Industrial Relations and the HE Sector

In this post, we explore ways in which the HE sector could work more productively with trade union colleagues.

The author is a member of AHUA; the following comments are offered in a personal capacity. 

Stripling youths among the registrar ranks won’t remember the dark days of the 1970s, but there was a time when UK plc was regarded as the sick man of Europe. Riven with industrial conflict, Britain was brought to its knees as management and unions battled it out in almost every sector of the economy. Blackouts were a regular occurrence when coal supplies to power stations were disrupted; trade union leaders dictated terms to prime ministers at specially convened conferences in Downing Street; productivity fell miles behind our international competitors and manufacturing industry went into terminal decline.

So one narrative has it, anyway – other interpretations are of course available. What is certain is that the last 35 years – since the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-5 – have seen far less disruption due to strikes.

But there are exceptions – the railways, for one, are recurrently hit by stoppages and our own higher education sector is an obvious outlier. In the time I have served in university senior management, there has been serious disruption almost every other year – sometimes in successive years.  The current situation is as bad as it’s ever been. We’ve seen long-running disputes on pay, conditions and pensions, exacerbated by fundamental differences about the nature and purpose of the sector and the strategic direction it is taking.

Can we find a way out of the impasse? And at a time of existential threat to many HEIs, are we even willing to have an honest discussion about it?

There is no doubt that the concerns are strongly felt among some trade union members, especially in the University and College Union (UCU).

There is anger that the early 2010s saw a massive upswing in tuition fee income to the sector, particularly in England, but that employers failed to pass this on to staff, who endured several years of below-inflation pay uplifts.

Trade unionists also worry that the defined benefits element of the USS pension scheme is under sustained attack – finance directors up and down the land would like to remove the risk associated with the scheme, which many believe to be unaffordable in the medium term. At the same time, the tendency for universities to employ large numbers of staff on fixed-term contracts and the precariousness of employment terms for many teachers and tutors, act as recruiting sergeants when strikes are called. Add to these the workload pressures many colleagues are experiencing in a competitive global market and the continued under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the professorial ranks, and you have a ready-made set of grievances which resonate across the grades.

This year has seen industrial action across large swathes of the sector.  The dispute focused on the size of the annual cost-of-living uplift, the two-thirds/one-third split of pension contribution increases and the non-pay issues of workload, casualisation and equal pay.

As ever, the action sought to maximise disruption to students’ education. However, the activists did not have it all their own way – in the majority of HEIs, the turn-out in ballots was less than 50%; the irony was that in many universities, industrial action was only possible because those UCU members who opposed action took the ballot over the 50% mark. In institutions where disputes were declared, participation rates were generally down on the previous strike. Many were perplexed that the unions did not seize the possibility of an improved pay offer as mooted during the negotiations, or of a temporary increase in employers’ contributions to USS. Instead, the strikers forfeited 6% of their annual pay and students lost up to 22 days of teaching. The national negotiators worked on a joint statement covering the non-pay issues, but as on the other points, a final agreement has so far proved elusive.

So where do we go from here?  Surely, we cannot go on like this – dispute after dispute, lost pay, rumbling grievances, dissatisfied students, the undermining of our reputation as one of the world’s best university sectors.

But a lasting peace seems far away – senior managers are naturally preoccupied with surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and some local trade union branches are feeling sidelined and ignored. The 2020 USS valuation could become a fresh hell of falling asset values, trustee demands for higher contributions and employers arguing the scheme is unaffordable.  Job security could be further undermined as institutions struggle like never before in the face of market turbulence and plummeting income. The wider impact of an economic Armageddon could make last year’s hopes of a pay settlement to “catch up and keep up” look like a distant dream.

If there is a way forward, it will have to involve fresh thinking, an ability to look beyond our immediate predicament and a willingness to compromise. The AHUA blog is not the place to conduct sensitive negotiations but we might consider the following:

  1. A national framework within which institutions and their local unions work together to address the issues of casualisation, workload and equal pay.  This would need to be grounded in genuine efforts by employers to address the most egregious examples of current practice and to treat all members of staff fairly and equitably.
  2. A joint project using objective advisers to identify what is affordable in terms of pay over the next three to five years.
  3. A commitment by the unions not to call further strike ballots over the same period.
  4. Recognition that the USS pension scheme cannot continue in its present form; joint work to identify the best way to protect the interests of existing scheme members while avoiding huge increases in contributions.
  5. An open dialogue between employers and trade unions to chart a way out of the present crisis, with the twin aims of ensuring the long-term prosperity of the sector and protecting jobs.

These are difficult times for UK universities; the path ahead is uncertain and the perils we face many and varied. But the sector’s future will be brighter if we can work productively with our trade union colleagues; I for one would strongly advocate that we try.