Employers still need to go further on pay

Jo Grady asks universities to go further on pay, and says that UCU is ready to work with employers towards a fairer and more sustainable sector

Jo Grady is general secretary of the University and College Union.

Despite UCEA’s prior protestations it is now abundantly clear the marking boycott is biting.

It is incredibly disappointing that our dispute has reached this stage, as the boycott is the most recent escalation in a multiyear campaign waged by our members to get a better deal.

So it is a bit rich for UCEA chief executive Raj Jethwa to use the pages of Wonkhe to claim this may all be down to a misunderstanding. Our member’s pay has fallen by 25 per cent in real terms over the past decade, universities keep 90,000 staff on insecure contracts, academics work an average of two extra days unpaid per week, and there are gaping equality pay gaps throughout the sector.

If employers acknowledged these issues then perhaps we could resolve our misunderstandings and the dispute.

Why now?

Indeed, had Raj suggested a year ago, when we started our original ballot, that he would open up university accounts and negotiate openly about what the sector can afford, we may have been in a different place than we are today. However, coming now this looks like an attempt to kick our members’ pay demands into the long grass. We need a pay rise now.

The sector’s strong financial performance is there for everyone to see, generating more money than ever in the most recent year of data. A total income of £44.6bn, £3.5bn more than last year, the biggest year on year increase in at least five years. A sector wide surplus of £2.6bn, the highest it has been for at least four years. Cash and current investment holdings at £19.6bn, £1.3bn more than last year. Whereas staff expenditure is just 51 per cent of income, a record low.

It’s clear to us that every single institution involved in the dispute is able to pay staff more than the five per cent our members have rejected. Yet across the sector Russell Group, other pre-92 universities, and post-92 universities all spent less on staff as a proportion of income than the year before. Only 15 universities in the dispute are in deficit, and if affordability were the only issue we would expect to see employers biting our hands off to make commitments on workloads and job security; we await their calls with bated breath.

We accept that a fair pay settlement will have an impact on university balance sheets over the medium to long term and UCU is very happy to work with UCEA to put the sector on a more sustainable footing.

Resource allocation

There is no iron law that forces some universities to hoover up students at the expense of others and we are in favour of a managed system of student distribution based on fairness and equality. Unfortunately, many of those who now bemoan the financial situation at the minority of small universities and use that as an argument to deny fair pay to all university staff are the very same actors who pushed for a winner takes all higher education system. But we are willing to lobby governments and opposition parties for a fairer distribution of students alongside UCEA if it is serious about sustained equitable growth for the sector.

A shared perspective on the sector’s resources requires employers to stop pushing a working model which leaves half of staff showing signs of probable depression, it requires employers to admit they have presided over a sector that is now unable to issue proper degrees, and it requires a pay offer that helps staff deal with the cost of living crisis.

If employers are willing to work with us on this basis then we will be very happy to reset our industrial relations.

11 responses to “Employers still need to go further on pay

  1. Has UCU considered ending national collective bargaining and instead negotiating pay on a university-by-university or mission group basis?

    That would seem the only way of accessing a “sector wide surplus of £2.6bn” given that 62% of this (actually £2.4bn – there’s a typo in the article) relates to only 21 “Larger Research Intensive providers – the 20 Russell Group universities in England plus the University of Sussex.


    1. This is becoming likelier by the day, though not as a stated policy. The QUB local offer announced yesterday (an extra 2% on pay) is likely to be the first of several Russell Group institutions going round UCEA for a quiet life. I would expect more in the coming weeks.

      The QUB deal is a genuine victory for the local UCU branch, but UCU as a whole should be perturbed by the undermining of national pay negotiations (and indeed the emasculation of UCEA). What leverage we have requires a cohesive national pay structure and a robust ‘opposite number’ (negotiating partner) representing employers. As RGs become less inhibited about leaving the rest of us in the dust, the present architecture of HE industrial relations could crumble very quickly.

      A formally stratified system (rich unis and their staff union over here, 60% of the sector over here in ‘standard class’, stragglers bobbing around in financial chaos) could emerge in the coming years, as rapacious over-recruitment becomes normalised and the RG take the spoils. (It seems very much like UCU is auditioning to be this union for rich universities.) We’ll end up with a smaller, multi-tier system charging different fees and paying very different salaries.

      UCU kamikazes will have played a big role in destroying the national system, demanding that York City pay Arsenal wages.

      1. The demand is not that “York City pay Arsenal wages” but that “York City pay wages that keep pace with inflation”. We’ve had below-inflation rises since 2009. Each institution has the freedom to align staff grades with different parts of the national pay scale, e.g. Grade 8 starts on spine point 39 at Glasgow but 37 at Edinburgh.

