UCU ballot fails to meet threshold

It looks like an end to national industrial action from UCU, for the moment

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

A ballot of around 68,000 University and College Union (UCU) members at 140 UK higher education providers saw just 42.59 per cent turn out to vote, meaning that under the terms of the 2016 Trade Unions Act there can be no national industrial action.

Some 68 per cent of members who did vote backed strike action; 75 per cent were in favour of other forms of industrial action. UCU had secured mandates for action on pay and conditions at the previous two times of asking, in autumn 2022 and spring 2023. There was no ballot for action on pensions on this occasion.

In Northern Ireland, where no rules on turnout apply, 78 per cent backed industrial action short of a strike while 59 per cent backed strike action

UCU general secretary Jo Grady claimed that the results show that “staff are still angry with vice-chancellors who have failed to deliver on pay, job security and workload.” The chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), Raj Jethwa urged UCU, along with other sector trade unions, to “prioritise the independent review of sector finances”, which he hopes will end the cycle of claim and counter-claim about the financial status of higher education providers.

Though Grady is keen to note the success of the parallel campaign to reinstate the previous levels of USS pension contributions, the results of this ballot come at a difficult time for her as she seeks re-election. She has faced criticism from members for not calling the vote during the summer so that it would be possible to have a continuous mandate, for confusion over planned strike action in late September, and for a union decision to call off the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) at the end of the summer.

Staff subject to the New JNCHES pay spine saw a pay rise of between 5 and 8 per cent last year – lower than the union ask of inflation plus two per cent but higher than the initial offer. Work was agreed at ACAS between UCEA and the five sector trade unions to tackle a review of the current pay spine, and action on workload, contract types, and pay gaps – it is not clear when this is set to resume.



14 responses to “UCU ballot fails to meet threshold

  1. Not that Jo Grady doesn’t shoulder a lot of the blame here, mostly for massively overpromising on stuff, esp casualisation and pay, flip flopping about what an acceptable settlement would be, running as a radical for GS when she obviously isn’t one, and very heavily prioritising pre-92 unis; but members claiming a summer reballot would have seen a much different result, and that only Grady is to blame, are kidding themselves. Do they seriously think members could sustain even 50% pay deductions indefinitely, let alone 100%? Did they not notice that the majority of MABs (including most of the ones at post-92s) had failed and ended in July? Did they not see scores of branches deciding not to go on strike in September, clearly because of lack of willingness?

    Surely what this demonstrates is that those in power in the union – GS and HEC, which has mostly had a majority opposed to her until recently – have comprehensively and childishly failed to agree on a strategy for this action from the very start, and have frittered away the enthusiasm and support of members via weeks (well really years) of strikes followed by an inevitably toothless MAB as members were priced out of continuing action? I mean, the strikes on budget day 2023 were surely the nadir, with no negotiations ongoing and the HEC seemingly going for them purely to spite the GS for her previous pause in action for negotiation. I guess the 5 days in freshers’ week which only resulted in deferred work for staff were up there in the pointlessness stakes.

    The other mostly-unsaid thing that I think is obviously true is that this was never a winnable action anyway – UCU demands were preposterous and in some cases close to infantile, esp re ‘ending casualisation’, and negotiating 4 things at once has proven impossible. Sadly I doubt there will be much soul searching on THAT front, it will all be a continuation of the forever war of ucu left and their deniable hangers on vs everyone else who’s not committed enough for them.

  2. Something I forgot but feel is worth adding. 44% of members were in favour of settling in the summer. That is being overlooked (also by me above) but it’s surely key to thinking about both how few members really embraced the MAB and the September strikes, and to turnout in this ballot, isn’t it.

