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Dialogue beats disputes in higher education industrial relations

Outgoing UCEA chair Sir Paul Curran reflects on his time leading on the sector's industrial relations on pay and other matters, and considers the challenges ahead.
This article is more than 4 years old

Professor Sir Paul Curran is President of City, University of London, and outgoing chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA).

When I became chair of UCEA in 2011, the country was coming to terms with a major financial shock and a new government, while the sector was dealing with the implications of fees reform, austerity, and tougher visa regulations. At the end of my period in that office, things look as uncertain as ever.

Increasing levels of global and national competition, continuing constraints on public spending and the sector facing an uncertain future are nothing new. Industrial relations challenges remain and many relate to pay.

Although sector pay disputes and industrial action have made the headlines during this time, generally good industrial relations have resulted in relatively rare crossings of swords. Then, as now, a positive relationship between staff and their institution remains vital. Disputes can undermine that relationship and dialogue remains the most effective means of minimising that risk.

While employers need to preserve sustainable institutions they also need to use pay wisely in order to recruit, retain and maintain the motivation of their staff. This challenge has been a running theme as, working with the five sector trade unions at the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) table, employers negotiated annual base pay increases, recognised the needs of lower paid staff, and began important dialogue relating to equality, pay data, and training.

The annual rise in base pay has increased since 2011 and many employers have also sought to reward performance. The UCEA Board has tried to deliver fair but affordable base pay increases that have compared favourably with pay awards elsewhere in the economy. This includes the 2016-17 base pay increase of 1.1%, with more for the lower paid, bringing an average annual pay increase of 2.7% when combined with incremental pay progression available to around half of those covered by our negotiations.

Sector salaries have remained competitive when compared to external benchmarks. The latest (2015) data show that while inflation-adjusted pay has declined in value, pay levels remain in step with the wider economy. Academics still have the third highest annual median earnings of the 46 ONS professional occupations and our professional services staff are still paid more, on average, than those in equivalent occupations.

Not only do all UCEA member institutions now pay the National Living Wage (formerly the National Minimum Wage), those who participate in New JNCHES negotiations have also supported extra increases for lower paid staff so that again this year the lowest pay-point will match the voluntary Living Wage.

However, the sector’s transition from what some call ‘automatic’ incremental pay progression has been painfully slow. Its mention at JNCHES has generally not been encouraged by higher education institutions nor welcomed by trade unions. Yet we will soon be the only major sector where this quaint employment practice of pay progression without assessment can be found. This poses a risk, not least in terms of political and public perception.

With limited money available, both UCEA and trade unions have worked hard to find common ground on important matters such as casual employment and the gender pay gap.

Higher education institutions aim to achieve appropriate staff flexibility while adopting fair and equitable employment practices. At the same time, trade unions raise legitimate concerns about how flexible contracts are managed. We both believe it is possible to balance the need for employers to have flexibility to employ appropriately skilled individuals with the desire to maximise secure and planned employment. But disagreements remain over the scale of causal employment, which is why both sides are discussing with HESA improvements to sector data, building on work in the 2015 JNCHES Report.

It has also been encouraging to see the shared recognition of the challenges posed by the gender pay gap. There have been two major joint reports in less than three years: the 2015 Gender Pay Working Group Report provided excellent material on effective employer interventions, while the new 2016 Gender Pay Gap Data Report shows distinctions between small gender pay gaps that may occur within some pay-bands and the larger structural pay gaps requiring longer-term sector-wide approaches. Though we must not be complacent, it is encouraging to have seen some progress: the sector gender pay gap halved over the last decade as the 1990s increase in women academics began to progress through the academic ranks.

As the uncertain post-Brexit environment continues to challenge us, UCEA will carry on working on behalf of its members, aiming to ensure that staff reward is attractive, affordable and contributes to the success of UK HE. Maintaining effective dialogue will be as essential as ever, and my successors on UCEA’s board will remain committed to representing employers and to positive dialogue with our sector’s trade unions. Change just brings more challenges and both employers and trade unions will, I am sure, find ways to work together to meet them.

2 responses to “Dialogue beats disputes in higher education industrial relations

  1. Dear Paul
    Your post makes encouraging reading for us, as staff at your institution. Your reference to the gender pay gap is particularly pertinent for us here at City and we look forward to further work with you on this during 2017.
    Your labelling of ‘automatic’ incremental pay progression as quaint and not long for this world is interesting news and your choice of platform for this announcement must be a scoop for Wonkhe.
    You say that “dialogue beats disputes”. We therefore eagerly anticipate dialogue around the incremental pay issue in the new year, in contrast to the breakdown in relations at City, which led to ACAS conciliation talks last year.

    Seasons Greetings

  2. Dear Paul,
    In my five year period as UCU City President I recall that you met with the trade unions at City on only four occasions. Therefore at the end of your period as Chair of UCEA I welcome your reflection that ‘Maintaining effective dialogue will be as essential as ever’ and hope that you now have the time to put this into practice at City. This will surely enable us to make real progress in closing one of the worst gender pay gaps of any UK University, addressing the concerns of all staff about job security and the real problems of making ends meet in these difficult times. Perhaps rather than a focus on what you call the ‘quaint’ employment practice of incremental pay we can reflect on the ‘obscene’ employment practice of those at the very top of Higher Education earning in excess of ten times more than many of their colleagues.
    Best wishes,

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