University staff are returning to the picket lines this week – this represents the fifth consecutive year of industrial action.
Concerns about pay, working conditions, and USS pensions form the University and College Unions’ principle complaint – this time with action on all fronts combined into a national strike (and national action short of a strike) covering staff in 150 higher education providers. This is the first time UCU has achieved a national mandate – by fulfilling the terms set out in the 2016 Trade Unions Act on turnout.
However you perceive the dispute or feel about the decision to strike, it is difficult not to see the years since 2018 as evidence of a serious issue in sector industrial relations. As such, this article attempts to set out the fundamentals of the issues at stake.
Pay and conditions
On pay, the argument is that the cumulative impacts of a series of below-inflation pay in successive years – and the current rises in inflation and living costs – mean that action is now needed, given rising living costs, to be addressed – the claim is for inflation (RPI) plus two per cent, or 12 per cent if that is higher. UCU (and the other trade unions that represent staff in higher education: Unison, Unite, GMB, and EIS) also ask for movement on several linked issues, including a minimum sector wage of £12 an hour as progress towards a situation where all universities pay at least the relevant Living Wage Foundation rate to all workers (including outsourced workers).
On working conditions, the primary issue is around casualisation – the union wants employers in the sector to eliminate precarious employment practices (including zero-hour contracts, with hourly paid staff moved on to part-time contracts, and an end to outsourcing of support services). The union also seeks movement on workload – there is a call for a standard 35-hour week at no detriment, alongside “meaningful” action on wellbeing and mental ill health and the excessive workloads that drive these issues.
These requests are underpinned by a desire to fundamentally review the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES) pay spine, alongside the establishment of working groups to look at career development and progression issues.
On all these issues, UCU negotiates with the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which negotiates collectively for employers. UCEA is not proposing to reopen the 2022-23 pay round (which ended with a proposed pay increase of 3 per cent for those above spine point 20 (around £26,300) and 9 per cent for those below it), but is consulting on bringing forward 2023-24 pay negotiations.
On the other issues brought forward by the union, UCEA tends to say it is limited in what action it can directly take – for example, it makes numerous recommendations on precarious employment that aim to minimise the use of hourly-paid employment, but the final decision on this will rest with each provider as an autonomous employer.
However, UCEA has agreed to commit to a New JNCHES working group on the pay spine, with a view to incorporating this into the 2023-24 agreement.
Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions
On USS, the UCU ask is straightforward – revoking the recent cuts in benefits and returning benefits to 2021 levels, and ensuring that the next (and all future) valuations of the pension scheme are evidence-based and moderately prudent.
Though there has been concern about USS for some time, the argument here is focused largely on the conclusion of the 2020 valuation, and the subsequent USS desire to “balance the books” by raising contributions (for employers and members) or cutting benefits. Here UCU points to a recent release from USS trustees that suggests the position of the scheme has improved since 2020 to such an extent that the radical changes made in 2021 may not have been needed.
On this issue, UCU negotiates with a consortium of USS employers overseen by Universities UK – a joint working group comprising employers and the union makes recommendations to USS trustees, who are themselves answerable to the Pensions Regulator (tPR). Here both sides note that USS trustees claim they are unable to establish the position of the scheme or revise prices ahead of the next scheduled valuation – due in March 2023, with a joint technical forum (made up of UCU and employer representatives) already working to recommend how it should be carried out.
The USS dispute has been a longstanding one, which often dives deep into technical detail about scheme valuation and investment management. It’s fair to say that there are some differences in opinion between employers and scheme members, though it is also important to note the way in which both parties disagree with the actions of the trustee and the trustee itself is often unhappy with the requirements placed on it by the regulator.
Strikes will take place on Thursday 24 November, Friday 25 November, and Wednesday 30 November. Action short of a strike (which includes things like working to contract, not covering for striking colleagues, and not rescheduling activity affected by strike action – but does not “yet” cover assessment boycotts) will start on Wednesday 23 November (it started on Friday 18 November in Northern Ireland).
Staff do not have to be a UCU member to participate in strike action (though UCU recommends that those taking action join the union to access support). Staff do not legally have to inform employers that they are taking strike action. However, only staff in the 150 named institutions will be taking action – staff in other organisations (including other UCU members) will be encouraged to offer other forms of support.
The National Union of Students has declared support for the industrial action, and has called on employers and staff to “come to the table and take meaningful action to end these disputes”.
During previous disputes, some students have made complaints to their provider, and then on to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator, seeking redress for the way their learning has suffered as a result. Providers often offer alternative provision or support by default to affected students, but these claims have sometimes resulted in universities being required to offer financial compensation.