    If only 56% of members wanted to continue the action even as the 50% threshold was reached, it speaks to the union needing to negotiate in April rather than launching the MAB, as they were already in a position of obvious weakness with regard to member enthusiasm for the action, and no amount of unconvincing bluster about the commitment of activists in branches and how they should decide what happens cos they’re taking the hits could hide this. And again I think Grady and her ucu left (and people-who-always-vote-with-ucu-left) enemies are equally to blame for this – Grady in being so ostentatiously opposed to the 5-8% payrise in April, making her later endorsement completely incoherent (along with her “#nocapitulation” stance re USS back in the day); and ucu left forcing so many days of strike action in the winter and spring when it is painfully clear that sporadic strikes in term time are not effective at shifting the employers (and before any of those strikehappy uculefties come on here to say if only, there is very very clearly no appetite for indefinite strikes in the union outside of ucu left ranks, and these would also quickly bankrupt the union anyway).

    This left both the union and members ill equipped in terms of money and energy by April – it is clear that a sizeable chunk of the 44% did not participate in the MAB, and also that the alternative – them chucking a few quid the way of Mabbers, if they even did that – was not enough for the action to work. There wasn’t sufficient buy-in for the MAB to work, let alone that UCU are asking for pay rises and contract shifts that will bankrupt many institutions, and that sensible members also know full well that the demands are unaffordable for all uni’s other than the ultra elite. It should not have gone ahead. (I am not trying to say here that casualisation isn’t a problem at some, tho only some, uni’s by the way – just that UCU policy on this issue is borderline comical in its lack of realism. Ditto pay which is too low, but without higher income, uni’s can’t afford much more at all).

    Also bear in mind that, to turn the typical “vocal activists should decide” thing on its head, it is 100% the case that a lot of MAB enthusiasts were not responsible *at all* for summer grading (or not v much, in the case of eg most PhD students), and even though it’s a union, to expect unenthusiastic colleagues to shoulder a burden that was not only financial but also deeply personal and emotional, involving forced conflict with managers who are very often also colleagues and will be long after the IA has ended, was asking a lot of them. In fact, far too much, given where negotiations had ended up.

  3. Going for an aggregate vote was a very risky strategy. Branch voting would have spread the risk. This campaign ends much as previous ones have

  4. “Grady is keen to note the success of the parallel campaign to reinstate the previous levels of USS pension” ….which had diddly squat to do with UCU, and everything to do with the unexpected rise in interest rates.

  5. One thing that’s definitely the case from this episode, where there was at least a pay rise, is that aggregation is important – piecemeal action at individual uni’s just doesn’t have an effect outside of the individual uni (and then usually at huge cost in terms of wages lost Vs gains).

  6. I don’t know enough about USS to comment that closely on it, but I do think the big difference between the 2 disputes was that USS had a clear aim, demands, and focus; and 4 fights was, and is, the total opposite. It was, and is, incoherent, with UCU never making their aims clear; and when they did attempt this, they were often so unworkable that they were almost laughable – no non-permanent contracts at all; a 15% pay rise where uni’s have no additional income; the idea that 70k max uni staff on strike (including PhD students, some of whom work 1 or 2 hours a week max in terms of teaching) could force VCs to redesign the sector with Tory govt support; make all PhD students staff (is that in 4F or not, I can’t work it out); plus the work on pay gaps where all University initiatives on this are deemed inadequate for Reasons.

    It’s very hard to *win* a protest dispute, which is what the 4F was and is, and it’s not just Jo Grady who needs to take responsibility for keeping the union in that dispute for 4 years; it’s HEC, it’s UCU Left, it’s union congress, and it’s branch activists who are also responsible – all of them were, and are, far too willing to take the union into this unwinnable action, and to scorn members who are sceptical or whose membership is primarily for self-protection.

    So often we’ve heard union senior figures – from across the board – bemoan the members who e.g. don’t vote in ballots (which is a stronger version of a no vote, let’s not pretend otherwise, members aren’t stupid), and suggest their views be discounted. Fine, but let’s see how the union functions when it has let’s say 40k strikehappy members, a high % of whom are unlikely to see their removal of labour impact on the uni especially acutely. What everyone in UCU have forgotten is that you need to bring the membership with you – after 4 years and huge promises, the members are expecting results. Eventually they are going to lose faith in the decision makers, and that’s not just Jo Grady – those opposed to her in UCU committees etc need to remember this. A summer reballot would have had the same result, and they surely know this dep down.

