A poke around on what used to be Twitter will yield any number of University and College Union (UCU) members who are less than thrilled about the progress of the current pay and conditions dispute.
While the action on USS pensions can at least be said to have played a part in bringing all sides to agreement on the need to fix the issues caused by the flawed 2020 valuation and take steps to avoid a repeat, it’s fair to suggest that nothing on pay and conditions has really moved since January.
The 26th day of that month saw the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) propose a pay deal that included a minimum five per cent pay increase (excluding increments and other already planned individual enhancements), rising to eight per cent for the lowest paid staff. The package (as firmed up a little in February) included a pay scale review, and detailed further work on casualisation (to include the end of involuntary zero hour contracts), work/life balance, workloads, and equality pay gaps.
And then nothing. As has been previously indicated, employers brought around half of this pay increase forward to 1 February and the remainder at 1 August. Outside of a few places where the earlier increase was unaffordable (so the whole increase was paid in August) this has now happened.
We’ve seen no further progress on the non-pay aspects precisely because UCU decided to take industrial action following the rejection of this deal by members. The marking and assessment boycott (MAB) saw significant press coverage (and concerned letters from the minister). It is unclear how many staff were involved or how many students – both final year students unable to graduate, and others unable to progress – would have been affected.
Unlike with other national pay disputes there was not an outpouring of public support for this action – or for the ancillary actions that came about when employers took upsetting but legal steps to restrict pay for partial performance. Without this, and without movement from UCEA beyond the “final offer”, it is not easy to understand what has been gained from all this effort.
But the impact of low pay, and difficult conditions, are being felt across the sector. We are aware from conversations around the sector that there are many professions within universities (including, but not limited to, some academic fields) where it has become very difficult to attract suitable applicants. The decline in attractiveness of the UK as a place to work has been amplified by the declining value of salary and benefits, and a workload that seems only to increase. And staff attrition is beginning to rise too.
On this basis, and should negotiations continue long enough to agree the terms of the joint review of sector finances initially proposed by UCEA, we return to seeing the stumbling block as being the low and declining real terms value of university income from the government. A year of pretending that because the sector in aggregate is able to cover significant pay increases that they should be immediately implemented locally hasn’t moved the dispute forward – it’s made the justified complaints of staff members about the eroding value of pay over time look less realistic.
We now see a tired and angry union membership once again embarking on industrial action with little hope of impact and a dwindling strike fund, and attempting to win a further mandate to continue banging heads on this particular brick wall. The decision to postpone the ballot may well have been for pragmatic reasons, but it does leave an October gap in action that means employers are able to request that all outstanding marking is completed.
UCU is not the only union active in higher education, and not the only union taking action over pay – just last week we saw Unison members at 21 universities commit to strike action in October. Five unions are represented in New JNCHES pay negotiations, and it is fair to summarise that none of the five are particularly happy right now. But the challenge is translating this anger into change – and the 2023-24 round that has just concluded (in that 1 August saw a deal implemented) was not a good demonstration of that.
To be clear, UCEA is not a winner here either. The deal that was implemented presents huge affordability challenges to many smaller providers, and all against a backdrop of rising costs and dwindling income. All this would have been worthwhile had it satisfied the unions (thus ending a year of action and invective), and made staff happier – it clearly has not.
We’re already starting to see various UCU fringes calling for a strategic rethink, or even a change of leadership. It is notable and sad how a robust moral and structural case for improving the working conditions of higher education staff has been undermined by an unrealistic characterisation of sector finances, and it is also a concern that anti-university voices around and inside government have been given further excuses to attack both academics and universities – damaging a case for rethinking funding (and, perhaps even more pressingly, student support) that needs urgently making in a clear way.
You could perhaps argue that direct industrial action has failed in this instance – but that is not to say that it has not worked before and will not work again. There’s an alternate timeline where unions and employers worked together to petition for a fairer deal for universities – the same tactic that appears to have been effective with USS – but it is difficult to see that succeeding given the state of government and national finances at the moment.
But to win for members this time the unions and employers together will need to get better at influencing the government – action that damages the sector is unlikely to help.