qmunicate Interviews: Neil Davidson

Neil Davidson is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow who specialises in contemporary class structure, neoliberalism and the sociology of revolution. He is also the UCU Glasgow Committee Representative for the College of Social Sciences. qmunicate sat down with him to talk about the ongoing strike, what it means for the future of higher education, and why students should care.

qmunicate: First of all, can you give us a quick summary of what the strike is about?

Neil Davidson: The strike is basically about defending our existing pension arrangements. At the moment these are what’s called a defined benefit system – in other words, we know what we’re going to get when we retire, and we know the money involved in that. At the moment, that’s what’s called a ‘career average’ so it’s basically an average of your salary across your entire academic career. The worry is the employers, Universities UK, in alliance with the pensions board itself, the USS, have said that they want to transfer this into a defined contribution system – in other words, we know what we’re going to put in but we don’t know what we’re going to get out. It’ll be entirely dependent on the stock exchange, and various investments that go into our pension, so you could retire at the age of 66 and find that your pension is several tens of thousands less than you’d been anticipating. What you’ve got up to now is preserved; what you earn from now on will be subject essentially to the vagaries of the stock market, and that’s obviously going to hit younger academics, with more of their career ahead of them, more than it does older ones like me. So clearly it’s an attack on our fair wages, and they are applying to reduce them, so there’s quite strong feelings in the union and amongst the leadership of the union, who’ve taken an unexpectedly firm line on this to defend our pension rights.

Glasgow University itself has actually taken quite a good position on this – the union and university put out a ‘joint statement’ with Anton Muscatelli, the vice principal, a couple of days ago, basically saying that the university agree with a lot of the unions’ positions, they would like to defend a defined benefits pension, and they would be willing to pay more money in if that was necessary.

So our quarrel isn’t so much with the university itself, it’s that we can only take strike action against the university, so that’s what we’re doing at the moment. I think the general response throughout the UK seems to be very good and very solid, and certainly the first two days of the pickets in Glasgow there were about 200, 250 people, which were are some of the biggest I’ve ever been on in forty years of being a trade unionist. So I think that shows the level of commitment amongst members to taking action.

qmunicate: So are you feeling quite optimistic about the strikes, considering the turnout at the pickets?

ND: Yeah, I am unusually optimistic about this, partly because of the turnout, partly because of the student support, who have largely – not entirely but largely – been supportive of what we’re doing.

Also because the employers have actually conceded to going to ACAS, the arbitration body, to discuss a solution, which doesn’t suggest they feel they’re in a very strong position. There have also been divisions within the employers, and Glasgow and around 15 or 16 other universities have now come out and said they want a solution which maintains the defined benefit.

But it’s also clear that even among the wider sections of what we sociologists call ‘the ruling class’, there appear to be divisions – The Financial Times, for example, was calling for a solution which did away with the idea of defined contribution only. So there’s actually divisions amongst the employers themselves, and that’s usually a good sign for us; if we maintain solidity and solidarity and they’re divided then it’s easier for us to get what we want. And I’m pleased to say that the leadership of the union haven’t suspended action while the talks are going on, they’ve been maintaining the strike, which I think is the right thing to do because that means the pressure gets put on the employer’s organisation.  

qmunicate: What do you think the strike means in terms of the marketization of higher education? Do you think it sends a good message to university management about what lecturers and students want for the future of higher education?

ND: Oh yes. I think clearly, although this is about pensions, that’s acting as a kind of focus for the occasion for a whole load of grievances and problems that have arisen through the neoliberal university over the last 20-25 years. So I think it’s useful in that it might be a kind of push back against the kind of things that have been going on – the endless marketization, of course, the zero hours contracts that many of our younger colleagues are on, their ability to get jobs when they get their PhDs, all these kinds of insecurity. it’s not quite as bad as the American system, but it’s getting there. One of the good things about it is the way in which a lot of tutors and people doing PhDs, who have only got very part time contracts, have rallied, even though they are the people who will suffer the most financially from this, who have been at the lowest salaries, but nevertheless are prepared to take action.

I think there’s a lot of determination there, which I think has been furthered partly by the very, very high salaries that the vice-principals and so on pay themselves, and partly by their complete denial about this as they’re refusing to increase our wages and wanting to cut our pensions. So I hope this is the beginning of a kind of generalised fight back in universities to the direction in which this has travelled in the last couple of decades.

