David Duncan is Chief Operating Officer and University Secretary at University of Glasgow

I’m not sure if you like spy novels but if it’s a genre you enjoy, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Moscow rules.”

It refers to the conditions that apply when agents are operating in the Russian capital – a world of constant tension; not an outright battle but no let-up – occasional temporary deals yet little prospect of a lasting resolution.

If you are interested, it originated in John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and reappears in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses.

It sometimes feels as if industrial relations in the higher education sector are functioning under Moscow rules. While both sides are talking and there is an awareness of common interests, the relationship is characterised by disagreements about remuneration and working conditions.

Formal negotiations are limited to a small number of individuals who take part in national talks but amongst the staff, the sense of suspicion or even mistrust extends much more widely, extending to everyone taking part in industrial action as well as their non-active sympathisers.

Among employers, there is exasperation that the unions fail to recognise the financial pressures they are working under or the trade-offs they are forced to make in a complex and challenging environment.

The bottom line

At the heart of the problem lies the issue of affordability. From 2011, the sector in England enjoyed a few years of relative financial ease – the higher undergraduate tuition fee allowed universities a grace period when they could invest in new facilities and infrastructure – and sometimes in more generous student-staff ratios. Over the same period, however, public sector constraints on pay increases also applied in the HE sector, with settlements of two per cent or less each year for most staff between 2012 and 2022.

In more recent years, the problem has been exacerbated by a static tuition fee in England and meagre funding settlements in other parts of the UK, resulting in a steadily worsening financial position in many (but not all) HEIs.

This has been compounded by the return of inflation and, for members of most of the major pension schemes, higher pension contributions. At the same time, colleagues have become increasingly frustrated by what they regard as a lack of progress on pay-related issues, the main ones being temporary contracts, pay equity and workload. For their part, employers have generally acknowledged that these are valid issues but are diffident about addressing them through national initiatives.

In search of consensus

There are some positive signs. The employers have accepted the hardships caused by the cost-of-living crisis, albeit it’s something they are struggling to respond to due to lack of funds.

There is a consensus on both sides that the non-pay issues mentioned above need to be addressed through concerted action, drawing on examples of good practice across the sector. Inflationary pressures are projected to ease (though this is not certain given the volatile international situation). And the protracted conflict over USS has effectively been resolved in the wake of the recent revaluation – reduced contributions and restored benefits are now on the horizon.

However, if we are honest with ourselves as a sector, we should recognise that 2023 has been the worst year for industrial relations for some time – possibly since I started in senior management 22 years ago.

The national pay talks started early and led to an element of the annual uplift being brought forward but there was no agreement and months of disruption ensued in the form of a marking and assessment boycott. This was followed by strike days involving not only the UCU but also Unite and Unison – the latter two unions still have a mandate for action. While only a minority of colleagues reported that they have taken part in stoppages and boycotts, the sense of unhappiness among staff – the feeling that current pay and conditions are sub-optimal – is much more widely spread.

Into 2024

So where do we go from here?

One thing is certain – we cannot allow the current level of tension and conflict to endure. A first step would be for the employers and unions to make a clear, united statement to the UK and devolved administrations about the need for more funding, no matter how that is delivered.

Ours is almost unique as a sector in failing to do this – unlike in the rail industry, NHS and school sector, governments have formed the impression that there is sufficient resource in the HE sector if only it was spent on the right things. The failure to make a strong case to the four governments is partly responsible for the funding crisis our sector currently faces. We should drive forward the proposed project to assess the financial health of the sector and use this to initiate a new, joint dialogue with government.

The work streams on non-pay issues which we agreed to set up back in the spring should also be progressed. This will be difficult territory – it will be hard work to establish valid baseline data, agree priorities and, perhaps most problematic of all, determine what should be done locally and what role national forums should play. The employers will need to be willing to accept the idea of national principles governing issues such as contract types – principles which will then frame local consultations and negotiations in each institution. But if we can resolve these points, the coming together of employer/union teams on these issues will be a positive step and should lead to improved mutual understanding.

Alongside this, we badly need to progress work on the national pay spine, which has become unfit for purpose. This is most evident in the lower pay points, which have become concertinaed due to a series of above-inflation rises in the minimum wage. This development is positive in some respects – in my university, the lowest pay band has risen by nearly 50 per cent in seven years – but it causes problems further up the scale and these have to be addressed.

More generally, the employers and unions need to find a better way to work together for the good of the sector. It is unacceptable that students are experiencing chronic disruption year after year, that colleagues are losing pay due to industrial action, and that our sector is suffering reputational damage nationally and internationally.

We can and must put our own house in order through partnership working. Over the coming months, we need to strain every sinew and establish a new era of collaboration.

