Where next on pay and conditions?

As we face more strikes, more ballots, and more bad feeling on both sides, David Kernohan wonders what happens next.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

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.

No winners

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.

4 responses to “Where next on pay and conditions?

  1. “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” – I could not agree more. And this has been consistent in 4F from the very start – UCU negotiators have always been completely unrealistic in their demands on the ‘four fights’, since at least 2020 (in part because negotiators are very often members of UCU Left who actively want to be in dispute).

    This year, though, UCU leadership (both GS but also HEC and HE Congress) have been *incredibly* reckless in their assessment of financial feasibility. Grady could probably have come to a decent agreement, supported by members, if she had not decided to vocally encourage members to reject a 5% pay rise in February; but instead she continued with her total nonsense about sector finances (and once again demonstrated implicitly that she has no idea about non-elite Uni’s and does not care about them). That’s not just the total nonsense about reserves but also the claims about current finances, which are based on the 21-22 financial year, just before (for instance) massive hikes to energy bills for universities – and of course for staff too. But there was somehow an idea that Uni’s were immune to inflation, largely stemming from Grady’s boneheaded cosplay as a radical in the press (and the genuine unrealistic radicalism of many UCU decision makers) meaning she was consistently over-oppositional.* We keep being told that UCU are desperate to #settlethedispute but it’s already been to ACAS ffs – Grady has been ridiculously reckless in her expectation management (‘end casualisation’, ‘remake Higher Ed’), as have UCU elected reps across the board. I’m still yet to see a reasonable solution to the ‘problem’ of casualisation from UCU, basically four years into the dispute.

    This meant that when she tried to endorse the ACAS-agreed deal later on (as she should have from the beginning), she could not bring members with her in sufficient numbers to avoid escalating action that she obviously didn’t, and doesn’t, support – *surely* it would have been better this summer to pause action and continue negotiation, given 44% of members endorsed the deal, rather than escalating with obviously patchy support (and the MAB *was* an escalation, UCU say it themselves, so big deductions would always happen). 

    But then, the 4 Fights was set up not as winnable but as a dispute designed to encourage support (and I think especially to encourage membership of PhD students) rather than be winnable – it’s never been a serious IA strategy (even Grady supporters voiced scepticism about the deal she negotiated FFS cos it didn’t do enough on other ‘fights’). The entire decision making structures have been shown up as completely inadequate – the union just isn’t fit for purpose – and a change in GS won’t help, since seemingly the main complaint about her was that she didn’t want an indefinite strike beginning in January. What’s needed is a complete overhaul of all decision making so it doesn’t always end up as a botched compromise of various hard-line suggestions which have been made without consideration of affordability or support. 

    *This reached its nadir on Newsnight where she blew her chance to make a convincing case for the IA, by spending ages berating David Willets for raising tuition fees 11 years ago, and then proceeded to make herself look more petty and amateurish than a student Tory, before taking selfies with all the other students afterwards like a truly grown-up person.  

  2. I think you draw completely the wrong inference from the USS dispute. This has been going on since 2018 and had UUK joined UCU in calling for reforms, rather than working to undermine a system that they dislike due to higher than average employer contributions, then it would have been solved much sooner. The same intransigence can be seen with UCEA and sector financial reform.

    UCU argued against the harmful changes to sector organisation and finance since 2010, whilst UCEA has embraced them. We have passed motions to investigate and campaign for alternative financial and student number models that would bring much needed stability and future-proofing to sector finances. At every turn we have been drowned out by UCEA, UUK, and individual Vice Chancellors who have continued to campaign for the very policies that have created such inequalities in sector finances. The recent inflationary pressures have simply shone a light on the inequities of a system that has been broken for a long time. The issues of precarity, casualisation, and workload that you rightly raise above are a product of a sector that has no capacity to plan for more than the next admissions cycle. And yet, most University managers continue to embrace this system, arguing that what is required is for students to pay more, rather than any more significant reforms. Management greed, fuelled by a belief that their institution is either benefiting from the current model or has the capacity to do so once the latest “rebrand” takes effect, has completely stymied any attempt at cross-sector campaigning for a fairer financial model for HE.

    Trade Unions have little leverage outside of industrial action. We can lobby government, but are unlikely to find sympathetic ears on the Tory benches and even those in Labour are increasingly turning away from hard-won policy promises. Critiques of the latest industrial campaign may be valid, although I wish more of them would happen away from public social media platforms, but to blame Unions for a failure to take joined up action on sector-wide problems is unfair and placing blame at the wrong door.

