UK universities have been stuck in a cycle of industrial conflict for over five years.
It has been debilitating for staff, compromising welfare and career opportunities, and damaging to a generation of students already deeply impacted by Covid-19.
And repeated conflict undermines the sector’s reputation at home and abroad. We at the University of York – the vice chancellor and the local branch executive of the University and College Union (UCU) – want to work together to break out of this cycle.
Breaking the impasse
But the national negotiations are now at an impasse. We need, as employers and trade unions, to get back to meaningful negotiations on pay and conditions. We’ve shown it can be done on pensions. That’s in part due to recent changes in economic circumstances. All are now agreed the latest valuation process of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) will be positive and enable benefits to be restored.
But, importantly, we’ve gone beyond that to begin to explore measures that would guard against future instability if economic circumstances change. And – together with the USS trustees – employers and unions are collectively pressing both the UK Government and the Pensions Regulator not to impose tighter, over-cautious regulation in future. That capacity to work together to think into the medium term is crucial.
Are there ways in which employers and unions can build a shared perspective on the future of pay and conditions in the sector?
Working for the future
We made some progress a few months ago on a set of long-standing issues which have vexed the sector, working up draft Terms of Reference for action on the national pay spine, minimising casual contracts, closing pay gaps and ensuring workloads are at – and stay at – reasonable levels.
There’s a balance to be struck here between employer concerns about university autonomy and the demands of trade unions that these matters must be subject to UK level frameworks. But we could still work in negotiations to strengthen these Terms of Reference, perhaps creating shared baselines that universities would be expected to meet to improve working conditions.
Recognising the issues
The bigger sticking point in the national negotiations is pay. To move ahead we need two things.
First, we need – as employers and unions – to jointly recognise that real wages, as across the wider public sector, have been gradually eroded since 2008 by repeated below inflation pay rises. With high inflation over the last two years, that erosion has been accelerated. Pay rises in 2022-23 and 2023-24 have lagged seriously behind inflation. Many staff now face real hardship.
Staff at York and elsewhere – who have always worked with great commitment, and in recent years through particularly difficult circumstances as a result of Covid – deserve more. The risk is that increasing numbers of staff feel they cannot develop good, sustainable and rewarding careers in the sector. We need to change this. As we look ahead to resuming negotiations, we need to find ways to begin to reverse the decline in real wages.
But second, we should also – as unions and employers – jointly recognise that the financial situation of the sector is at risk of becoming precarious. We are grappling with a broken funding system which systematically underfunds the true costs of both home undergraduate teaching and research and leaves us reliant on other unstable funding sources.
Combined with the effects of recent inflation, it has put a growing number of universities in a position where higher pay rises could bring further financial risk. Some universities – even with the below-inflation pay rises of the last two years – are now in a highly problematic financial position.
Onward to action
But if we can find sector-wide agreement on these two points – first, staff deserve more and the last two pay awards have not met the needs of staff and second, many employers feel they are not in a position to afford more – then, as we have seen around USS, we can turn to how we can fix the situation in future.
That will require us to think in new ways. One would be to set up a framework for shared understanding of sector finances, perhaps with independent leadership. This could enable employers and unions to build a clearer shared perspective on a sustainable approach to reversing the decline in real wages, which is vital for our sector’s future.
We should also look to approach pay beyond annual, short-term and reactive negotiations, and develop multi-staged or multi-year deals that would enable employers to plan ahead with greater certainty, which would support developing and implementing the frameworks mentioned above. This would likely involve putting guardrails around these pay deals through stabilisation mechanisms, analogous in outcome to those under consideration for USS, so we could manage changes in economic circumstances.
But above all, we at York jointly recognise that the current pay offer is not what staff deserve and have a vigorous, shared commitment to building and making a shared case to both government and opposition for fair and sustainable funding for the sector. We cannot achieve this effectively if we are engaged in constant industrial disputes. At the University of York we are clear that negotiations must restart to enable a different path to be found.
We think that many others among employers and the trade unions across the UK want this too. Let’s do it.