It is nearly a year since my last Wonkhe article, expressing a sector-wide concern that the regularity of confrontation in industrial relations had “made it seem almost routine”.
I’m well aware that since then, there has been regular industrial action over pay and pensions, making it seem almost routine…
While the financial and pay pressures do not look like ending anytime soon for our sector, this reflects a reality across the wider economy. But before looking forward we need to reflect on the recent past and ponder the present pressures and challenges.
Ongoing industrial action
It is not for me to judge trade unions’ industrial action strategies, but the low levels of disruption to students and dwindling pickets over the past six months has led to a degree of both relief and exasperation across the sector. The recent UCU strike ballot outcome has confirmed this, which is why there is widespread dismay that UCU activists have pushed for a marking and assessment boycott in 41 HEIs – over a pay uplift that was implemented on 1 August 2021, across all 146 UCEA members represented in New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES) 2021-22 pay talks.
This does appear to be the result of activist pressure to push a small minority of branches into unfair action with no potential to affect the majority. It would be interesting to hear a UCU activist’s argument to a student on an affected course why fellow students on their campus are not equally affected while most universities are not affected at all. At UCU’s Special HE Sector Conference, 98 individuals voted in favour of the key motion for this action, with 83 voting against and 18 abstaining. This decision will be seen by many as a cynical attempt to squeeze every last drop out of a diminishing mandate to disrupt students’ education in a sector of more than 350,000 valued HE staff.
There is deep regret about any student disruption, regardless of the level, and providers remain fully focused on protecting students and mitigating all attempts at disruption as best they can. Of course, it is also extremely disappointing that UCU is encouraging this small proportion of its members at isolated HEIs – mostly in isolated subject areas – to take IA which targets those students who have already endured so many recent disruptions.
An offer to move forward, despite frozen finances
HEIs have done as much as they can to shield their staff from the recent severe economic pressures and they will do all they can this year, too, and in the years to come – because they need to. Frozen funding is biting harder now and there are unprecedented levels of financial challenges for all providers. The extremely difficult inflationary costs are a joint concern for staff and institutions alike. Trade unions and employers have recognised this in recent pay talks, particularly how inflation disproportionately impacts lower paid staff.
UCEA’s latest and final offer for 2022-23 provides significantly higher uplifts for those on the lower pay spine points. On 5 May we held our third and final meeting and, at the time of writing, employers were finalising the new pay spine model for the five trade unions to consider.
The offer is for an uplift of up to 9 per cent for those on the lowest points of the pay spine, with a minimum uplift of around 3 per cent for all those on or above Spinal Column Point 20. This is the highest uplift for the lowest points ever offered in New JNCHES negotiations and for higher paid staff is comparable or better than other sectors. Yet we are well aware that, overall, it is not as high as many would like as we all, but particularly the lower paid, face the impact of huge inflation levels.
Addressing cost of living pressures is a key issue for employers with tight budgets and with other operating costs increasing substantially. Fee freeze aside, the known financial challenges include the National Insurance increases and the increases in employers’ pension contributions. The operating costs of simply running a higher education provider have rocketed too. Despite this, we hope the offer is further evidence that member institutions are committed to rewarding and developing staff. The range of pay and other vital proposals in the offer encourages joint working with trade unions, confirming commitment to take actions on key issues, including the desire from all to reduce the gender, ethnicity, disability and intersectional pay gaps.
Students drive and inspire us all in the sector to progress and move forward. While the cut and thrust of industrial relations can sometimes give the impression that students are forgotten by those involved in the negotiations, this is not the case for employers. While we can have difficult discussions with union colleagues, I have always hoped that they share our and our staff’s commitment to supporting our students. We share a moral obligation to protect, support and develop those who come through the doors of our universities and colleges.
The decision to invoke isolated marking and assessment boycotts will give the opposite impression and it is tempting to reflect on the internal decision making of UCU. However, it is important to remember that only a small number of UCU’s members voted for this. And that more than two thirds of eligible HE staff are not members of a union. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the HE workforce are not academics. Both employers and trade unions need to remember the many non-trade union staff when thinking about pay and employment relations.
I remain optimistic when it comes to joint working. It is unfortunate that it took a pandemic to remind us of this. Universities and colleges worked tirelessly to provide guidance and support the wellbeing of staff who, in turn, reciprocated with their hard work in supporting students and adapting to the consistent challenges of Covid-19 related rule changes. This has, in turn, developed new approaches to recognition and resulted in many impressive developments in the employee experience across HEIs. We must remind ourselves that UCEA and the trade unions worked well together on extremely important matters, including Covid-19 testing, vaccination and supporting a safe return to campus. I hope we can work constructively together again.
The ball is in trade unions’ court
So, what now? We expect that all the trade unions consult their individual members in carefully considering this detailed final offer. It was disappointing that UCU did not consult its members on the 2021-22 pay offer itself at any stage, moving straight to balloting for industrial action. The unions’ consultations will allow a possible pay uplift for the start of the 2022-23 academic year on 1 August, while joint working groups can prioritise at the earliest point their plans to tackle the other significant components in the offer.
I am well aware of the many hurdles to overcome in putting the recent industrial action behind us and moving on as a sector but it is essential we do so in support of our students, all staff and beyond.