It’s good to talk, but it’s time to listen: discussing the future of collective pay bargaining

By Raj Jethwa, UCEA Chief Executive
14 June 2021

In my last Wonkhe blog the introduction referred to the significant pre pandemic challenges before focusing on the new problems we were all struggling to address. While so much has changed since then I’m aware that many issues remain in train and that this sector is determined to get on with them.

Sector pay talks have not hogged HE headlines lately – there’s been so much fierce competition for airtime. Only when industrial action erupts do most colleagues and commentators take notice. Herein lies a major problem: the regularity of confrontation in industrial relations in our sector makes it seem almost routine.

Over the last decade, around half of the annual pay negotiation rounds have ended in dispute. In fact, only once during that period have we managed to reach an actual settlement in advance of the 1 August date for implementing a pay uplift. Implementing a pay uplift that has gone through the collective pay bargaining process successfully is thus a rarity. Regardless of the pay claims and the initial and final offers, and the meticulous work undertaken by all concerned, if the bargaining structure itself is not working then it needs to be reconsidered. At present it is not working. It is not working for HEIs. It is not working for trade unions. It is not working for staff. It is not working for UCEA. Most importantly of all, it is not working for our students if the dispute leads to industrial action.

So, how did we arrive at the current structure for pay bargaining in HE? The New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES) is the central committee for multi-employer negotiations and dialogue on pay and pay-related issues. This structure can be traced back nearly 25 years. The 1997 Dearing Report into the future of HE recommended an independent review of pay determination in the sector. The subsequent joint employer and trade union review, chaired by Sir Michael Bett, led to the establishment of the JNCHES. A further review in 2007 resulted in more changes – perhaps the most important being that the five trade unions would now sit together – for the current New JNCHES Agreement.

I have worked for, and with, trade unions over many years and would be the first to acknowledge and support the vital role they play in our sector and the wider economy. 

After nearly 40 years in which trade union membership has been going in only one direction – downwards – there are tentative signs that the trend may be reversing. But since 1995 the proportion of employees in a trade union has fallen from a third to less than a quarter. Today just over half of all employees in the public sector belong to a trade union while in the private sector the figure is just 13 percent. 

The HE sector is somewhere in between these two positions: around a third of HE staff are union members, reflecting the public sector membership density levels, notwithstanding HEIs being independent, autonomous employers. Unlike many public sector employers, however, the HE sector represents genuine multi-employer pay bargaining. At the same time, there are many aspects of their employees’ terms and conditions that are decided locally, illustrated by the different grading structures adopted by individual HEIs as well as hours of work and other local policies.

HE employers recognise and value the role played by trade unions as a legitimate source of employee voice. The Covid challenges have provided excellent examples of partnership working between employers and unions during an unprecedented time. These include our agreement to joint principles on the safe return to campus and joint statements promoting vaccinations and testing among staff. At HEI level there are countless excellent examples of joint work with trade union branches, some of which we have demonstrated in case studies in our Managing Staff Return to Campus guidance.

Importantly, the operating context has also changed significantly since JNCHES was established. Huge changes to our sector’s funding model have created new pressures for institutions which were not present a decade or two ago when a review of the bargaining structure took place. And, of course, devolution has also introduced a degree of divergence between the different nations’ approaches to funding.

UCEA’s forthcoming consultation on collective bargaining is not about change for change’s sake. It is about ensuring we achieve the most effective pay bargaining structure for our sector, our HEIs and our staff. UCEA needs to start the ball rolling on this now as there are so many questions that need answering.

Have previous changes to collective bargaining made a difference and are they still fit for purpose? Are the right groups of staff covered by our collective bargaining processes? Do they reflect the very different labour markets for disparate categories of recruitment? Can HEIs remain in collective pay bargaining for base pay rises, while operating autonomously on other aspects of pay and conditions? Has collective pay bargaining been considered successful by HE employers given the history of recent pay rounds? Would multi-year pay negotiations be more efficient? Is the current one-size-fits all model still appropriate for the sector? If not, how would the process be segmented? How do we ensure a voice for the two-thirds of employees not in a trade union? Do we even need to change at all? 

While there are no simple answers to these burning questions, they do need to be addressed. There will be consequences without change but any actual change would require careful consideration from all, including our trade union partners.

UCEA will embark on a listening exercise with all of our 170 members, 146 of which currently take part in collective pay bargaining. It will be a national conversation on the future of HE collective pay bargaining as much as about JNCHES. This is a rare and important opportunity to take stock and seeks answers that will form part of a strategic discussion on the future of the sector’s collective bargaining arrangements. Fundamentally, this consultation must be a strategic assessment of the long-term needs of the sector, where any recent or ongoing frustrations regarding particular negotiations must be put aside. 

I am well aware that there is a lot else going on in our sector. I am also aware that this crowded agenda will not go away any time soon. There will never be a perfect time to run this consultation. UCEA judges that the best approach is to start the conversation now and give it time to breath. So, in early autumn, we will host initial roundtable discussions for and run a consultation exercise with our members. The guiding approach for HE has to be to reinforce its well-earned reputation as a sector of employers of choice as well as anchor institutions: able to attract global talent whilst rooted in their local communities. For this to remain the case we need a system of pay bargaining which continues to support this aspiration. 

This means building relationships based on mutual trust and respect. It means negotiating with our trade unions fairly and working with, rather than against each other. Despite all the sector’s serious distractions it is time to take a step back and listen to what our members think. 

This blog was also published by Wonkhe on 14 June