We need different conversations to fix higher education

University of York Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery asks for a new approach to conversations and common ground to fix the problems in our sector.

Charlie Jeffery is Vice Chancellor and President of the University of York. 

We’ve seen too much industrial action for too long in higher education.

Every USS valuation brings new conflict. And every year we seem to see disagreement in the annual pay round.

Everyone – our staff, including trade union members, university management teams, and of course our students – finds this debilitating and disruptive. It’s about time we all broke out of this cycle of conflict.

We won’t do that just by rehearsing the same old arguments. Everyone involved needs to be ready to break from how they have looked at things in the past. We need to open up space for different conversations that might lead to different, better, more stable outcomes.

Is there common ground?

That’s what we’ve been trying to do at the University of York. I’ve been speaking with, and listening to, the UCU and our other campus unions, staff in departmental meetings, our students union, and other student groups which have raised concerns with me. I wouldn’t say we all agree, but we all do recognise there is common ground.

So let’s open it up.

Local to national

Here’s what we’ve been talking about on pay and conditions at York: since conversations about this year’s pay round began in earnest early this year we’ve been discussing the possibility of building a packaged negotiation with three strands.

Central to this is recognising we need to do more than just talk about pay, narrowly defined. The UCU has raised a set of other issues – the other three ‘fights’ on casual employment, pay gaps, and workload. I can’t see why we don’t bring these more directly into the pay round negotiations.

Many universities, including York, have built good practice through local working groups and agreements with their campus unions. While it would no doubt be difficult to get all employers to reach binding agreement on these issues, we could still build out from some of these local examples to establish a framework of principles to use across the sector. So let’s do it.

A need to respond

On pay, we should accept that we need to respond to higher inflation.  But we could also look to embed that in a multi-year framework which, carefully designed, could lift us out of a cycle of annual dispute and bring much needed stability.

There also needs to be a third strand to the discussion. The Government recently announced that home tuition fees will continue to be frozen. With inflation at its current rates this means a very significant real-terms cut in university income.
This puts pressure on university budgets generally, as inflation raises their costs of operation. The impact is being felt especially hard in universities where home tuition makes up a large proportion of income. Some universities will have difficulty affording any pay rise.

So why not add to the mix a discussion on how we can contain costs amid higher inflation. Why not add to the mix a national commitment for employers and unions to cooperate on cost containment locally. At York I have suggested space usage as a promising area to look at.

Buildings are generally the second-biggest cost universities have after pay. But we have come to use our buildings differently through and after the Covid experience, and all universities need to think carefully about space usage to meet their carbon emissions targets.

Using our space better can help contain costs – so let’s put that on the table too. I suspect York is not alone in opening up discussion on these issues locally – but why not also work on some national principles to guide debate and, again, open up examples of good practice?

Opening up together

If we open up three strands to package together in negotiations – a multi-year pay deal, national principles on the other ‘fights’ UCU is campaigning on, and shared work on costs – we might bring more players to the table more easily than if we just have the same old, same old discussion on pay alone.

And then we might get somewhere new, perhaps identifying common ground linking across different headings, perhaps in that way opening up a route to a more easily agreed, shared outcome.

Who’s up for that? I think we should all be.

4 responses to “We need different conversations to fix higher education

  1. A multi-year pat deal would be welcome but the price is that the Universities commit to at least matching the increase in cost if living for all staff and beginning to undo the damage of the last 10 years.

  2. This is some amount of gaslighting nonsense. The issues mentioned in this blog, including pay, are only ‘on the table’ due to the ongoing strike action. The complete failure to mention pension contributions is also a joke. No mention either of the university surplus, which in 2020 was £23 million at York *after* USS. Also, if buildings are such a major expense, maybe STOP BUILDING THEM and pay fairly the staff necessary to run and maintain the buildings you already have.

  3. Forgive me if I don’t trust university employers who have been promoting a host of outrageously untrue statements about pensions. Yes, UCU is fighting to represent its members, but it has clearly been seeking some sort of common ground and at least (being made up of academics) publish their data and try to argue on the basis of factual evidence. The polarising of this issue has clearly been from the employers side, and their position suggests no good will whatsoever for finding a solution to the issue.

Leave a Reply