Civil service strikes and the higher education sector

What’s going on with the Public and Commercial Services Union’s industrial action?

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The fractious pay negotiations and ongoing industrial action of what are sometimes referred to as the “five higher education trade unions” (UCU, UNISON, Unite, EIS and GMB) were front and centre in higher education news over the autumn. But there was another trade union whose members play a significant role in the sector and which met the threshold for strikes in their own dispute last November. And this week they’ve announced a date for action.

I’m talking of course about the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the largest UK trade union for civil servants, whose initial round of action will take place on Wednesday 1 February – this is, after all, the TUC’s “national day of action”. But let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in this dispute specifically, and how and where it stands to impact the higher education sector.

The ballot closed on 7 November, you may remember, and 124 different “employer areas” of the very diverse union met the threshold for action. However – with some significant exceptions – most branches have not yet gone on strike. This will change in February, with all eligible areas now participating.

The PCS represents both civil servants within government departments and in arms length bodies, and so its relation to higher education is varied and wide. So areas such as the Department for Education, BEIS, the Welsh Senedd and the Scottish Government look set to be affected. But so do UK Research & Innovation, the Office for Students, HEFCW, the Student Loans Company, Skills Development Scotland, and other bodies connected to the sector.

You can see the full list of departments which reached the threshold and voted for action here, and the turnout and breakdown of votes is here.

But while it’s interesting to look through the details of the 214 incredibly diverse areas polled (one thing that caught my eye were the three branches each of two members, where one voted yes and the other no!), for the record let’s put together a simpler list for higher education – and with the caveat that there are many other governmental departments and agencies that I haven’t included here which of course do regularly connect with the sector.

EmployerNumber entitled to voteTurnout (%)% Yes
Business Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)117868.190.7
Department for Education181656.888.4
Higher Education Funding Council for Wales2556.071.4
Office for National Statistics & UKSA100460.878.5
Office for Students (OfS)17271.587.8
Scottish Government283464.482.2
Scottish Parliament20658.389.2
Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament)24053.882.2
Skills Development Scotland14958.482.8
Student Loans Company59555.590.9
The Institute for Apprentices and Technical Education1464.377.8
UK Research & Innovation (UKRI)35456.582.5

You can insert your own jokes here about which areas’ action will cause disruption to the smooth running of the higher education system, and which do that year-round.

The dispute is over pay, pensions, jobs and redundancy terms. The union has called for a rise of 10 per cent to pay, with the government offering 2 to 3 per cent.

Of course, one day of action may well not be the last of it, with the ballot closing in early November and the mandate lasting for six months. On the other hand, it’s still possible that the strike will not go ahead if a resolution can be reached. However, the negotiations do not seem to be going well.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka called a meeting on 12 January a “total farce”, with no progress made – the Cabinet Office’s statement regretted the decision and said discussions will continue, for what it’s worth.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Jeremy Quin has been in post since the end of October, and it’s clear that the union do not think he is on top of the details – earlier in the week PCS criticised Quin’s mention of sending evidence to pay review bodies:

There is no pay review body for the civil service below the senior civil service […] It is therefore difficult for us to understand how we can respond to an invitation to discuss evidence to a body that does not exist. It is also difficult for us to understand how the government can publish evidence that it is submitting to a non-existent body.

While the difference between an announcement of one day of industrial action may seem minor when it comes in the same week as UCU’s announcement of 18 days, there is no doubt that staff in these departments and agencies going on strike – some for the first time – has consequences for the higher education sector.

One response to “Civil service strikes and the higher education sector

  1. There are several unions covering the civil service (PCS, Prospect, FDA) so numbers of PCS members (eligible to vote) is only a proportion of the staff currently employed. DFE, OfS and Ofsted report 5,200, 1,700 and 370 permanently employed FTE staff in their most recent set of accounts so the % of PCS members is about 34%, 45% and 17% respectively. This may influence the impact of the strikes

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