Later this week we will see strike action at most HE institutions across the sector.
This is becoming an all too regular occurrence – but I very much hope and believe that it doesn’t have to be.
I will be the first to admit that these are very difficult times for employees and their employers. The dramatic increases in the prices of energy and everyday necessities are impacting individuals and institutions alike.
This creates an added tension as our employers attempt to support staff and students through these unprecedented cost of living pressures.
Is the system right?
More than half of the annual pay negotiation rounds have ended in dispute in the past decade, but I am hopeful that we will be able to avoid a protracted dispute and come to a realistic understanding of what is possible in the current circumstances. I am also keen that we do not make decisions about the future of industrial relations or pay bargaining based on what I hope are unique inflationary conditions.
However, it is crystal clear that the bargaining structure itself is not working as well as it could and needs to be reconsidered. Many employers feel this way and I imagine many union members do too. Regardless of the latest dispute, the question which refuses to disappear is whether the current collective pay bargaining process can continue to deliver against a backdrop of unprecedented challenges and increasing divergence across the sector.
UCEA supports member HE institutions by representing their interests as employers and facilitating their work in delivering effective employment and workforce strategies at local level. The system of collective bargaining needs to deliver fair and sustainable outcomes for employees and employers.
Back in June of last year my Wonkhe blog’ announced the start of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s (UCEA) listening exercise, involving all of our 170 member HE institutions. We named this exercise the National Conversation on Pay Bargaining (NCPB).
Over the past 15 months a significant amount of listening and discussion has taken place between UCEA and our members. These conversations have been comprehensive, despite the challenges of the many urgent distractions over the past year. Our engagement with our member HEIs included in-depth discussions with Heads of Institutions and HR Directors. We have also engaged with our wider stakeholders, including mission groups and key sector agencies. I am most grateful to all who have taken the time to relay their views.
The NCPB exercise has provided UCEA with challenging and thought-provoking discussions with leaders and experts across our sector, in our search to understand HE employers’ new aspirations and varied plans for pay and reward for their valued employees. One clear message is the high appreciation that our institutions have for the people who work in and deliver for the sector. HE institutions are determined to support, motivate and reward their staff, regardless of the unprecedented challenges and circumstances that we all face.
Stick, adapt or replace
So, what has the sector told us when it comes to pay bargaining as we try to move forward? There are three broad categories of response identified from our listening exercise regarding the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES):
- Stick – keep the current New JNCHES structure as it is.
- Adapt – maintain New JNCHES, but with changes of approach which hopefully result in better outcomes that are fair and sustainable, and fewer consequent disputes.
- Replace – scrap New JNCHES in favour of alternative approaches, possibly including greater local bargaining or multiple negotiating tables.
UCEA is now consulting our member HE institutions on these options to build on the insight already gleaned and to develop a way forward. This consultation includes principles that allow HE institutions to realise their respective people strategies as highly competitive employers, produce sustainable outcomes for the HE sector, and respect the ever increasing diversity of the institutions themselves – all of this while seeking to achieve benefits for employees and employers in acting collectively.
In last year’s blog I pointed out that ‘there will never be a perfect time to run this consultation’ and some may question the wisdom of a consultation at this moment on the long-term future of pay bargaining. However, if there is one lesson from recent years, it is that there is little point in waiting for a period of calm to descend upon our sector.
Given the challenges facing institutions and their staff and in turn their students, developing workable options for the reform of pay bargaining feels like something we should progress and bring to fruition as soon as possible.
We are hopeful that our formal consultation with employers will deliver definitive feedback on how best to move forward with collective bargaining. We then look forward to engaging with trade unions, on how best to progress this for the benefit of all in our sector.