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Behind the picket lines: the state of industrial relations in higher education

As this year's dispute continues, David Morris breaks down the policy and political context of industrial relations in the higher education sector today.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

Over the past few weeks, at graduation ceremonies and open days on campuses across the UK, bemused applicants, graduates and parents may well have been greeted with the sight of placards and pickets. This has been the latest stage of University and Colleges Union (UCU) action protesting this year’s pay offer from the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). In recent weeks, Unison has announced that it will be balloting its higher education members on joining the strike action in the autumn.

Understanding the policy challenges of industrial disputes in higher education is challenging because so much is disputed about the basic facts, terms and characteristics of ‘the problem’. A great deal of the public debate is carried out in absolutes in an attempt to leverage neutrals’ sympathies, and reporting tends merely to present opposing quotes from each side’s robustly worded press releases. Nonetheless, industrial disputes such as the one underway in UK universities tend to highlight significant policy and political challenges for higher education. Addressing these challenges should be a high priority for the sector.

There are now two narratives and spheres of thought operating in parallel that are key to understanding today’s state of industrial relations. In one, union and employer negotiators are hard at work finding opportunities for compromise and collaboration on many matters of pay and working conditions. In the other, a newly confident political left within the unions is determined to defend education from what they believe is an anaemic, self-interested and politically bankrupt sector leadership. The intersection of these two spheres of thought, particularly within the unions, has been the main catalyst behind the most recent disputes.

In whose interests? Olson’s Law and Baumol’s Disease

Two useful macroeconomic concepts can ease understanding of the pressures on higher education’s relationship with its salaried labour. The first is a theory proposed by William Baumol and is often known as ‘Baumol’s disease’. Education, along with other vital social services such as health, has a much slower rate of productivity growth than most other sectors of the economy. Education is fundamentally (for the moment at least) a labour-intensive endeavour: 55% of the sector’s expenditure goes towards staff costs.

New technology or capital investment cannot substantially increase the output per worker as they do in most other industries. However, workers’ wages must still increase to keep up with inflation elsewhere despite the lack of productivity gains, and so the relative cost of education compared to other goods and services begins to increase. Since education is either paid for directly (as in Scotland) or underwritten (as in England) by taxpayers, there is gradual political and economic reluctance to continue wage increases, and more pressure to find ‘efficiencies’.

A second concept can be deployed to a wide range of issues within public service sectors and is vital to understanding the ideological underpinnings of many recent public sector reforms. Mancur Olson’s ‘logic of collective action’ posits that concentrated minority interests will usually triumph over the diffuse majority.

The concept of ‘interests’ in higher education is particularly politically charged because all the interested parties claim to have a wider interest at its heart. The government’s continued claim to be acting in the ‘student interest’ in recent years is the implicit flipside of this debate because it believes neither sector leaders nor staff unions have such an interest at the forefront of their minds.

Most university staff are still a relatively privileged and comfortable social group, but the Financial Times has argued that the middle class has become increasingly polarised between the ‘clingers on’ and the ‘uber middle’. The former group includes the vast majority of academics, whose median salary is now c. £47,000. This is clearly still a comfortable income, but it has not matched the rate of increase of some other middle class professions who, thirty years ago, would have earned comparable salaries. The creates what the eminent sociologist Gary Runciman has called ‘relative deprivation’, which is a far greater catalyst for political action than more absolute inequalities.

The 2016 dispute so far

UCU has approximately 60,000 members out of roughly 200,000 academic and academic-related staff in the higher education sector. In the most recent ballot, 21,000 participated in the vote, with 13,800 calling for strike action. Unison has approximately 30,000 higher education members who will be balloted in the coming weeks.

This year’s round of pay negotiations has run aground on three specific issues:

1. The overall pay offer. UCU and Unison claim that 1.1% is insufficient, and argue that real-terms pay has fallen by 14% since 2011. UCU’s initial demand was for a 5% increase, and UCEA claim that they have bottom-loaded their offer so that the lowest paid workers will get a 5.1% increase, though this may be primarily due to the requirements of the national living wage.

2. Agreeing action on closing the gender pay gap. UCEA claim that a great deal of progress has been made in this area in recent years, tackling issues such as bias in promotions and making academic life more compatible with child-caring responsibilities. HESA statistics show that the gap has fallen between from 10.3% in 2003-04 to 5.7% in 2014-15, but the unions argue that progress has not been fast enough and that UCEA has shown a reticence to take national collective action on the matter, leaving it to individual institutions to reform their own policies. UCU has produced a league table of institutions, showing that the gap rises to 16.3% in Russell Group institutions, and at only eight institutions are women paid equal to men.

3. Agreeing action on casualised contracts. The main point of contention here is on the extent of casual contracts in the sector. UCU’s own research shows that 49% of teaching staff are on casualised contracts and that HESA data, which that the level is only 26%, has substantial omissions. The union argue that the sector has become over-reliant on casual forms of employment as a short-term solution to financial and other policy instabilities, and fear that a ‘core and periphery’ hierarchy is emerging in academia.

After an initial two-day strike in May, UCU conference vowed to take the dispute further through new forms of industrial action. Branches have targeted single days of action at university open days and graduation ceremonies. These appear to have had mixed success, with some of the largest turnouts coinciding with the National Union of Teachers’ strike action on July 5th.

The mass resignation of external examiners is an eye-catching new tactic that has been deployed this year. Coming at time that the sector’s standards and regulation is up for debate in Parliament, it was intended to draw attention to forms of ‘goodwill labour’ that academics provide, although the roles are paid. However, UCEA tell us that most external examiner vacancies that arose were quickly filled.

