On (“)Strike(“)…

Today, I am on strike, whatever that means for someone who works largely from home and often in a self-directed way. I don’t make widgets, so my employer won’t be down on their widget production schedule because of my actions; and I’m not currently involved in course production, so I don’t have a wordcount production schedule to stick to…

From my not-a-student-of-political-action perspective, union organised strikes seem to have something to do with the collective bargaining role of a union in which the workforce it represents act together as a way of demonstrating their majority decision to voice certain grievances relating to the terms and conditions of employment to the attention of their employer. Strikes also have a history as a form of political action geared towards raising a particular concern to the attention of the government, but I’m not sure how the law on that sort of strike works in the UK at the moment? (Would that be covered in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992? I suspect not? Is there other legislation around relating to strike action? Some revisions to the law in the form of a Private Member’s Bill appear to have stalled on their way through Parliament during the current session: Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill 2010-11.)

As I understand it, the current strike action represents the co-ordinated activities of several unions voicing concerns on a similar issue – changes to pension contributions and benefits (often referred to as “deferred pay” by the union lobbiests). I haven’t been following the arguments as much as I probably should, but I get the feeling that there are three major concerns: that public sector contributions will go up, that benefits will go down, and that a chunk of monies raised by changing the current pension regime will be used to contribute to deficit reduction.

As far as contributions going up: someone has to pay somewhere. I’d start by simplifying matters at the personal level by changing the way payslips are designed to include a gross benefit line that represents the gross salary plus employer’s pension contribution so at least folk get a monthly reminder about their “deferred salary” contribution to their pension fund. It would probably be a dangerous step on the way to personal/private pensions, but having a line detailing accumulated employee+employer pension contributions on the payslip might also put steps we need to take towards personal financial planning into some sort of perspective. Referencing this sum against a notional fund value reported annually by the pension fund itself would help you see what sort of health the pension fund itself is in. Insofar as generous public pensions acting as poison pill to spike privatisation activity goes, and eroding those benefits making potential privatisation easier to achieve, I don’t know…

As far as pension contributions going up meaning income will go down, I thought I’d look at my own finances. My net salary for October and November this year are at their lowest level since September 2008 (I earned £67.20 (net), £150.65 (gross adjusted), £205.91 (gross), more in my November 2011 salary than I did in September 2008). Since then, my gross annual salary has gone up by £2471. Breaking this down, over the same period my pension contribution has gone up by £55.26 a month, PAYE up by £56.20 per month and National Insurance up £27.25. I’ve also noticed by weekly fuel bill continually on the up, as are boat tickets on the ferry… and train ticket prices. I assume the profile of many other public sectors will be the same, so I can sympathise with those for who similar proportional losses in the coming months could well adversely affect their disposable income. I somehow doubt that their Sky subscriptions will be the first thing to go though…

I’m generally not very good at claiming expenses, but see quite a lot of the expenses I incur as part and parcel of the cost of going to work. I often forego subsistence expense claims (dinner) because I have to eat, and where I eat is my choice. More than a couple of times I’ve had dinner with colleagues at conference, with postgrad students joining us, and I’ve felt the postgrads (who often can’t claim subsistence) are being mocked by better paid academics who choose the restaurant and then claim the expenses. Maybe I should start claiming dinner expenses and using them to pay for dinner for folk who feel obliged to join a dinner group but dread the bill?

As far as ultimate benefits go, I don’t think I got an increment this year (I think I’m at the top of my pay scale) and I have failed in both a personal promotion application (2010) and a Head of Department’s promotion submission (2011) to Senior Lecturer, so I’m now stuck except for percentage pay increases and “outstanding service payments”, or whatever they’re called. My final salary and average salary thus look as if they’re tending towards each other. From a little digging around, I noticed that compared to my 80ths contributions/payback, other public sector workers get 60ths, 45ths or even 40ths. I stopped at that point lest I got bitter and started ranting about unaffordable public sector pensions…;-)

As far as pension monies being used for deficit relief: wtf? Private sector pensions were screwed when companies were allowed to raid funds that were (temporarily) “in surplus”, so my gut reaction towards pension monies being taken out of the system is both deferring and increasing the risk of harder times for the pension funds in the future. I suspect that striking as a way of speaking out on that basis is not “legal”, but I think that’s why I’m striking today… maybe.. I’m not really sure. (My union, UCU, didn’t really make a very good case, and I don’t think my employer, the Open University, entered into any communications saying why I shouldn’t strike?)

As to what form my strike action is taking, what form does strike action generally take? Disruption to the business of the employer? A public voicing of concerns about the way the actions of the employer are adversely affecting the terms and conditions of my employment?