David Duncan is Chief Operating Officer and University Secretary at the University of Glasgow, and a member of the UCEA negotiating team. He writes here in a personal capacity.

3 responses to “Reflections on industrial relations in the sector right now

  1. Sorry, but staff have already ‘strained every sinew’ for far too long. Let’s take a look at what Glasgow University students found:

    ‘An investigation by The Glasgow Guardian has found that the number of academic staff employed on fixed-term contracts at the University of Glasgow has increased by 16.1% over the last four years. The use of these contracts has increased in each of the University’s four colleges and disproportionately affects women and BAME members of staff.

    The proportion of BAME staff on fixed-term contracts has increased over the four year period. In the current year, half of all staff employed on fixed-term contracts, who have declared their ethnicity, are BAME, whereas this proportion was a quarter in 2018-19.

    A disparity is also visible in casualisation between men and women. Currently, women make up a greater proportion of fixed-term employees than men, yet there is a greater number of male employees than female.

    Simultaneously, the use of open-ended contracts fell by 7.2% between 2018 and 2022. This is despite the fact that the University’s website states its aim to be for “open ended contracts continue to be the contractual norm”.

    The issue of increased casualisation of staff contracts was one of the ‘four fights‘ behind the University and College Union (UCU)’s proposed 18 day period of strike action, which was cancelled halfway through, and behind industrial action which has taken place semesterly for the last several years.

    According to the University and College Union (UCU)’s most up to date figures, almost one third of academics in the UK are employed on fixed-term contracts. The University of Glasgow’s own current figures are significantly higher than this national average, with the most recent figure of 2022 standing at 45.4% of academic staff. This was 38.1% in the year 2021, for which the national UCU’s one third figure accounts.

    The faculty which saw the greatest increase in the use of fixed-term contracts over the four year period was the College of Arts, with an increase of just short of double during the four year period. At school level, amongst the starkest examples of the increased use of casual contracts were: the School of Humanities which increased its proportion of academics on fixed-term contracts by 34.8%, the School of Education with an increase of 24.4%, and the School of Veterinary Medicine which grew by 19.7%’.

    Source: https://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2023/02/22/university-increases-use-of-casual-contracts-for-academic-staff/

  2. Interested in fact based espionage and ungentlemanly officers and spies? Ever heard of a real spy called Bill Fairclough (MI6 codename JJ). He was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6. To date there aren’t any films made about him but there is one hell of an espionage thriller novel released so far about his real life exploits.

    Beyond Enkription is a must read for espionage cognoscenti and the first stand-alone spy thriller in The Burlington Files autobiographical series by Bill Fairclough. It’s an unadulterated and noir matter of fact pacy novel. Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote it. Coincidentally, a few critics have nicknamed its protagonist “a posh Harry Palmer.”

    This elusive and enigmatic novel is a true story about a maverick accountant (Edward Burlington in Porter Williams International aka Bill Fairclough in Coopers & Lybrand now PwC in real life). In 1974 in London he began infiltrating organised crime gangs, unwittingly working for MI6. After some frenetic attempts on his life he was relocated to the Caribbean where, “eyes wide open” he was recruited by the CIA and headed for shark infested waters off Haiti.

    If you’re an espionage cognoscente you’ll love this monumental book. No wonder it’s mandatory reading on some countries’ intelligence induction programs. In real life Bill was recruited by MI6’s unorthodox Colonel Alan Brooke Pemberton CVO MBE and thereafter they worked together on and off into the 1990s. Pemberton’s People included Roy Astley Richards (Winston Churchill’s bodyguard), Peter Goss an SAS Colonel and even the infamous rogue Major Freddy Mace, who highlighted his cat burgling and silent killing skills in his CV. For more on Pemberton’s People do read this brief intriguing News Article dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website

    This epic is so real it made us wonder why bother reading espionage fiction when facts are so much more exhilarating. Atmospherically it’s reminiscent of Ted Lewis’ Get Carter of Michael Caine fame. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic thriller … it’s the stuff memorable films are made of.

    Whether you’re a le Carré connoisseur, a Deighton disciple, a Fleming fanatic, a Herron hireling or a Macintyre marauder, odds on once you are immersed in it you’ll read this titanic production twice. You can find out more about Pemberton’s People in an article dated 31 October 2022 on The Burlington Files website. For more detailed reviews visit the Reviews page on TheBurlingtonFiles website or see other independent reviews on your local Amazon website and check out Bill Fairclough’s background on the web.

  3. Fairclough sounds like the ideal candidate for infiltrating a particularly acrimonious online UCU branch meeting and reporting back to the VC!

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