I also hope it acts as a kind of sign to the rest of the trade union movement that it’s possible to resist this kind of thing. I mean, lecturers are obviously an unlikely vanguard of the working class, but nevertheless but we are actually being, so far anyway, quite successful in what we’re trying to do here. I think that’ll be useful for other people, other groups of workers to see that they can also take action –  and that they aren’t going to lose, because that how everyone feels – ‘oh we can’t take action because we’ll never win’. But if there is a victory here then that might encourage other people in different industries and different sectors to feel like they can take action as well.

qmunicate: What do you think this means for the future of student activism? I’ve seen a lot of people commenting on the fact that is one of the biggest protests we’ve seen from students and young people since the increase of tuition fees in 2010. Do you think this has any potential to lead to a broader movement of more politically active young people?

ND: Yes. I know one of the things that has been happening are the ‘teach ins’ or ‘teach outs’ which are organised by the staff and students at Glasgow, which they allow us to have a political discussion on terms of equality between lecturers and students. These obviously don’t deal with the stuff we do in the lecture halls, but deal broadly with political issues, including the neoliberisation of the universities. The fact that students are organising those themselves is encouraging, often without directly political groups doing it but just more generally among the student body.

There’s a problem, and I understand why some students feel this way, but some students are saying ‘we’ve paid for our commodity, which is the lecturer, and the lecturers aren’t working therefore we want our money back’. I think some people do that as a way of attacking the university rather than the lecturers, but that is still buying into the idea of Universities as a product which students are paying, which is one of the things we are trying to fight.

I think we have to get beyond that and think more broadly about political action, whether that’s being on the picket line, showing solidarity with lecturers, saying ‘we’re one and the same, we want the same things here’, which is a university that isn’t just driven by money or funnelling people into jobs. I think that’s extremely useful. If you go back to the 1960s you’ve got the unity of lecturers and students to a certain extent, then 68, 69 when the student movement really got off the ground. More recently students have been taking action on their own to fight for certain things, to which lecturers might have been sympathetic, but which didn’t really involve them. But in this case the two groups are actually united on the picket lines which is a very good sign, and hopefully we are looking at a generalised revival of student political activism.

qmunicate: What would you say to students who are on the fence about supporting the strike, are maybe saying ‘how does this affect us’ – what does this strike mean for the futures of students more generally?

ND: Obviously the strike is an inconvenience for students – we appreciate that. But you’ve got to think of this in the longer term – if you want to defend the idea of a university as a place that people go to for education and to develop themselves, rather than simply to pay money to get a degree they might possibility get a job out of. Otherwise this is going to carry on, and you’ll get less and less good teaching, you’ll get less and less effective education and it’ll simply be geared towards getting you to pass stuff – some people may want that but most people don’t, they come here for reasons a bit deeper than that.

But we won’t get it unless we can actually defend the idea of a university which is well paid, rewarded lecturers who have job security and can therefore think about what they’re doing and teaching the students. At the moment, we’re driven from pillar to post just to try and keep up with the various demands made of us by management who are bureaucratic in the list of stuff we have to do. We’ve managed to defend the autonomy of the lecturing, that’s what we do for the meantime, but that’s going to come under attack as well – if they take our pensions, then the management will come back for a series of other things, and eventually we’ll end up just teaching by vote. So this is for the benefit of students in the longer term.

It’s also important for students who want to become academics themselves – and quite a lot of students will. We’re actually defending the future terms and conditions which they’ll have when they become academics. We want to make sure people have good contracts and secure pensions, and we can only do that by starting the fight on this particular terrain, which is where we are at the moment. If we win here, we’ll be able to go into other areas and hopefully that’ll be better for everybody, whether students want to become lecturers in due course or not. So we encourage everybody to come and join us, and to come and speak to us – if you want to come down to the picket lines we’ll be happy to discuss the issues and how we can help overcome the various inconveniences that strikes can sometimes cause.

qmunicate: Finally, what can students do to support the strike?

ND: There’s a number of things you can do. It’s important for students to go on social media and let their voice be heard there. It’s important that they let the university know that they support their lecturers, that makes them [the University and UUK] weaker, because they always say ‘you’re hurting the students’, but the students are telling them ‘actually, we support the lecturers even though there’s a short-term inconvenience here’.

It’s also helpful if students discuss amongst themselves, if students who do support the strike to try and win over their fellow students who maybe don’t, because it’s probably more convincing coming from them than it is coming from us because we’ve got a vested interest here.

The most important thing you can do is to be visibly supporting lecturers on the picket lines, and that’s been great – people have brought us biscuits and food and coffee and so on and that’s fantastic, but we also just want the solidarity of standing side-by-side on the picket lines. I think the sight of that unity is important for us to be able to say to the employers ‘look, don’t try turning students against their lecturers, it’s not going to work’. So those things together would help to meld the students and lecturers together.

[Clare Patterson – @clarepttrsn]

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