In “Politics,” a work of political philosophy, Aristotle said that man is a “political animal,” indicating that humans derive their identity and character from being involved in their communities. (The word “politics” comes from the word for a Greek city state, “polis.”) In this online exclusive, an addition to the four-part series that ran in print, Grant Miner, ‘17, discusses university staff’s strike over their pension plans.
Grant Miner, ‘15, decided to spend a year at an English university during his time at Kenyon College. Little did he know he’d end up in the midst of a strike.
Miner has been studying for the past year at the University of Exeter – one of many universities in the U.K. and a member of the University and College Union (UCU) – whose students joined in the strike over changes to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) proposed by Universities U.K. (UUK).
Miner said Kenyon (in Gambier, Ohio) and Exeter are in similar socioeconomic brackets and “similar alignments in terms of Cambridge rejects versus Ivy League rejects.”
However, he pointed out, Exeter students more readily identify as socialists than do students at Kenyon.
“It’s not as much of a taboo, which definitely came to a head during the UCU strike,” Miner said.
Because of the joint strike organized by the UCU, all members of the union were not working for the majority of February and March.
Though neither of Miner’s professors chose to strike, he said he knew that many professors didn’t hold classes and many departments held office hours outside of university hours.
“One English professor was holding her office hours at a coffee shop in town,” Miner said.
He said that some British students chose to continue as normal, some protested in front of the university with their professors, and some left the university altogether.
“I had friends that did not go to school at all,” he said. “The Americans I was with said, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m going to tell my parents about this. I think I’m going to plan trips’ – and they went on vacation.”
Fortunately for many, Miner added, Exeter has automated assignments – mainly essays – that students complete regardless of class attendance.
“My friend Sam did not come all semester to this Anglo-Saxon class that we were in,” Miner said.
“Students who are very smart, very academically involved, completely just dropped off the face of the earth to support their professors. But they still worked hard on their essays!”
In fact, many students supported the staff while regretting the action taken, according to Keith Barnes, an English friend of teachers Patricia Fels and Daniel Neukom with whom they exchanged houses in the summer of 1993.
Barnes added that though there was an all-out strike at one point, not all institutions were affected equally; rather, participation appeared to depend on the strength of union support.
While Miner said there was more “widespread and aggressive” occupation of university property at other English universities, students at Exeter did occupy the Vice Chancellor’s office.
The campus police barred them from going to the bathroom and getting food, Miner added.
“My flatmate snuck food in for them, which was very daring of her – just a little English major,” he said.
Barnes said during exam season, everything went ahead as planned. However, he added that there will likely be more news in due course as he believes the underlying issue is unresolved and that the strike “seemed to lead nowhere.”
“Lectures, tutorial work, exams and marking have been affected, but it appears to have had limited damage impact with students finding ways around it,” he said.
Miner pointed out, however, that many of his fellow Americans at Exeter didn’t pay much attention to the issue.
“We probably should have, but we did not,” he said.
“I guess it’s just expat political apathy for you.”
Barnes explained that university staff throughout the country have taken strike action over their pension plans (known in England as “superannuation schemes”), which have found themselves “seriously short of money.”
According to Barnes, the government devised a formula for closing the gap by contributing some money and requesting that university staff make up the shortfall in terms of additional payments and reduced benefits.
Meanwhile, Barnes added, the universities themselves have not offered to contribute despite some vice chancellors having “extremely large salaries.”
“Apparently there were protracted discussions, but the university staff felt outraged, calculated that they could lose thousands of pounds overall from their pensions, and took strike action,” Barnes said.