  7. I voted no last week because I’m exhausted with striking and striking and striking for barely any gains (for those not in USS). I also voted no in the original ballot in autumn 2022 because I don’t like disrupting my students’ education and could see little prospect of winning a strike, but I respected the democratic decision and struck on every strike day since. Indeed there was a period last winter when the hope and joy of collective solidarity was in the air, because we were not striking for special treatment for academics, but rather alongside many other groups of workers – 1 February was the nearest we have had to a general strike in this country for many years – and students were often supportive. I even voted yes in the spring re-ballot on the basis that if you strike, you strike to win. However things went downhill from there. MAB was indeed a non-starter at many post-92s. Nationally, it was surely clear by late spring / early summer that the employers had dug in and we had lost this dispute.

    But that doesn’t mean that what we were demanding was preposterous – our demands were really quite modest. I couldn’t care less about the stupid factional posturing within UCU, but the idea that it is infantile or unaffordable to ask universities to employ people on secure contracts; for wages to not be cut further when they have already been cut in real terms for 15 years in a row; for people to be paid equally regardless of gender or ethnicity; and for workers to be given workloads that are achievable within the hours they are actually paid for, and not be expected to work many hours of unpaid overtime, all suggests something rotten at the heart of UK higher education. In what normal industry, in what normal European country, would such basic demands be thought unacceptable to even pose?

    Given the failure, for the time being, of ‘voice’, many of us will now be heading for ‘exit’ or maybe ‘inner exile’ – advising our students against staying in UK academia; quietly quitting goodwill tasks that we do for our employers for free in our spare time; seeking alternative employment or side gigs; finding deeper meaning in our personal lives and hobbies, not in the workplace, and in our scholarship, not our career advancement; and/or counting down the time to the earliest we can retire, saving every penny we can. For what remains of our time in this unhappy system, we should also resolve to be as kind and supportive of each other as we can, building informal networks of mutual support outside the structures of the corporate university. And maybe once we have a government that is less actively hostile to education, we can consider posing our collective demands again – so perhaps, as we last did back in 2006, one day we can again win a strike.

    But now is the time for a pause. It is sad that it has come to this. We may be, for the moment, defeated – but we indeed remain angry, and will never allow our employers to take us for granted again.

    1. Your points about 15 years (PLUS) of effective pay cuts, the expectation of working unlimited hours by our employers (hours as required contracts) and the like are well made. Unfortunately the UCU’s history on all too often not supporting other Trade Unions in the sector when they’ve been in dispute has painted the picture many in management have latched onto, keep them divided and carry on shafting them.

      The more hard-line left-whinge Branches have also created a divide between themselves and other more centralist Branches, this has enabled the employers to play one group off against the other at JNCHES. ALL the sector Trades Unions need to heal the rifts between themselves and Branches of the same trades Union likewise, as only by presenting a coordinated united front will we have any chance of winning ANY future battles…

      1. I appreciate that as listed above the aims of the action seem laudable and unexceptional. However I do quibble with the idea of particularly the pay and casualisation ‘solutions’ as affordable as things stand. On pay, universities’ income from home fees has not risen for around a decade. This means that an inflation-busting pay rise, which is what Lecturer is suggesting, is genuinely unaffordable for the majority of institutions – unis’ costs, pay notwithstanding, on stuff like energy alone, have also gone up massively (UCU data on finances is out of date and pre-Liz Truss, and the claims about reserves are just ludicrous), and pay rises = leaps in Uni pension contributions too, especially the huge contributions on TPS. You’ll note that almost every other union membership were treated like adults by their leaders re likely pay rises, and accepted something that UCU encouraged their members to reject – and that in industries where there is more money, too.