  3. “[T]o blame Unions for a failure to take joined up action on sector-wide problems” – This helpfully presents the 4F dispute as it is – a *protest* against the general state of affairs in HE – but presenting it, as UCU do, as something that Universities can straightforwardly solve via throwing money (which the uni’s don’t have) at it, demonstrates the problem of making this something over which to take industrial action in the traditional sense. There is just too much to solve via IA and negotiation, not least if the negotiation would also involve the uni’s pottering off and just, er, deigning and agreeing with an HE-hostile govt a comprehensive redesign of the entire HE sector. VCs don’t have the power to do this. Several, if not scores of, uni’s would go under before that happened – the cost would be FAR too great to justify it. Plus that’s what the government want…

    Anyway. If UCU’s line on this were serious, and 4F was to do with generating a new system of Universities, fair enough even if in my mind fanciful; but that is not how they continue to sell the dispute – it’s still being sold as a ‘sector awash with cash’ where every university can afford to pay its workers a 15% rise with no increase in income, and to have maternity leave of 9 months covered by someone on a 2 year contract for Reasons.

    “We have passed motions to investigate and campaign for alternative financial and student number models that would bring much needed stability and future-proofing to sector finances” – ok but student number controls are a recipe for mass redundancies in elite uni’s. Maybe in the longer term this will make things fairer and more stable – but at enormous cost. The same is true, though, of a 10% rise in wages – that’s instant redundancy schemes at every post-92 and programme closures to boot. This action just has not been thought through, it is not serious. The UCU leadership – and I mean HEC as well as Grady – are culpable in this, pretending that 5% was somehow way too little and all uni’s could afford it.

    The point about UCU lobbying falling on deaf ears is valid – but unfortunately the same is true for VCs, and to think that the magic solution to the state of HE is for VCs to lobby parliament is to demonstrate an ignorance of the landscape for HE in terms of policy. The current govt have been trying since 2010 to bankrupt universities – mostly the post-92s – and it is most definitely not ‘management greed’ that has prevented this from happening, in fact in general it has been the effectiveness of management at doing more with less (albeit with a knock-on effect on workload, though frankly HE workloads are not really that bad, they’re heavy at certain points and light at others), the commitment of staff, and the resilience and global popularity of UK HE, that has prevented this.

    This is not to paint everything as perfect in the sector – but if UCU have honestly been on strike for 4 years in order to somehow force a change in HE policy via VCs who have no power over policy and who the govt hate anyway, then they have been straightforwardly lying to their members, as that fight is not winnable via the current IA.

    Jo Grady was right – UCU needed to bank and build after the ACAS talks – but they haven’t, they’ve taken more IA, because that’s what UCU do, and she herself had talked down the pay deal anyway. I mean, 5 days of strikes in Freshers’ week, at the very end of a mandate – a week’s wages, and massive disruption of enrolment, for absolutely no reason given other than ‘to show we’re angry’? With zero negotiations ongoing, because UCU got back to the table and added another dispute in (that one being ‘unfair deductions for action we think is more disruptive than a strike’)? I’m sure a lot of members are angry, but at a certain point surely their anger is not going to be trained on the evil VCs but on the people who make decisions in the union, and I don’t just mean the GS, much as it comforts the hardliners to pretend that’s the case.

  4. This is a really thoughtful argument. As a life-long trade unionist (and a member of AUEW, ASTMS prior to AUT/UCU) I feel underwhelmed by the UCU bargaining strategy which has been very costly for staff and very divisive amongst the membership. Militant unionism is surely missing the point. The bigger issue is the gradual erosion of the democratic structure and public serving goals of the university system. When I started working in the University sector, democratic structures (e.g. consensual selection/election of departmental heads; Faculty meetings to determine policy) were in place – albeit imperfect. We have allowed these traditions to wane in the face of creeping managerialism. And now the administration is in the hands of a rather small clique of university managers, many of whom have been recruited from the private sector.
    Is there not scope to ask for a reset? A new manifesto for Higher Education Institutions that reasserts a collective and collegiate consensus around the purposes and running of the institutions to which we devote our energies and abilities. A hegemonic vision that would unite staff and students and the communities in which we are embedded. Moving away from a reactive collective bargaining strategy that wasn’t very successful in the last century and doesn’t seem to be working today. Just a thought.

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