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Creating an industrial strategy fit for purpose

Without the input of workers, the government's industrial strategy will be a missed opportunity. 

The government’s white paper on the industrial strategy has arrived at long last. It’s a step forward to have an industrial strategy at all – but there’s a worrying absence of workers’ voices.

There will be an independent Industrial Strategy Council, with business representatives, investors, economists and academics from across the UK. But no mention of unions. If the government wants the industrial strategy to succeed, workers must have a voice through union representation. We should have seats on both the council and any associated working groups.

Before the strategy was published, we said the government should look to Germany. The inclusion of workers’ voice, and a seat at the table for unions, has been central to the success of German industrial strategy.

Take training. The white paper says the government will “establish a technical education system that rivals the best in the world to stand alongside our world class higher education system”, but it fails to mention a fundamental reason for success elsewhere. In Germany, long the envy of other countries when it comes to vocational training, unions have a seat at the table in deciding both the quantity and quality of apprenticeships. That union voice makes a crucial difference.

The government has based the strategy on five "pillars" – ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment, and places. And they focused it on four "grand challenges" – becoming a leader in artificial intelligence (AI), creating clean growth, shaping the future of mobility (that means driverless cars to you and me) and meeting the needs of an ageing society.

It is good sense to target sectors that will play a major role in the future global economy. In recent years the TUC has recommended AI and clean growth as areas needing industrial strategy "missions". Unions will seek to be an active partner in taking forward work under each of the "grand challenges".

But it’s also important to boost the "earning power" of workers in other sectors. Most people work in service sectors, and millions of them on low pay in jobs like care provision, retail and hospitality. The strategy overlooks them. The government must address how job quality, skill requirements, productivity and pay can all be raised in these sectors too.

This is especially important if the industrial strategy is going to have positive impacts on every UK community. There are many towns where the local labour market is dominated by low-paid service sectors, with next to no employers in advanced manufacturing and technology. Raising job quality and productivity in those sectors, and those communities, is the only way we will raise the UK’s productivity across the board, and give every worker a better standard of living.

To succeed, the industrial strategy must also be properly funded. An extra £7bn for research and development is welcome, but more is needed. UK public capital investment will average 2.8 per cent GDP over the current parliament. But this will leave us far short of the 3.5 per cent GDP average for OECD nations.

Making "places" a theme is welcome, but this section of the white paper is underwhelming. The first of the proposed Local Economic Strategies won’t even be agreed until March 2019. A recent TUC project demonstrated great potential for place-based industrial strategy to identify unique opportunities in each community. We want to see this approach developed significantly as the strategy is rolled out.

We hope that the industrial strategy can now develop into a long-term framework for far-sighted and inclusive improvement to the UK economy. The fundamental vision and priorities must be shared by the main political parties, and by businesses and unions. That doesn’t mean it should pass without criticism though. And for now, the main problems we will be pushing the government to fix are lack of workers’ voices, lack of investment, and lack of strategy for low-paid and low-skilled service sector work.    

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC. 

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.