        As for casualisation – everyone can agree that secure contracts are nice, yes, but the UCU demands on these genuinely are ridiculous – banning all contacts shorter than 2 years, which I think is their policy, is a recipe for huge reductions in funded research across the board, and it would mean 6 months of maternity leave being filled by a 2-year contract, paying someone for 18 months of work that wasn’t needed – isn’t the financial cost of this policy clear? The immediate impact would be job losses and hiring freezes, and of permanent colleagues being asked to take on the work of colleagues on maternity leave. If enacted, too, uni’s would be left with scores of researchers hired for their expertise for time-limited specific projects who’d then be expected, I assume, to be doing research on projects they had no expertise on, projects which aren’t necessarily externally funded, and would thus have to be funded internally – again, where is this money coming from? I ask this not in the ideal world but in the real world, because UCU have presented these disputes as easily and quickly winnable, and only stymied by evil employer inflexibility. But if you look under the bonnet even for a minute you start to see that this stuff is just not workable. (I think it’s telling that Jo Grady – and I think basically everyone on HEC too – has seemingly never had any responsibility for, or even knowledge of the existence of, a departmental staff budget, and systems of hiring). One other thing on this is that it is simply nowhere near as significant an issue outside of elite uni’s, and the UCU examples on it are pretty weak – too many of them involve people who have made deeply unwise decisions (eg PhD student living in tent was seemingly an international student who took a scholarship which only paid home fees, and so spent their maintenance money on the fee difference – nothing in the 4F would have solved that one, you’d need PhD teaching paid £300 an hour).

        Re equal pay, as above, Universities *all* have policies on this which UCU have dismissed on frankly incomprehensible grounds – this was especially clear in 2020 when the negotiators just said ‘no’ to everything cos they wanted a MAB during Covid, but it’s still basically true now – all the IA on this would get is what Uni’s are already currently doing.

        And re workloads, I’ve said it before on here but lecturer workloads are inevitably intensive at certain points (when grading and teaching coincide – though lecturers v often refuse to reduce their own grading loads), but really quite forgiving and generally unmonitored at others. UCU polls on this are just not trustworthy I’m afraid, because the polling samples are self-selected. In any case, any sector-wide framework on this would likely be very similar to the workload models adopted across many uni’s even now, and would involve much more micromanagement and monitoring of lecturers’ daily activities. The number of vocal 4F participants who advertise doing leisure activities in working hours on social media is enough to suggest that a shift to a closely-monitored workload is probably not what they’d actually want.

        More generally though the reference to “in what normal European country, would such basic demands be thought unacceptable to even pose” is telling – it’s not unacceptable at all to pose such demands, and in a country with very high taxes and a social democratic system, they are already mostly in place. But the UK is not such a country. If the current action requires the fundamental political landscape of the UK to be changed permanently, is it really wise for UCU HEC and GS to be presenting this as easily winnable?

        To pretend that bracketing 4 together is a likely winnable dispute is just not realistic. And that’s the other issue – the only way to solve these issues is financial. In the current model it would mean massively hiking tuition fees; or it would mean really quite substantial income tax rises. I support the latter, but even a Corbyn govt would have had trouble imposing that. Action by 70k max Uni staff simply cannot generate that kind of systemic change; it’s exactly why trying to solve them all at once (and including ‘casualisation’ in there) was such a terrible idea.

        1. Casualisation is a big problem and has belatedly been acknowledged as such by funders and some VCs. Indeed, a House of Lords report on science pinpointed it as a problem for the UK’s research base as talented people leave academia due to lack of more secure employment. There’s loads of articles on THES in the last year about this. While one might question the tactical wisdom of bundling casualisation together with the other fights, it is an issue that will not go away, I’m afraid.

          1. I don’t disagree, and in an ideal world there would be hundreds of entry level academic jobs every year; but like I say I think it is not an issue that is solvable via IA (esp since the UCU “solutions” are unworkable and I’d argue counterproductive) – it’s something better applied by funding bodies with University agreement. University HR and management in general would prefer stable workforces too in my experience.

            My issue is mostly with its framing by UCU as something that can be fully abolished and thus solved via the current action which has clearly never been true, and their solution would I think be actively worse than the status quo.

