The extraordinary wave of militant creativity sweeping our universities – the picket lines, the rallies, the student occupations and teach outs, the songs, posters and memes – can be traced back to one dry, dull, bureaucratic document. This was an online survey distributed, in September 2017, by the managers of the USS pension fund to the Higher Education institutions (Universities and others) which pay into and underwrite the fund. This survey asked, most crucially, whether these institutions would be happy with an increased level of financial ‘risk’ then being proposed by the USS trustee. This increased ‘risk’ was one solution being proposed in order to remove a ‘deficit’ which the pensions fund valuation had shown to exist. The other solution – if the increased ‘risk’ was rejected – would entail massive cuts to pension payouts, and a shift away from a Defined Benefit scheme in which employees would receive a guaranteed yearly amount in retirement, to a Defined Contribution scheme in which their pensions would be dependent on the performance of the stock market. This was and is the crux of the USS pensions dispute.
The terms ‘risk’ and ‘deficit’ have been placed in scare quotes above because their use embodies certain assumptions on the part of the managers of USS and their interlocutors. These assumptions are increasingly coming under challenge from academics involved in the pensions strike. Yet they continue to permeate the two bureaucracies involved in the September survey and subsequent dispute: the financial bureaucracy of the USS pension fund and the government bodies that oversee pensions regulation; and the increasingly financialised bureaucracy that sits at the top of British universities. It is to these two bureaucracies, their composition, and their assumptions, that we must turn first. Our knowledge of them is still evolving, as the present dispute calls their legitimacy and motives into question and brings them under ever-closer scrutiny. On this work of scrutiny by academics and journalists the following account is based.