As far as the first consideration goes, should I picket the @openuniversity Twitter account, and harangue everyone who sends a message to it, or who it sends a message to? Should I go and heckle on the OU’s Facebook or Google+ page? I don’t think so…

On the second point, I guess the letter of the law is that I can only voice concern about the issue the strike action is about, namely, pensions. I’m not sure what my own take on this is (hence the pensions related chunk of this post above as I try to put my thoughts in order), but that’s not to say I don’t have concerns about the way the OU is currently doing business for my future employment.

So, in the spirit of folk who say that taking strike action makes them feel uncomfortable (and it’s making me feel uncomfortable because I’m not sure what the actual basis is or what the action is supposed to achieve), I’m going to speak out against what I think is a dangerous strategy in terms of the OU’s business, specifically, the apparent focus on selling degree programmes rather than courses/modules. Note that I’m doing this not particularly because I want to (in public), but because I feel I have to…

When the OU was founded, it offered a radical alternative: open access, part-time, Higher Education at a distance, at scale, with a significant public service education side-effect. The market is different now, and I don’t think we should necessarily be trying to compete solely in a market into which other institutions are moving. It may be that the OU and the legacy structures that underpin the current incarnation of the organisation can’t innovate in the same way it once did (the “Innovator’s Dilemma”); the structure of Higher Education as a whole is also constraining, but that has shifted over time, for example with the introduction of the red bricks, the OU, the conversion of the polytechnics to the new universities, and the drive towards 50% of people in Higher Education. Maybe the OU is still the only place that offers an “open as to..” pathway into Higher Education for people who would not otherwise be able to access higher education? In which case, it’s maybe right and proper that we do go down the qualification-and-access-to-loans route that gives OUr students the same opportunities as students whose access to HE isn’t barred for any particular reason. Maybe the zeal to be seen as “an alternative” to traditional universities particularly for school leavers is a Good Thing? Or maybe it represents a loss of focus?

What I think we are in danger of losing is the desire to disrupt the (emerging) status quo (?!) and strive for ways of opening up persistent and ongoing educational opportunities for anyone who wants to avail themselves of them. And if that means trying to shake up the qualification-based career progression structures that provide much of the rationale in Realpolitik terms for getting a degree, so be it.

The move to degree programmes is a move towards bigger programmes of study. I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning, particularly in the form of continued ‘upskilling’, at an appropriate degree of granularity. It could be argued that the granularity provided by many workplace training courses is also incorrectly pitched (e.g. Jane Hart’s The Non-Training Approach to Workplace Learning). Folk may argue that taking a traditional degree is a prerequisite for becoming an effective lifelong learner because it develops independent learning skills as well as deep conceptual understanding about something – anything – that can help shape understanding of other topics later in life. I’m not sure. I don’t think that school does much to develop independent learning skills, and I’m not convinced a lot of Higher Education does either. I don’t have a lot of experience with FE to date, so can’t comment there.

I’ve posted before on the idea of students entering into a lifelong learning partnership with an ongoing (higher) education provider (Graduate With Who (Whom?!;-), Exactly…?, Subscription Models for Lifelong Students, or Education, Training and Lifelong Learning, Subscriptions Not Courses? Idling Around Lifelong Learning), and guess I should really try to put together a properly coherent, and argued from the point of view of data, think piece around this; but I’ve also started thinking that that approach doesn’t have much to say about making use of network structures as a way of accessing and delivering useful stuff you can learn with (that’s learn with, not learn from…).

Another approach I think might interesting to explore would be learning opportunities related to national conversations. This might be structured around national consultations, or the progression of Bills through Parliament. These can be used to provide part of the scheduling/pacing/cohort marshalling component that underpins the structure of course styled approaches, whilst also bringing people up to speed on (and maybe even attracting contributions from them) matters that influence their personal or professional life. So for example, in my own area, the forthcoming Communications Bill (Would this be a version of policy wonk heaven?! Or hell??!!)

Using something that isn’t a course to structure a course like delivery is the innovation here. The separate sections of a consultation document, or parts of a Bill, act as hooks to contextualise the study of particular topics using pre-existing “open educational resources” (whatever they are?) or prompting the production of ‘academic’ critiques or commentaries around Parliamentary briefing papers for example.

The OU already participates in framing national discussions at the pop cultural level via broadcast co-productions with the BBC, although these are only infrequently wrapped by actual courses (for example, The Blue Ocean was complemented by Life in the Oceans (S180)). I wonder if there is scope for looking for other linear, structural elements, such as the consultation/bill progress structures identified above? What other structures might there be? Other courses of study, such as vendor qualifications (the OU increasingly wraps these with academic credit bearing wrappers, such as Cisco networking (CCNA) (T216)) or as preparation for prfoessional certification (eg Linux: an introduction (T155) is a stepping stone towards CompTIA certificiation)? The current NASA mission to Mars maybe?! (The OU has history there too, such as the no longer presented course Exploring Mars (S198); though what this course provided was an opportunity for ‘leisure learners’, of course, and such opportunities are not typically a prime focus for degree programmes; and as university, academics are often loathe to admit to delivering training, which rules out a whole host of other timely interventions we might be able to make).

