Could ministers step in on university industrial action?

That Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is quite the thing.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The newly published Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would, if enacted, allow the government a huge range of power over the scope of industrial action taken by trade unions.

Though much of the language around the bill has focused on public safety measures, the text as presented in Parliament allows the a Secretary of State to determine minimum levels of service in the following areas:

  • Health services
  • Fire and rescue services
  • Education services
  • Transport services
  • Decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel
  • Border security

These are very broad categories, and there is nothing to suggest that universities should not fall under “education services”.

There’s no real definition of what minimum service requirements might be – though the Secretary of State is required to consult “such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate” – and the regulations that specify such requirements must be approved by both houses of parliament (using the affirmative SI process).

Once “minimum service levels” have been set, employers can then issue “work notices” – which will specify which staff are required to work during the strike in order to meet these minimum requirements. Unions are able to express views on these notices, and the employer must “have regard” to these views – there’s also a clause preventing employers from using work notices that identify more people than are “reasonably necessary” to meet the minimum requirements.

A worked example

So – imagine this: university trade unions feel that they need to take strike action, after jumping through the various ballot hoops that are required. The specified dates for strike action are determined in order to affect the marking of third year undergraduate assignments.

Universities are concerned about this, and petition the Secretary of State to set a minimum level of service.

The DfE Secretary of State determines that a minimum level of service would be that all third year undergraduate students would receive marks and degree awards by the date originally specified – once this is approved in the Commons and Lords universities would be able to issue work notices to ensure enough staff are available to meet these requirements.

This would seriously limit the effectiveness of the strike action, and ensure that students would get the marks and thus their degree results on time. Good news for universities, bad news for staff trying to use the right to strike to get better pay and conditions.

Or is it?

The Office for National Statistics are beginning the process of determining whether or not universities are a part of the public sector – having recently determined that after a few years as private companies, the FE sector had seen a level of government oversight that shifted it back into the public sector – with all kinds of finance consequences.

It’s fair to say that the current government is not ideologically committed to a programme of nationalisation, even on these limited terms. But such a move would be disastrous for universities who have grown used to using loans, bonds, and credit to supplement dwindling public investment.

Having a minister set minimum service levels feels like a very public sector look – so there will surely need to be a lot of caution about the use of these new powers.

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