Why I’m on strike

2018-02-22 13.06.38

Paul Brown, me, Graeme Paul-Taylor: thanks to Kerry Hood for the photo.

I have a fantastic job, which I enjoy very much. But today I haven’t been doing it. I came into it in 1997, leaving a post as a community mental health nurse in East London to relocate to South Wales as a Lecturer in Community Nursing at what was then the University of Wales College of Medicine (UWCM). As a family we made this move even though my initial contract was fixed for a two year term. It was renewed for a further two years, and only then did I become a permanent member of staff. As part of making my transition from the NHS into higher education I transferred my health service pension into the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

I was recruited into UWCM with the chief responsibility of leading a full-time, post-registration, course preparing nurses to work in community mental health settings. I led that programme for 14 years, and over that time taught many hundreds of registered nurses and helped them on their way towards specialist, regulatory body-approved, qualifications. I have continued to contribute to, and to lead, modules involving many other groups of health care professional students, all the way from pre-registration undergraduate through to post-registration postgraduate. I have supervised and assessed umpteen student dissertations, and have supervised and examined many postgraduate researchers. I very much value my work with students, and think that I’m reasonably good at it.

Then there are the other bits of my job, which nowadays occupy as much, or more, of my time as teaching and teaching-related activities. Over the years I have become a researcher, working with excellent colleagues here and elsewhere on projects examining features of the mental health system. I help with the running of the School of Healthcare Sciences as a manager and mentor of valued colleagues, and contribute to the work of a large number of committees and groups. I do work external to Cardiff University, including with Mental Health Nurse Academics UK, at other higher education institutions as an external examiner, and for journals and funding bodies as a reviewer of manuscripts and grants.

Like all the academics I know I work long hours, and accept that my job comes with high expectations. These include securing research income and publishing excellent research papers. For me, 10 to 12 hour working days are exceptionally usual, with far fewer (but certainly not non-existent) hours spent working at weekends. It is easy to become absorbed in what I do. I respond quickly to requests for help and feedback from students and colleagues, and if I’m chipping away at a grant application or a paper for publication can soon become engrossed in the task at hand. Oddly, whilst the hours are long it doesn’t always feel that way, and I appreciate the benefits of being able to work away from the office and to have control over my diary. All in all, I do my best across the full range of activities associated with being an academic. And, as I wrote at the outset of this post I enjoy what I do, and enjoy doing it in Cardiff.

Having committed myself to university life for over two decades I conclude that it suits me well, and find it hard to imagine doing anything else until I retire. Which brings me to today. I’m far from being the most active of Union members, and from time-to-time have had my gripes about the University and College Union (UCU). But today I downed tools to join colleagues up and down the country on strike, as a protest against threats to dismantle our pensions. At the heart of the dispute is a highly contested valuation of the USS fund, and a proposal to move from a defined benefits to a defined contribution scheme. This means a potential loss in retirement of up to £10,000 per year for USS members. Here’s a useful leaflet explaining this in a little more detail:

And for those wanting more on the technical front, there’s this blogpost which I personally found very informative.

Academics are paid modestly considering the qualifications and transferable skills they have, and as I have demonstrated here put the hours in to get the job done. Many, as I did, put up with time-limited contracts in the earlier parts of their careers. We care about our students and our research. We take additional satisfaction when our work makes a contribution to society. In my field this is through the preparation of future health care professionals, and via generating an evidence base for the improvement of practice and services. In return, having a decent pension – of the kind I and others signed up for when we first came into the university sector – does not seem like much of an ask.

I also remain acutely aware of how much more precarious the position is of younger academics. If proposed pension changes go through, people in the future will enter university employment with only defined contribution USS pension arrangements as preparation for their eventual retirements. First saddled with student debt, these are talented individuals who will be employed in their early working years on fixed-term contracts, ahead of settling into careers characterised by working weeks of 60 hours or more for salaries falling far short of a king’s ransom. A working life over, they (and not their employers) will have carried all the risk to secure pensions the value of which will reflect, quite terrifyingly, the fluctuations of the stock market. It isn’t right.

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