Dundee university workers share poverty fears as pensions and pay strike rages on


Academic staff from Tayside universities say they will be unable to keep up with the rising cost of living if their employers refuse to protect their pensions and up their pay.

Workers affiliated with the UCU trade union have walked out this week in the latest action over changes to Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions that the organization says will slash the average retirement fund by 35%.

The UCU has also asked employers to give all university workers a £2,500 pay rise.

Union bosses estimate that wages have fallen by over a quarter in real terms since 2009 because pay rises have not kept up with inflation.

Workers listen as UCU Dundee's Carlo Morelli speaks
Workers listen as UCU Dundee’s Carlo Morelli speaks

Academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers, managers, librarians and course administrators are among those understood to have walked out this month – after doing so just one month ago over the impending cuts.

Workers from Dundee and St Andrews universities rallied in City Square on Tuesday, where they told Dundee Live about the difficulties caused by low pay and temporary contracts.

Lewis Miller, a 30-year-old politics lecturer at the University of Dundee, said he spent the early part of the Covid pandemic on Universal Credit because his part-time contract meant the institution was under no obligation to support him.

“The conditions that we get with the contracts that we sign will completely devalue education in the long term if we don’t make a stand,” said Lewis, who recently picked up a PhD.

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“I only get work when my classes are on – so over the summer I was working as a tour guide in a distillery instead of getting to do research and work on my career.

“I can’t afford to do that on a part-time contract which basically makes me unemployed for a few months every year. It’s miserable.”

Politics lecturer Lewis Miller says conditions have left him
Politics lecturer Lewis Miller says conditions have left him “miserable”

Melissa D’Ascenzio, a University of Dundee lecturer, said of the cuts: “There’s no wellbeing seminar or financial course that can prepare me for such a destructive scenario.”

Carlo Morelli, co-president of the Dundee UCU branch, said: “This isn’t going away any time soon. Inflation is rising, there’s pay discrimination, but universities have never been richer.”

Mary Senior, UCU Scotland official, told the crowd that the cost of living crisis was set to hit academic staff hard.

“At a time where we’ve got this cost of living crisis, where heating, oil, petrol, food, rent, all of those things are going through the roof, [and] employers are pushing down your pay,” she said.

“Workloads are spiraling, we have a prevalence of precarious fixed-term hourly pay contracts in the sector and we’ve got pay inequality. We are absolutely at breaking point.”

At the core of the row is a reevaluation of the USS pension scheme – a joint pension body for the UK’s academia – that will see defined benefit amounts cut and more money moved into a defined contribution scheme.

Dundee lecturer Melissa D'Ascenzio says universities aren't supporting staff
Dundee lecturer Melissa D’Ascenzio says universities aren’t supporting staff

The USS says it needs to make the move – which will reduce the amount of workers are guaranteed upon retirement – in order to keep the pension fund solvent.

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A spokesperson told PA: “We understand the concerns of USS members, but the fundamental truth is that the price of promising a set, inflation-protected income for life in retirement – paid no matter what happens to the economy or the higher education sector in future – is much more expensive today than in the past.”

The pension body has been supported by Universities UK, the advocacy organization representing the majority of higher education institutions.

It said: “Employers have repeatedly made it clear that current contributions are at the very limit of affordability, and a majority of those responding to a consultation on UCU’s proposal for higher contributions rejected it.

“Recent government announcements underline the wider financial uncertainty universities are facing, and with the 2020 valuation now concluded, it is time to look forward and identify lasting improvements to USS that can be made ahead of the next valuation.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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