I realise that my role in the OU has ended up with my being involved in activities that are usually termed “other” and that my contributions (if any) are not easily measured by current metrics. My self-directedness is strongly influenced by my own notions of “is it OUseful?” – that is, does it contribute in some way to what I perceive to be the OU’s mission. As somebody paid from the public purse, I can appeal to my own feelings about how I spend/consume taxpayers’ money as part of my job. Most of the time, I feel I can justify it, though I find it hard to explain why (it “feels” right).

(That said, with the move to raising more funding through individual contributions that are based around a contract where the individual feels they are purchasing something, things are also starting to feel somehow different to me. The provision of privately contracted rather than publicly delivered services makes me feel that the charter and the mission will be interpreted with a different tone, and not necessarily a better one. It also makes me feel that it is harder to justify using my job in a way that I perceive to be a public good.)

By contrast, striking today doesn’t feel right. It kept me awake for hours last night. Other options I considered were: just carrying on “as normal”; taking a day’s holiday; taking a day’s holiday and donating my day’s salary to a union strike fund.

But as it is, today I am on strike; whatever that means…


  1. Chris

    I think the pension question is rather different for most university staff than it is for most other public sector workers. Most university academics are in the USS scheme, which is “fully funded”, if I’ve got the terminology right. That is, your pension constribution and your employer’s corresponding (but much larger) contribution go into a big investment fund, from which later on the pensions will be paid. The closes equivalent might be teachers, members of the TPS, who pay almost identical rates to USS members. I don’t know the full details, but effectively some or all of the pensions that result are paid from general tax revenue rather than the big investment fund. So, to the extent that those future pensions are smaller and the earlier payments are larger, the amount to be paid from future tax revenue is smaller, hence future deficits are reduced. I think.

    Universities often have another scheme for non-academic staff; these are usually smaller local schemes, more or less the equivalent of private sector pension schemes. When I was involved in university management, we had to consider one such scheme. Each scheme has to be audited regularly to ensure it has enough investment to pay out the promised pensions, and this scheme was warned it was heading into dangerous territory. There is controversy over the audit valuation method, but once warned you have to take action. Options are limited: (a) increase employee and/or employer contributions (unpopular), (b) close the scheme to new entrants and start up a new scheme with undefined benefits (sometimes as well as option a), or reduce the benefits (unpopular). In extreme cases, the existing fund could be diverted to paying existing pensions, and everyone else who has contributed loses all their contributions! All of these options are horrible, but when we live longer (and hence earn pensions for longer) and investment returns crash, they are going to have to be considered. It’s a real bummer.

    • Tony Hirst

      @Chris – I have to admit I found the UCU call to action far from compelling, and was responding in part to the (probably illegal?!) ‘wider action’ call.

      What I tried to do in the post was record some of my confusion about what it means to strike in my case, as well as how my own pay related situation has returned in the last couple of months to the approximate level of Sept 2008 because of changes to tax, pension and National Insurance (2/3rd of the gain over that period have been lost, with the remaining net increase also eroded by inflation (not shown…)).

      The ‘raising concerns’ component in the latter part of the post was more along the lines of using my ‘on strike’ time to try to explore issues that I feel are a threat to my current working practice and the terms and conditions that allow me to engage in that practice, along with a couple of ideas about possible alternative or complementary paths the organisation might take.

  2. Derek Jones

    The thing I pick up in this post is the latter part.

    As we consider pensions, how cuts in education affect us teaching types and students we do sometimes lose sight of the *really* big picture – that education (in and of itself) is a valuable contribution to society **and that this is not always measured by qualifications**.

    So I would definitely (retrospectively) join your picket line, Tony.

    Recently had a presentation on the partnership projects that R11 are doing with a really wide range of social/business groups to enable them to get targeted or a taster of well supported education. Not all of the outcomes were qualifications – they were outcomes like “I just wanted to prove I’m not stupid – and I did”.

    How do you quantify that? It’s certainly not a qualification but it has a real value as demonstrated by another R11 project – student education networks and how they filter out and affect other nodes (people) in the network. Basically, (good) education generally has a positive effect on students and this is passed on to those around them.

    And that’s before you even consider whether ‘qualification’ is still a meaningful thing (insert lifelong learning rant here)…

    If the OU does anything well, it should be precisely what you are talking about – being open to *ideas* of education. So maybe it is time to think about other ways of doing things (again). Funding (in England) is now inextricably linked to qualifications – no qualification, no loan – so that will inevitably become the backbone to make it all work. But there’s still lot’s of other things that could be done as well (love the idea of adaptive (un)courses on live issues).

    Basically, there is potentially a really big shift that might be happening as a result of this – the contract you mention is but one aspect and it really might go to the heart of the ‘social contract’ for provision of education (maybe even a few other social contracts). It really has to be balanced by other alternatives to remain truly open…