        1. Sure, my point is that Arsenal can easily afford things York City cannot (like big pay rises during an inflation crisis). Same thing applies to (say) Edinburgh v Napier.

          On wage erosion, sadly this is typical for most UK industries over the past 20 years and more – https://www.statista.com/statistics/800680/wage-growth-uk-by-industry-sector/

          Sick man gonna sick man, and no amount of pressure from academics or students is going to make a UK government (of any party) ‘fund universities properly’ while core public services face collapse. We can’t change the country the sector is part of, alas; unlike other industries, we can’t even adjust prices (e.g. fees) to soften the blow, and only a minority of universities can generate meaningful levels of extra income.

          (It seems almost patronising to ask, but where exactly would the money for an inflation-matching pay settlement come from? It’s telling that nobody on UCU twitter seems interested in this minor issue.)

          Back to football: If costs keep shooting up at a rate poorer institutions genuinely can’t afford, we will soon find (as with the Premier League in 92!) that the big rich clubs form their own wee league and float off into their own financial reality.

          That’s roughly what will happen if the other RGs follow QUB and gently dismantle the national system over the coming weeks. Forcing the UCEA system beyond what its own internal tensions could tolerate (i.e. 5%) was deeply reckless, and could have serious consequences outside the charmed circle. Thousands of well-meaning MAB-bers from what may soon be akin to ‘the lower leagues’ will discover they’ve been holding their students to somebody else’s ransom.

          1. It was I think a *spectacular* misjudgment for Jo Grady to come out so hard against the pay offer from UCEA (even if her calculation in this was to try to push them further in ACAS, showing that members wouldn’t accept min.5%), only to then have to endorse it personally about a month and a half later (and thus face an emboldened NEC who made the Union oppose her negotiated deal – admittedly the NEC have opposed any deal on 4F since 2020 and almost rejected the USS deal, unbelievably – clearly even in their slightly less radical new incarnation they are not fit for purpose and they are not representative of the membership as decision makers).

            Had Grady not been so stridently against it in Feb, I think we’d be looking at a (small) vote in favour of the deal in April, and a pause to IA, even if it could start again with no meaningful progress on pay and conditions in 23-4. Her rhetoric on pay has been actually laughable, encouraging far too many members to think the sector is ‘awash with cash’ – on the basis of reserves which are actually mostly land and buildings owned by Oxbridge colleges, or to be kinder (not that her claims on funding deserve it) on the basis of finances from year end 2022, thus before energy prize rises and the UCEA min.5%. The other blame is buildings (necessary for larger student numbers and also as assets) or exec pay (covered a lot in this and the other chat, but a drop in the ocean and also not really v high in the grand scheme of things).

            To continue these blatant misrepresentations even after ACAS talks is a dereliction of duty on the GS’s part, and it’s obvious from UCU Twitter (and contributions on here) that too many have trusted her utterly bogus claims on this. Just looking at any post-92 balance sheet would stop anyone half-sensible from ever claiming that a pay rise of 15% (or whatever UCU seem to think is likely) is possible. 5% for every member of staff is, let’s say, £2500 a year each (adding in pension etc) – multiply that by let’s say 1500 is £3.75 million a year. It’s a lot. Anything over 7% max (and even the current 5% really) would result in significant redundancies across the sector – this is what the MAB is leading to.

            “It seems very much like UCU is auditioning to be this union for rich universities” – speaking as someone at a post-92, under Jo Grady the UCU already *is* this, basically. She shows no interest in post-92s (and, from what I hear secondhand, has little knowledge of them either); and many of the campaigns she’s encouraged are either not especially relevant to post-92s (the use of temp staff therein is far less prevalent than in the pre-92s and is definitely *not* worth IA over), or are actively harmful to them, such as pay re the above, but also re the ‘make PhD students staff’ one – which would basically stop post-92s from being able to recruit research students because of the level of financial support necessary to satisfy even the rights being claimed for *self-funded* PhDs. That campaign, if successful (which it won’t be, but anyway) is also going to lead to a 2-tier structure where anyone self-funded will be seen as a ‘lower’ type of PhD student. I find it baffling that it’s being encouraged and praised so widely.

            It is incredibly reckless for a Union to be on strike over 5 different issues at once (even if USS is now paused) and the blame for this isn’t just Grady’s – but I’d argue it is *mostly* hers, not least through her cosplay as a youth-friendly social media radical to get elected, splitting the radical *and* moderate votes and encouraging the hardliners in the union as a result. She and UCU are leading the sector over a cliff, largely because the union is unwilling to tell the truth to its own members.

