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University strikes highlight problems deeper then pensions

Pension reforms are only the tip of the iceberg

Nowadays, it seems almost inappropriate to ask that the British government might actually stand up for the well-being of its citizens.

Maybe the question itself is an out-dated brand of utopianism, easily dismissed by the perennial, ‘that’s just the world we live in now, mate’.

And certainly, as strikes started last week to protest staff pension reforms – in Bristol and at universities around the country – it would be easy to see this as another victory for the cynic.

The reforms in question are merely the latest blow to an already struggling higher education system. They’re taking place because the pension provider USS has fallen into a deficit of over £6bn. Why? Simply, poor investment choices.

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And while academics are set to lose over £10,000 per year come retirement to make up for the losses, many employees at USS will continue earning upwards of £200,000 a year.

This comes on top of nearly a decade of penny-pinching in higher education. As part of our Conservative government’s austerity programme, while university funding has been slashed (35% between 2010-14 alone), the rest of the burden has been shifted to students via unprecedented increases in fees (up by 200% in 2010).

The results have been a steady drop in standards at British universities – seen in increased pressures on academics, falls in teaching and research quality, rising student numbers and declining facilities and resources.

Despite such neglect, higher education – and the research it comes with – plays a vital role in shaping our future. Not only because university experiences are the formative years for a student about to enter the job market, but education plays a fundamental role in promoting innovation, the development of new technologies, and long-term economic growth.

The microcosm of higher education tells a wider story – working people, taxpayers, students paying the price for the excesses and failures of big corporations and banks.

With pensions reforms, USS has clearly failed in its most basic duty; in cuts and fee hikes for universities, this is just one of many public services footing the bill after the 2007/8 financial crisis.

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Don’t be fooled – there is money out there. And it’s not only enough to pay for the pensions of university staff, properly fund universities, and eradicate student fees, but to support the NHS and social services, local councils and resolve the housing crisis too.

There is an active choice by the Conservative Party here, that is to leave sources of wealth untouched, and instead go after public services like universities, the NHS and welfare.

So, even as some students demand compensation from universities for missed contact time, this anger is misplaced.

If anyone deserves the fury of students – and indeed the country – it is the British government, and the interests it protects.

The problems here are great indeed. And it is easy to be cynical in the face of them. But we shouldn’t have to feel reluctant about asking for a society and government that looks to the needs of the people above all else.

That is why we should stand by our lecturers and university staff as they strike. After all, what they’re facing is more than just a pension dispute. It’s a symptom of a wider decline in Britain that we all need to stand up against if we want to see it stopped.