Beyond the core three issues up for negotiation, UCU’s campaign and press lines have regularly reflected discord about the continuing increases in vice chancellor pay and perks. UCEA argue that the ratio of median pay to median vice chancellor pay has stayed relatively constant since 2007. UCU has also drawn attention to the substantive investment in new buildings and other capital projects by universities that have resulted from aggressive leveraging of assets and substantive borrowing. The complaint is that the sector is misallocating its resources and that marketisation is driving leaders to identify the wrong priorities, leading to a longer-term neglect of staff.

Big politics: administrative and representative rationalities

There is a striking dissonance between the political and administrative arms of both the unions and the employers, particularly in the former. The unions, and particularly UCU, are overtly political organisations. UCEA is not an apolitical organisation (there is no such thing), but it is far less explicitly so than its counterparts across the negotiating table. Most of its staff are drawn from the world of human resources, and its quiet office in Woburn House is a far cry from the passions of conference floor at UCU Congress.

UCU’s negotiating position is considerably influenced by the internal politics of the union. The UCU Left faction is well organised and resurgent, emboldened by similar trends within NUS, other trade unions and the Labour Party. Left-wing academic trade unionists are a core constituency for Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum. It cannot be denied that there is a gap in political consciousness between the left-wing activists and the much quieter parts of UCU’s membership, but it is the former that the union’s leadership must account for in the short-term. This is noticeable in the most recent dispute, where it has been widely claimed that UCU planned to take industrial action well before formal negotiations had begun with UCEA, and before other unions had considered the matter, as a result of political pressure upon its leadership.

The unions, particularly UCU, also represent a number of widely held grievances in the sector about its overall direction on fees, research, performance management, bureaucracy, government oversight and consumerism – what might perhaps be called the ‘Collini school’. Such views are epitomised by the recently released Alternative White Paper, a product of a coalition of campaigners including UCU. More pertinently, union activists fervently believe that they are in the cause of not only defending their own pay and conditions, but higher education itself. This raises the stakes far beyond the particulars of annual negotiations. The unions are caught between being keen to work beyond mere industrial disputes and the demonstration to their more activist members that they are ‘doing something’ to ‘save’ the sector.

Meanwhile, some good cooperative policy work has been carried out by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES), the central committee for negotiations and dialogue containing representatives of both the employers and all the unions. However, this is not particularly well publicised or well known to many on either side. Recent joint work has included publications on both the gender pay gap and casualised contracts. There’s a similar story at a local level too. Many university branches have effective working relationships with their institution’s management and are able to come to agreement on tricky topics, such as in a recent dispute at Newcastle University over performance management targets.

As has been noted in several studies of trade unions, there is a tension between the ‘administrative rationality’ and the ‘representative rationality’ in industrial disputes in higher education. Administrative rationality, despite the frustrations of negotiators on both sides, has considerable potential for cooperative problem-solving to improve the lives of the staff in the sector. Representative rationality signals far deeper problems and divisions about how the sector is organised and how staff interests are best improved. It is deeply political, and while it gives overall direction to the work of administrators and negotiators, it also has the potential to disrupt it.

In whose interests?

Boiled down to crude political terms, the employers’ starting point is that higher education staff get a relatively good deal compared to many other parts of society, that good progress is already being made in tackling problems such as the gender pay gap, and that a small minority of political activists are whipping up disruption. On the other side, the unions’ starting point is that sector leaders have sold the sector’s soul to the forces and consumerism and marketisation, and are now lining their pockets while ensuring the rank-and-file deal with the mess.

If choosing to view either side’s views this way, one would think that there is little hope for the employers and unions to see eye-to-eye. But what is remarkable is that on the key issues up for negotiation, the unions and employers are not that far apart. Negotiators on both sides appear to have a great deal of respect for each other despite what the vitriolic public pronouncements might lead you to believe. UCEA has left its current deal on the table for the summer, despite pressure from some more hardline voices in the sector to have it withdrawn. It is likely that a settlement will eventually be reached, as it has been in previous years.

That said, the underlying political tensions do not look set to go away. If Jim Dickinson’s advice on consolidation is taken by some institutions, then cut-backs in response to the coming impact of Brexit will inevitably lead to labour disputes. Look no further than the ongoing turmoil in further education colleges, where funding cuts of over 27% have lead to successive restructures and redundancies. Another half-decade (or perhaps full decade) of Conservative government will only further squeeze budgets, particularly in an economic slowdown, and possibly hasten marketisation. Executive pay shows little sign of slowing its upward acceleration. And looming over all this is the spectre of pensions and the continuing turmoil over the University Superannuation Scheme, which continues to be in a large deficit. Beyond that, the iron law of Baumol’s Disease will create macroeconomic pressure on the sector to find new ways of minimising costs or maximising ‘productivity’, a term, along with ‘output’, that sends shudders down the spines of many scholars – whether active in their trade union or not.

With thanks to the cooperation of the employers and unions in researching this piece.

You read more on the different parties’ arguments on the key issues:

  • UCEA final pay offer for 2016-17.
  • UCEA infographics on pay in higher education.
  • UCU report on casualisation.
  • UCU report on the gender pay gap.
  • UCU report on executive pay and benefits.
  • JNCHES 2014 report on pay in higher education.
  • JNCHES report on casualisation.
  • JNCHES report on the gender pay gap.

2 responses to “Behind the picket lines: the state of industrial relations in higher education

  1. “UCEA has shown a reticence to take national collective action”
    I think you mean “shown a reluctance”.

  2. I don’t think it is reasonable to simply claim that the ‘University Superannuation Scheme … continues to be in a large deficit’. Even the linked THE article says that the claimed deficit is likely based on overly pessimistic assumptions, and analyses by experts at the time of the pensions changes indicated that the uncertainties in the valuation were enormous, indicating that it was just as likely in surplus.

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