            But – it’s definitely an issue that is much more prevalent in elite uni’s, meaning a nationwide IA on this (as well as other stuff) was likely to create the mixed enthusiasm, esp in post 92s, that is elsewhere discussed on this page.

        2. Many thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think we agree about a lot: I would agree that this was always going to be a hard dispute to win – hence why I voted no in the first place – and that we need systemic change, but beg to differ on key details.

          On pay, I don’t even want ‘an inflation-busting pay rise’. Given that my workload is higher than it was 15 years ago, I would just be happy for my pay to be only somewhat less than what it was 15 years ago, rather than miles and miles less than it was 15 years ago. If it is deemed ‘unaffordable’ to properly pay those who actually teach the students, yet meanwhile ‘affordable’ to employ many managers on six-figure salaries, then clearly universities are not prioritising their core function. And if universities genuinely can’t afford this, then yes they need a bit more funding (or rather, have their funding reduced year on year by a bit less). So of course income tax needs to rise on higher earners, and a wealth tax needs to be introduced, to pay for functioning public services: I just don’t understand why the basics of social democracy should be impossible in this country.

          On equal pay, the idea that all we can expect is what universities are already doing is simply not good enough. The median gender pay gap in HE is still 8.5%. How can we possibly accept that women are worth only 91.5% of their male colleagues and should just carry on working for free for a month every year?

          On casualisation, while I agree this is at its worst in the most prestigious universities, I disagree that it is somehow ridiculous to have contracts of at least 2 years. Anyone who has ever been on a 1 year contract knows that is too short to both complete a substantial amount of research and worry about getting your next job. I also don’t understand why 2 year contract researchers would be doing work they had no expertise on – most decent researchers have more good ideas for research than time to work on them. And the idea that people would be being hired to do work that isn’t needed is faulty: anyone who has worked in a department that is permanently understaffed and overworked in its basic functions know there is always work that genuinely needs to be done but isn’t because we don’t have enough staff. Your answer doesn’t take enough account of short term teaching contracts, used in a wide variety of types of university as a never-ending sticking plaster for permanent understaffing.

          On workloads, no doubt conditions may vary across the sector, but I have rarely, if ever, been able to finish even the basics of teaching, preparation, attendance monitoring, virtual learning environments, admin, personal tutoring, student support, student feedback, student references, student recruitment, dissertation and postgraduate supervision, mentoring, editorial work, academic service, keeping up with the latest policy changes, etc, etc, let alone do any of my own research or speak to my colleagues, within the hours on my contract – even outside marking season.

          As for ‘refuse to reduce their own grading loads’, again I don’t understand – do you mean that some lecturers have a choice about how many pieces of coursework they have to mark? I’ve never experienced such a situation. Or do you mean that we are too helpful to students with our feedback and should do our job worse but more quickly?

          That is what I meant about being taken for granted: many academics work so so hard for their students again and again, yet feel like they are invisible to university decision-makers except as data points; our best is never enough. Whatever its tactical errors, the strike was a predictable consequence of an unsustainable situation. Maybe it was an unfocused cry of pain; maybe the UCU leadership was wrong to suggest it could be won easily; the point of my post above was that we have, in the short term, lost. But my goodness, UK academia just cannot go on like this, producing burnout, disillusion and alienation. Something has to give, and it should not be our own sense of self-worth. Sending love, solidarity and hope all round.

          1. Thanks – I appreciate the detail though obviously we do disagree on some of this.* In my mind, the urgency you speak of is all the more reason for UCU not to have tried to solve all these problems at once, as institutions could (and indeed did – with some justification) use the myriad different issues to claim progress on some and stall progress on others.

