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Minimal support for trade unions’ strung out dispute

HE institutions are reporting that strike action by some UCU, Unite, Unison and EIS members is having minimal impact on students today (3 December 2013). Since less than 5% of staff* voted to support the strike, this is not unexpected.

While the employers regret any industrial action, today’s low turnout and minimal impact is bound to be disappointing for those trade union activists who threatened major disruption to demonstrate the strength of support for their dispute.  A refusal by small numbers of staff to let their institution know if they will be taking strike action has meant that students at a few institutions are being inconvenienced by lectures being postponed.

The trade unions continue to present a partial picture on HE pay and are encouraging staff to strike over the final offer of a 1% increase on all pay points from August 2013 while ignoring the generous incremental increases and contribution pay. Taken together, the pay increases this year are costing around 3% and this is at the limits of affordability for HE institutions. Actual earnings in HE have not seen anything like the decline that the unions are claiming. Employers have also offered joint work around the gender pay gap, casual contracts and flexible working, addressing important issues in the unions’ claim.

A UCEA spokesperson said:

“Less than 5% of staff voted for industrial action, so it is no surprise that today’s strike action is similar to the action on 31 October which caused very limited disruption**. As the trade unions attempt to string this dispute out, UCEA’s 150 participating HE employers confirmed that the pay increase offered is sustainable, fair and final. The trade unions are continuing to press for unaffordable increases*** that would push pay costs even higher than the 3% already committed, and put jobs at risk. Institutions value their staff highly and already offer excellent pay and conditions but they are also concerned to safeguard jobs and will continue to protect students.

“Industrial action that tries to damage the student experience is always disappointing to employers. But today the trade union activists are bound to feel disappointed because of the low turnout and insignificant impact across the sector. The overwhelming majority of staff realise that the unions’ continuing demands for higher pay increases are neither affordable nor sustainable – they have no wish to see disruption to their institutions and their students. UCEA still remains willing to discuss the other important aspects of the trade unions’ claim, having already offered joint work on the gender pay gap and on hourly-paid and casual work.” 

While there has been pressure on real wages across the UK economy during the economic downturn, actual earnings in HE have not seen anything like the decline that the unions are claiming. It is perplexing that the trade unions continue to deny the real earnings growth that HE staff have seen over the past decade and to portray any surpluses as if they were a pot of unallocated money. Surpluses**** are vital margins and needed to make up for cuts in capital funding so that institutions can reinvest in high quality teaching and research facilities for students and staff.

* See ‘notes to editors’ for more information.
** Although there were some pickets at many campuses, almost all institutions reported that they were able to operate throughout the day of strike action, and that students did not face significant disruption. Nine out of 10 of institutions reported “no to low” impact on the 31 October strike day. Overall, institutions’ reports indicate that 6% of staff took strike action on 31 October. Reports by noon today are showing an even lower level of impact so far today with institutions reporting no, low or negligible impact. There are isolated reports of difficulties at a few HE institutions but these seem to be the result of political activists attempting to piggy-back on today’s strike in a bid to pursue other agendas.
*** Throughout eight months of negotiations the trade unions have continued to demand pay increases to match their claim of RPI (3.2% at the time), plus “catch-up”.
**** See ‘notes to editors’ for more information.

For further information please contact: Andy Fryer, Head of Communications and Membership ( or Marc Whittaker, Communications and Events Officer ( on 020 7383 2444.

Notes to Editors

  1. UCU, Unison, Unite and EIS-ULA have been in dispute over the final offer since June 2013. According to the latest data available data from HESA, 378,250 people work in the sector - of these 29,741 (or 7.9%) voted from the four unions in dispute with only 18,000 (or 4.8%) voting in favour of strike action. The recent EIS-ULA ballot showed a slim majority (of 203 to 199) in favour of taking strike action, in concert with the other three unions. GMB has agreed to accept the pay offer.
  2. Aside from the 1% pay uplift, UCEA has offered joint work around the gender pay gap, casual contracts and flexible working to address issues which are important to the unions. In FE, only UCU has not accepted the 0.7% offer; Unison and Unite both accepted 0.7%. In HE GMB accepted the 1% offer.
  3. Pay increase costs will actually total around 3% in most HEIs, as the 1% for all is on top of the 3% incremental increases for 43% of the workforce, plus merit awards.
  4. Over the period from 2001 (agreed with the unions in 2008 as the baseline for comparison) to 2012, the ASHE data indicate that both HE as a sector and HE Teaching Professionals as a group have seen increases in earnings ahead of inflation and ahead of the public and private sectors.
  5. All recent UCEA media releases, comments and letters to and from trade unions relating to pay discussions and protests are available on the news index page.


  1. HEIs must achieve and build their surplus levels to ensure sustainability and to fund essential investment, in an environment with massively reduced central capital funding. It is also unsustainable to use one-off surpluses to help fund recurrent expenditure such as employee salaries. UCEA pointed out that some 32 of 163 HEIs (roughly 20%) accounted for 65.4% of sector surpluses in 2011-12.
  2. The latest Hefce projection of sector surplus for the 2012-13 year is £659 million, equivalent to just 2.7% of income. The £1bn surplus figure (4.2% of income) quoted by the unions was for the preceding 2011-12 financial year. The £2bn surplus figure quoted by some unions never existed. A report from Hefce (October 2013, based on the 2011-12 accounts and forecasts through to 2015-16), highlighted that whilst university financial results for 2011-12 showed a “sound position overall”, the sector performance for 2012-13 is not expected to be as strong, with surpluses down by 32%.
  3. HEIs generally would aim for surpluses of up to 6% to help them cope with unexpected changes to income. HEIs must plan for the unexpected to ensure their sustainability. Some universities report that a margin of 7% of total income is needed just to maintain the existing infrastructure, while a surplus of 10% is needed for major growth. A 2.7% sector figure is an average that masks significant differences between HEIs and certainly does not make universities “awash with cash”.
  4. For more on ‘surpluses’ go to ‘Are universities really ‘awash with cash’? Julie Tam, Head of Policy and Data Analysis at Universities UK