  2. “The sector” does not and cannot lend money between autonomous HEIs. Even if this were possible, borrowers would need to pay interest to lenders. The fact is that many (not a few) HEIs cannot afford inflation plus rises, largely because fees and grants aren’t increasing, and because non-staff costs also increase every year. Pension contributions and National insurance are also staff costs which have increased in recent years. Financial surplus is one indicator, but cash flow, debt and investment need consideration not just as now but into the future. Sure, most people want a pay rise, but the question is how can this be achieved in the current environment so that HE can have a future. There are few options and not many of which are especially palatable, and a trade-off between having a large pay rise now v longer term job security.

  3. “if affordability were the only issue we would expect to see employers biting our hands off to make commitments on workloads and job security […] UCU is very happy to work with UCEA to put the sector on a more sustainable footing”. Would this the sort of affordable, sustainable solution like – er – the ‘make all casualised staff permanent’ thing, or the ‘cover a 9 month research grant with a 24 month contract which is in effect a permanent job’ thing, or the ‘make all PhD students staff’ thing, or maybe the ‘solve the workload issue by giving staff loads more money to say thanks’ thing?

    Has Jo Grady forgotten that she personally endorsed the pay and conditions deal struck with employers at ACAS?

    Has she realised that she’s discussing finances based on 21-22 figures, pre energy price hikes and the imposition of a min. 5% pay rise? She says “Only 15 universities in the dispute are in deficit” but actually this should say that they *WERE* in deficit in 2022…

  4. Know what’s really depressing? Hearing our own union spin yarns about the sector’s deep pockets (while simultaneously supporting hundreds of members mysteriously under threat of redundancy).

    “Only 15 universities in the dispute are in deficit” – perhaps (citation needed), but how about debt?

    Much of UK HE is highly leveraged, with stonking interest hikes in the pipeline. 30 seconds on the HESA website shows lots of universities with an eye-watering level of external borrowing as a % of total income:

    Oxford-Brookes 92.3%
    Chichester 83.1%
    Worcester 71.4%
    Cardiff 67.3%
    Winchester 63.8%
    Bath 62.5%
    Ulster 62.1%
    Southhampton 60.3%
    Durham 58.3%

    But not one of these HEIs recorded a technical deficit in 2021/22, so they must be feeling flush as they prepare to refinance in 2023/24… a different financial epoch as far as the cost of borrowing is concerned. (Some of these places will probably be fine; it’s a complex picture, but don’t look to UCU for any truthful assessment.)

    It’s always possible to cherry-pick the figures to suit ‘the line’, and indeed that’s part of the union’s job in a dispute like this. But some of the stuff we hear now is just insulting, implying we can somehow liquidate and collectivise the (property) reserves of a handful of mega-rich institutions to cover spiralling annual costs across the sector. It’s like taking a mean average of the transfer budgets of Man City, Aberdeen and Scunthorpe United and concluding all of British football can rely on the six-star generosity of Sheikh Mansour.

    Even more worrying is the number of colleagues who seem to swallow this nonsense whole. If UCEA come back with an offer at 6%, how many will reject it because they’ve been hoodwinked into believing the sector can afford 10%?

  5. It is the strangeness of the current position that, if the industrial action is successful, it will surely lead to more redundancies in poorer institutions (or them failing altogether, potentially). More pay is needed for a lot of people, but not all of the current economic woes at each institution can be chalked up their senior management (exceptions are always available, of course), but the wider funding environment is certainly not helpful. Why isn’t the Union trying to exert pressure there too? Surely that would be more helpful?

  6. Jo Grady: “it is now abundantly clear the marking boycott is biting”.

    In reality, the MAB’s bark is worse than it’s bite.

    1. Sadly for UCU I think this is true. There are some places where critical mass of membership has had a clear impact (mostly large, elite uni’s), and fair play to those branches, much as I think the action is misguided and won’t result in much – but a lot of others where the MAB hasn’t really had an impact at all. We keep being told ‘just wait for next week’ but it’s only the places it’s had an impact that we’ll hear about.

      Because it isn’t a strike (UCU explicitly say it’s part of ASOS), there is less reluctance on the part of employers to reallocate the work in the way it would be if a colleague was on sick leave etc – and to make it a strike would mean literally months of no pay at all. Because UCU moronically insisted on weeks of strike action in Winter and Spring as a prelude to MAB (as usual for them, a vote for willingness for action = action, with no clear strategy, to the extent of insisting on 3 days of strikes *after ACAS had concluded and before the deal was voted on* – seemingly 3 days of strike action purely so NEC could spite Jo Grady) a lot of people just can’t afford it either.

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