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Failures offer lessons on how to improve collective bargaining

UCU negotiators Robyn Orfitelli and Lucy Burke say working conditions and financial transparency must be part of the process
This article is more than 2 years old

Robyn Orfitelli lectures in Linguistics in the School of English at the University of Sheffield

Lucy Burke lectures in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Manchester Metropolitan University

Raj Jethwa’s recent article on collective pay bargaining in higher education raises some important questions from a trade union perspective.

As University and College Union (UCU) members who represent lay members on New JNCHES (the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff), we welcome any expression of interest in improving higher education bargaining. However, we do not share the view that improvement rests on setting aside “recent or ongoing frustrations regarding particular negotiations”.

It is precisely through critical examination of where and why recent negotiations have failed that we have the best opportunity to implement a system that works for all, and there is a wealth of data on which to reflect. As we once again enter into dispute, we offer our suggestions on improving collective bargaining.

Before continuing, we should say that New JNCHES involves all campus unions and the opportunity to work with our colleagues in the other higher education unions (Unison, Unite, GMB and EIS) is something we value highly. This piece, however, reflects our personal perspective as two members of UCU, the union whose recent industrial action is at the centre of Mr Jethwa’s concerns.

Baseline standards

We believe that if collective bargaining is to be improved then its remit should formally include working conditions, including job security, pay equality, and workload. Why? Because yearly pay does not exist in isolation; it interacts directly with working conditions. Two employees receiving the same weekly wage nonetheless do not have the same rate of pay if one works 60 hours per week and one works 40.

Mr Jethwa’s aspiration that HE ‘attract global talent whilst [being] rooted in their local communities’ will only be realised if UK universities offer pay that is competitive with their international counterparts, and if our workplaces are ones in which staff are supported and valued.

This means meeting (and hopefully exceeding) certain baseline standards. For example, one possible sector-wide baseline standard that might start to address the impact of currently unmanageable workloads could be “all HE employees will have a general model for their planned annual workload measured in hours, and will not be assigned more hours than they are contracted and paid for”.

During the 2019-20 industrial action, UCU developed a proposal for sector-wide negotiations over working conditions. It was a matter of real frustration that although UCEA and its member institutions have publicly affirmed their commitment to staff wellbeing, equality, and diversity, they were unwilling to engage with it as a pathway to ending the dispute.

This is particularly regrettable given the evidence that these problems are sector-wide. In a 2019 HEPI report, Liz Morrish reports data from 59 HE institutions on staff counselling and occupational health referrals between 2009 and 2016, noting an average increase in staff counselling referrals of 70 per cent, with some universities showing shockingly higher figures, such as nearly 2700 per cent at the University of Sheffield.

We hope that every HE institution aspires to be a good, progressive employer that values its staff. Establishing sector baselines would help create better workplaces and would not, as is sometimes suggested, erase institutional autonomy. Just as with the pay spine, local employers would consult with local trade union representatives regarding implementation.

Held to account

Another thing that would improve the collective bargaining process would be a commitment to full financial transparency during negotiations. It is a matter of concern that institutional financial models have increasingly de-prioritised staff in favour of other expenditure categories. With the notable exception of senior management, real terms pay for all other staff in HE has declined significantly over the past 15 years, even using the employers’ preferred inflation metric of CPIH.

UCEA has opened recent bargaining rounds with an emphasis on difficulties in the sector, including the need to mitigate financial uncertainty. This has consistently been presented as the reason for the rejection of the joint union claim.

The trade union position, based on publicly reported data and examination of local institutional finances, has been that the financial picture is healthier than is being portrayed. Indeed, as of June 25, the Office for Students reports that HE sector finances are “in good order”.

The progression of meaningful discussion around staff pay and conditions requires transparency, including access to the sector and institutional modelling upon which the employers’ initial offer is based. UCEA has consistently declined to provide these raw data. Without a shared understanding of what resources are available and the rationale for their allocation within institutional budgets, collective bargaining is often placed at an immediate impasse.

We’d like to end by responding to Mr Jethwa’s question of whether “the current one-size-fits-all model [is] appropriate for the sector?” Our answer is a clear yes.

It is not in the best interests of workers, students, or management to reinvent the wheel at more than 150 separate institutions. Embracing transparent UK-wide bargaining on pay and related issues provides a consistent foundation of stable and healthy workplaces upon which the unique needs of individual institutions can be built.

One response to “Failures offer lessons on how to improve collective bargaining

  1. The main problem here is that income to HEIs from UK sources (T-Grant and UG fees) is falling in real terms, so there isn’t more cash to use for pay. Many HEIs are operating at wafer thin margins and need absorb cost inflation annually, including staff increments and pension increases. Grant funding for capex is very small and so capex has to be funded from surplus. Until/unless there is a long term funding solution from government (unlikely to ever happen), there’s little room for change. So, yes to financial transparency but it won’t reveal an unused pot of cash in almost every case.

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