I get it. You’re at university, and the world seems to be opening up before your eyes. You’re becoming aware of how unfair pretty much everything, everywhere is. You’re angry about it. It’s easy to fall into that comfortable, self-congratulatory left-wing bubble of student politics. At first opportunity you feel pumped up with revolutionary spirit. Comrades, this is our moment! Capitalism will fall! Let’s barricade ourselves in the Arts Tower like its Les Misérables and seize the Paternoster of Production.I bet you can’t wait to tell your grandchildren how you really stuck it to The Man back in your student days.
If, that is, by sticking it to the man, you mean mistaking academic staff* whose average salary is double that of the average wage in the UK for the proletariat. The academic staff whose pensions, even if significantly reduced, would remain the envy of virtually every private sector worker in this country. The overwhelming majority of the academia exists to prop up, not combat, the economic status quo, and they are bountifully rewarded for their efforts. What, you think universities would be able to continue to exist as publicly funded bodies if they weren’t perpetuating modern capitalism? Where in The Communist Manifesto does it instruct mounting the barricades in aid of the bourgeoisie? Where, moreover, does it instruct that those barricades must prevent the lower-salaried workers who may more closely resemble the proletariat you espouse representation of from accessing their means of paying their bills?
Let’s be absolutely clear – striking to save pensions is an act of self-interest. Let’s drop the drivel about this being symptomatic about the marketisation of universities. People state this as dogma without ever articulating how the two are linked. Let’s also stop pretending this is about the Little Person being crushed under the heel of the capitalist machine. It’s well-paid and remarkably well-pensioned employees of the capitalist state fighting (absolutely reasonably) to maintain their taxpayer subsidised pension pots.
We need to come clean about what defined benefit pension schemes entail. This is a sum of money guaranteed virtually regardless of the contributions an employee makes because it’s not sourced from investments. It is essentially an extended salary from retirement until death. The massive deficit between contributions and payouts is funded from the products of the labour of the next generation. Yep, that’s right – us. We’ll be paying for our academics’ pensions in the form of our taxes for the rest of our working lives. And here is something I can guarantee you: when we come to retire, we won’t get nearly as sweet a deal. We will work a decade longer, pay in more, and get out less. Why? Because pensions as they exist now are expensive. Like, £11.9 billion a year billed to the taxpayer expensive (according to the Office For Budget Responsibility).
Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with generous pensions. I think academics should be well compensated. Universities are in a mess, marketisation is a nightmare, and the bosses are overpaid. But let’s be under no illusion that what you’re doing has a place in radical left wing politics. You have chosen the wrong fight. You have barricaded yourself in a building to fight for the generous pensions that will be paid for by people who don’t receive the same, for workers who earn significantly above-average wages, and whose work props up the capitalist system. In a fit of rhetoric about solidarity you have blindly become lapdogs of the bourgeoisie, making yourselves look stupid and annoying your fellow students along the way. Sorry to burst your bubble.
*Academic staff are not the only group striking
Do you disagree and want to reply? Contact Forge Press to write a response article.