This article is more than 2 years old

It’s time to listen: the future of collective pay bargaining

Ahead of a planned listening exercise, UCEA chief executive Raj Jethwa makes the case for rethinking the current process for collective pay bargaining in HE.
This article is more than 2 years old

Raj Jethwa is the Chief Executive of UCEA

Sector pay talks have not hogged HE headlines lately – there’s been so much fierce competition for airtime. Only when industrial action erupts do most colleagues and commentators take notice. Herein lies a major problem: the regularity of confrontation in industrial relations in our sector makes it seem almost routine.

In my last article for Wonkhe, the introduction referred to the significant pre-pandemic challenges before focusing on the new problems we were all struggling to address. While so much has changed since then, I’m aware that many issues remain in train and that this sector is determined to get on with them.

Problematic system

Over the past decade, about half of the annual pay negotiation rounds have ended in dispute. In fact, only once during that period have we managed to reach an actual settlement in advance of the 1 August date for implementing a pay uplift.

Implementing a pay uplift that has gone through the collective pay bargaining process successfully is thus a rarity. Regardless of the pay claims and the initial and final offers, and the meticulous work undertaken by all concerned, if the bargaining structure itself is not working, then it needs to be reconsidered.

At present, it is not working. It is not working for HEIs. It is not working for trade unions. It is not working for staff. It is not working for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). Most importantly of all, it is not working for our students if the dispute leads to industrial action.

So, how did we arrive at the current structure for pay bargaining in HE? The New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES) is the central committee for multi-employer negotiations and dialogue on pay and pay-related issues. This structure can be traced back nearly 25 years.

The 1997 Dearing Report into the future of HE recommended an independent review of pay determination in the sector. The subsequent joint employer and trade union review, chaired by Sir Michael Betts, led to the establishment of the JNCHES. A further review in 2007 resulted in more changes – perhaps the most important being that the five trade unions would now sit together – for the current New JNCHES Agreement.

I have worked for, and with, trade unions over many years and would be the first to acknowledge and support the vital role they play in our sector and the wider economy.

After nearly 40 years in which trade union membership has been going in only one direction – downwards – there are tentative signs that the trend may be reversing. But since 1995, the proportion of employees in a trade union has fallen from a third to less than a quarter. Today, just over half of all employees in the public sector belong to a trade union, while in the private sector the figure is only 13 per cent.

The HE sector is somewhere in between these two positions: around a third of HE staff are union members, reflecting the public sector membership density levels, notwithstanding universities being independent, autonomous employers.

Unlike many public sector employers, however, the HE sector represents genuine multi-employer pay bargaining. At the same time, there are many aspects of their employees’ terms and conditions that are decided locally, illustrated by the different grading structures adopted by individual HEIs as well as hours of work and other local policies.

Working as partners

HE employers recognise and value the role played by trade unions as a legitimate source of employee voice. The Covid challenges have provided excellent examples of partnership working between employers and unions during an unprecedented time. These include our agreement to joint principles on the safe return to campus and joint statements promoting vaccinations and testing among staff.

At university level, there are countless excellent examples of joint work with trade union branches, some of which we have demonstrated in case studies in our Managing Staff Return to Campus guidance.

Importantly, the operating context has also changed significantly since JNCHES was established. Huge changes to our sector’s funding model have created new pressures for institutions which were not present a decade or two ago when a review of the bargaining structure took place. And, of course, devolution also has introduced a degree of divergence between the different nations’ approaches to funding.

UCEA’s forthcoming consultation on collective bargaining is not about change for change’s sake. It is about ensuring we achieve the most effective pay bargaining structure for our sector, our universities and our staff. UCEA needs to start the ball rolling on this now because there are so many questions that need answering.

  • Have previous changes to collective bargaining made a difference and are they still fit for purpose?
  • Are the right groups of staff covered by our collective bargaining processes? Do they reflect the very different labour markets for disparate categories of recruitment?
  • Can HEIs remain in collective pay bargaining for base pay rises, while operating autonomously on other aspects of pay and conditions?
  • Has collective pay bargaining been considered successful by HE employers given the history of recent pay rounds?
  • Would multi-year pay negotiations be more efficient?
  • Is the current one-size-fits-all model still appropriate for the sector? If not, how would the process be segmented?
  • How do we ensure a voice for the two-thirds of employees not in a trade union?
  • Do we even need to change at all?

While there are no simple answers to these burning questions, they do need to be addressed. There will be consequences without change but any actual change would require careful consideration from all, including our trade union partners.

Start the conversation

UCEA will embark on a listening exercise with all of our 170 members, 146 of which currently take part in collective pay bargaining. It will be a national conversation on the future of HE collective pay bargaining as much as about JNCHES.

This is a rare and important opportunity to take stock and seek answers that will form part of a strategic discussion on the future of the sector’s collective bargaining arrangements. Fundamentally, this consultation must be a strategic assessment of the long-term needs of the sector, where any recent or ongoing frustrations regarding particular negotiations must be put aside.

I am well aware that there is a lot else going on in our sector. I am also aware that this crowded agenda will not go away any time soon. There will never be a perfect time to run this consultation. We judge that the best approach is to start the conversation now and give it time to breathe.

So, in early autumn, we will host initial roundtable discussions and run a consultation exercise with our members. The guiding approach for HE has to be to reinforce its well-earned reputation as a sector of employers of choice as well as anchor institutions: able to attract global talent whilst rooted in their local communities. For this to remain the case, we need a system of pay bargaining which continues to support this aspiration.

