘real concern of academics who feel the pension they expected may now be changed by circumstances outside their control.’

Responding to criticism that Oxford and Cambridge colluded in efforts to push through the changes which would leave academics up to £10,000 a year worse off, Toope added: ‘I want to assure you categorically that there has been no collusion between Cambridge and Oxford to undermine the scheme.’

The email concludes with a description of certain types of alternatives the University is currently looking into, such as a collective Defined Contribution scheme, which potentially would be less volatile than individual Defined Contribution schemes, and the reintroduction of Defined Benefit payment should real interest rates recover.

Though it is not known yet whether these options will be viable long term, the Vice-Chancellor commented: “We have a duty to find an equitable outcome for staff and ensure our students receive the education they deserve."

In a statement to TCS, Cambridge UCU Vice President Sam James said:

"The Vice Chancellor's recognition that the current situation with respect to USS pensions cannot be sustained is of course welcome, as is his stated commitment to an 'equitable outcome' for staff. However, his message offers little sign of a willingness to acknowledge the significant role that Oxford and Cambridge played (without necessarily colluding) in pressing for the irresponsibly risk-averse revaluation of USS which lies behind the current crisis. Indeed, while he canvasses a number of further alternatives to the permanent closure of the Defined Benefit section of the scheme, he fails to address the key issue of the valuation at all, or to make any definite commitment to an improvement in the USS pension arrangements which the University would be willing to support. His message therefore offers very little encouragement that a resolution of the dispute is in sight. It seems clear that sustained and disruptive strike action continues to be necessary if the University is to commit to any amelioration of the current proposals."

 

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