It is time to talk about pay talks

Jerry Cope is Deputy Chair of the UCEA Board, New JNCHES employer representative, Chair of the Finance and Audit Committee and Chair of the Board of Governors at London South Bank University

It is time to talk about pay talks. Communications surrounding collective/national level HE pay talks have increased of late, but for all the wrong - and groundhog - reasons. This surrounds the increased threat of industrial action following the recent UCU Special Congress and the many motions surrounding the printing of ballot papers.  

This is untimely as not only is the HE sector facing so many other difficult challenges, but it is more than four months since the final pay offer was made, guaranteeing basic pay increases of at least 1.5% with the lower paid getting more and about half of employees getting increments worth an additional 3%. The 146 participating HE institutions have implemented the 2021-22 final pay offer, due from 1 August. Having been a member of the Employers’ Negotiating Team in this year’s New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES) pay round, I can report very little indication that a settlement was achievable. Unfortunately, the present circumstance is far from unusual. I have represented UCEA and its employers for five consecutive years of New JNCHES pay negotiations and the threat of industrial action has always surfaced at the outcome (or lack thereof) of each and every one of these sector pay negotiation rounds. 

Raj Jethwa’s recent, It’s time to listen: the future of collective pay bargaining, explains how UCEA’s ‘national conversation’ consultation on collective bargaining aims to achieve the most effective pay bargaining structure for all. This is an opportunity to consider the past and fully assess the needs of the sector moving forwards. But what can the HE pay negotiations structure and this opportunity for review learn from outside our sector?  

I chaired the NHS Pay Review Body for 6 years, and in 2012, we were asked by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer to examine better ways of bargaining for pay in the NHS. The implied agenda was a move to more market-facing (whatever that means) or regional/local pay. A basic issue was and still is that a good wage for a nurse in (say) Swansea gave a completely different standard of living to that same wage in, for example, Reading. The same argument could apply to HE academic staff and, like some nurses, lecturers in Reading may want to move for career progression to Swansea. That is less likely for a finance professional who may well just move for progression to a different sector within Reading. So, as an employer if my pay is not competitive in Reading, I will lose employees in both scenarios.

The issue proved to be hugely complex. We did not solve it for the NHS, despite a comprehensive analysis, widespread and in-depth discussion, and producing a lengthy and detailed report. We finally judged that although there should be rather more flexibility to deal with those specific market conditions in Reading, there was an inherent loss of efficiency, and a danger of leapfrogging, if there was a move wholly to local determination of pay. There was also critically a lack of capacity in the NHS to handle such an overhaul. This is also a major restriction for our universities, particularly for the smaller and medium-sized HE institutions. In conclusion, the collective bargaining in the NHS stayed and remains largely national, although interestingly there is increasing divergence between the four nations within the United Kingdom.

One thing we did stress is that there needed to be a transparent formal pay strategy in the NHS, both nationally and locally, something that is also plainly lacking in our own HE sector.

But if I run a factory in Swansea, there is no such thing as collective pay bargaining. The 'bargain' must take account of a huge range of factors, including the price of local labour within each specialism, employee motivation – the fairness test, productivity, the overall cost of employment including pensions and the price I can get for my goods. Only by putting all or nearly all of these vital considerations into my local (and where appropriate national) pay strategy can I make sense for and to all stakeholders.

Clearly the HE sector is not totally analogous to my factory - not the best comparison for our amazing world class institutions. But when it comes to opening the discussion about pay talks in HE it becomes clear that for instance, bargaining the length of the working week locally while negotiating the pay per employee nationally does look very odd. 

In conclusion, in looking for improvements in our structural approach, we do need to be clear that any change must be better for all in our sector, staff, employers and ultimately, our students, and beyond. UCEA’s consultation is not about change for change’s sake and certainly not seeking an outcome at the expense of any in sector. Otherwise the ‘bargain' isn’t a bargain at all. We also need to be able to evaluate any bargain against a medium or longer-term pay and sector strategy. Otherwise no-one has a point of reference apart from the traditional and rather vanilla ones of recruit, retain and motivate.

This is not about pay outcomes but pay structures. I’m well aware that a collective pay agreement in HE looks less likely each year. Employers generally simply cannot afford the trade unions’ ever increasing pay claims not least with student fees remaining fixed. In my time on New JNCHES I have seen the claim increase and seek to cover more issues, with the 2021-22 pay claim alone equivalent to roughly 7%. 

The autonomy and specific circumstances of our member HE institutions is unique. Our sector now has a great deal of specific and well overdue thinking and talking to do. But with such clear evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with the current process it’s time to talk about pay talks.