This means building relationships based on mutual trust and respect. It means negotiating with our trade unions fairly and working with, rather than against, each other. Despite all of the sector’s serious distractions, it is time to take a step back and listen to what our members think.

6 responses to “It’s time to listen: the future of collective pay bargaining

  1. As a University employee I see the current situation as being very unstable, with many UCEA members unable to deal with the sectors financial instability Covid has exacerbated. The ‘rich’ heavily endowed mega land owning Universities in some cases are poor in terms of liquidity, whereas the ‘poorer’ Universities have virtually nothing in reserve.

    Add to this mix the over-reliance on certain overseas students, who’s home state use their withdrawal as ‘country’ punishment (see Australia), and the very strong likelihood the UK will suffer the same ‘punishment’ and it’s obviously going to affect staff numbers and pay. Yet even with these constraints University VC’s (and higher management in many cases) have enjoyed greater than inflation pay rises, whilst the essential workers, the cleaners and security staff, are barely making enough to make ends meet, with year on year less than inflation pay rises making it worse every year.

    As a technical specialist 25 years ago my pay was 30% less than our industrial comparators, it’s even worse now, and the trite message the UCEA trots out every year about increments improving pay for many doesn’t apply when your at the top of your scale, and have been for the last 15 years with little or no opportunity to upgrade. With that and the sector wide attack on pensions (deferred pay in real terms), along with increasingly bad management practices, Trades Union membership is likely to grow/is growing, in part because we’ve seen the growth in unfair dismissal cases, NDA’s and the like.

    Your right the Trades Unions have been playing a large part in dealing with Covid on campus, and we’ve noted attempts by management to go back to their ‘prior to Covid’ ‘management by edict’ ways, perhaps because many of the ‘failed in the real world’ (in)Human Resources and general (mis)management types have found a safe haven in Higher Education, and the thing they fear most is effective Trades Unions taking them, and their University, to task. Pay is part of what the Trades Unions do, but for many pay negotiation is intrinsically linked to much wider T&C’s and employment contract issues, it’s not just about the money.

  2. “Over the past decade, about half of the annual pay negotiation rounds have ended in dispute”

    In seven of those ten years, the pay raise eventually implemented – some of which were offers improved during the dispute periods – was below the CPIH measure for the same 12-month period … in the other three it was never more than 1% above it.

    Over the August 2010 – August 2020 period pay has increased by 12.7% while CPIH has increased by 20.4% – so adjusted for inflation, people are being paid 93.6% as much as they were a decade ago for the same job.

    While there may be improvements to make to the collective bargaining process, the fundamental issue here is that employees are never going to happily accept a below-inflation pay rise, especially not if that’s the norm. Put another 7% on this year’s offer to make up for the last decade of erosion and this will definitely be sorted by August 1st, though.

  3. Not great timing from UCEA on top of the debacle over pensions. Two basic underpinning points that are worryingly omitted from the article and terms of reference of the consultation – is pay fair; and does it deliver and retain the employees the sector needs?

    Any discussion of pay bargaining needs to be connected both to fair pay for lower grade staff, and to the ‘pay band / spine point’ system (the system whereby pay increases each year as you move up a spine point on the same grade). Under this system, pay on the junior lecturer / middle management grade at my institution should increase 22% over 6 years; that for administrative staff two grades lower increases 17% (this reflects differences between grades, which may be specific to my institution – higher grades go up spine points every few years).

    Both of these increases are above inflation (which I guess would be around 12% over the same period), though not by huge amounts and certainly not in absolute terms at lower grades. So, is the spine point system an incentive for retention and a reward for additional experience? Or is it to deliver inflationary pay rises? Too often it is seen as the latter. As a previous poster points out, this is unfair to people who reach the top of their grade, and without inflationary pay rises each year leads to their real wage decreasing each year – effectively it rewards new staff over experienced and established staff. The system is also vulnerable to inflation increasing.

  4. Until or unless HEIs get more income from UK sources (fees or T grant) in real terms, the prospects of being able to have more money for higher pay settlements are very slim, whatever the pay negotiation process is. With some parts of Augar still a possibility reducing income, this looks quite remote.

  5. I absolutely agree with every point raised here. I don’t think there is a problem with the negotiation system as it is; the problem is with UCEA not wanting to offer even inflation matching increases each year. As career development within may universities is nigh on impossible, as you’ve stated before, most do not get the pay spine uplifts either which UCEA always refer to.

    When i started in HEI about 10 years ago we had some of the best pay and terms and conditions but theses have been continuously eroded. Now my 17 year old is earning the same as me as a hotel receptionist for a lot less stress and actually better conditions/benefits. At this she is earning far more than our own sector receptionists too.
    And let’s be honest the stress’ within HEI were increasing even before the pandemic hit and we all had to work harder and longer than we already did before.

    I’ve found that University managers can always find the money to spend on the fancy new ideas they have, but always cry poor when it comes to staff remuneration.

    Despite increasing student numbers, ours and many other universities have seen huge reductions in professional service staff; alongside unproportionate increases in middle and senior management who cost more, get greater than inflation increases outside of the negotiations and do less.

    The negotiation system doesn’t need to change. UCEA’s priorities need to change!

Leave a Reply