            I think it is very clear that UCU negotiators up to 2023 were incapable of actual progression, owing to a mostly hardline approach to these things (and in some cases – the UCU Left negotiators – an active desire to be engaged in IA). It was the right call for Jo Grady to go to ACAS, but what that exposed was the total disconnect between what was possible to achieve in this action vs what was promised. Had it only been pay, or even pay plus pay gaps, and had members not been encouraged by the GS among many others to expect a huge rise, I think it could have been resolved sufficiently to be able to move on to other issues in negotiation. Again without wanting to overdo it, I think it’s telling that most other unions which were in dispute in the Spring accepted pay rises that were roughly the same as those offered to UCU – not saying they were brilliant rises, but it does feel like UCU members (well, 56% of them) were either encouraged to think that a substantially higher payrise was affordable for all uni’s, when it clearly isn’t, or – more likely – that some thought the pay rise was ok but there wasn’t sufficient movement on the other fights. That sort of proves my point about the wisdom of being involved on so many issues, because even the more moderate members would find fault with some element of an agreement, especially on casualisation where again what was promised vs what was likely are very far apart.

            I also completely agree that in a European democracy, better pay in particular would and should be possible – but we have to accept that the UK govt has since (circa) 2007 been opposed to direct state investment in the HE sector, and that this is the context of the IA – the funding for substantial pay rises, if they appear, simply won’t be coming from increased taxation and reduced tuition fees, nor Oxbridge selling off all its buildings and transferring the money to Aberystwyth as was Jo Grady’s solution; it would have to come from increased UG fees. This was actually the point of the Willets plan for fees, not that I support it – they were meant to be ever-increasing amounts, interest-free…

            * Just to reply to two questions – “do you mean that some lecturers have a choice about how many pieces of coursework they have to mark? I’ve never experienced such a situation.” – I do mean this yes, re module design; module leaders mostly have some control over this I think. Year on year in my experience, some lecturers insist on their module’s coursework always being at the very top of permitted wordcount for a module, or in places remaining substantially above wordcount, and requesting several different submissions, often with no clear explanation regarding what learning goals the differing submissions are meeting (usually it’s all of them repeated), or the rationale for having e.g. 3 instead of 2 submissions. There’s usually a solid enough pedagogical reason or one of student engagement, and uni’s have been dropping wordcounts per credit across the board which is questionable; but I find it frustrating when combined, often by the same lecturers, with complaints about their marking loads.

            ** Re casualisation, my point re moving research-only staff onto permanent contracts (as I think is one of UCU’s demands – again it’s quite hard to follow their demands on casualisation) is that their roles are almost always externally funded. I’m sure such colleagues would have excellent research to offer outside of their precise projects, but the money to make them permanent research-only staff would need to come from somewhere, for which, see above; what you’d end up with is lots of early-career people being initially given extremely good-looking roles but those would probably only last a couple of years before redundancy owing to lack of affordability and rationale for the role continuing. I’m in agreement that a 2-year temp contract is better than 1, no disagreement there; but like I say, UCU proposals would cover 12 months of maternity leave with a 2-year contract, and again where would the money for this extra unnecessary year come from? It’s much more likely to end up being plugged by overworking permanent staff, thus no opportunities at all for postdocs. Re teaching gaps being plugged by temp staff – sorry if I’d ignored that, as I do know it’s common, but I think it is not as systematic an issue as UCU paint it (certainly far less so at post-92s) and I’m also more sceptical than you about a solution being to have permanent additional capacity within teams – it’s a nice idea in theory but in reality you’d have problems with specialisation, along with the issue of – if workload was ‘solved’ by UCU action – a workload model where there’s e.g. half a day a week of non-assigned work built in, which is again nice in theory but hard to see how it would be funded.

            Sorry if I sound defeatist or frustrating on all of this. There’s lots in UK HE that needs changing – and I am maybe jaded after so many years of fruitless IA – but I think in general that UCU needs to be realist in future about its action, aims, and strategy, and since 2019 it’s basically been the opposite.

  8. Thanks. I totally agree with you: united we stand, divided we fall. The atmosphere can vary greatly between different UCU branches: it’s at times like this that I am glad to work at a post-92 where UCU members have a rather more realistic understanding of their place in the world.

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