Agreement needs to start with a shared perspective on finances

By Raj Jethwa, UCEA Chief Executive
20 June 2023

From the perspective of many observers, the current pay dispute has at its core a simple but complex barbed disagreement.

UCU and the other unions continue to assert that the sector can fund a higher pay uplift than UCEA delivered in the 2023-24 pay round and probably pay rounds prior to that. Higher education institutions, on the other hand, believe that this year’s uplift is beyond what they can afford. Indeed, I know that some institutions are deferring the pay uplift because they simply do not have the money to pay it.

The repercussions of misunderstandings?

If all this disruption is really down to a misunderstanding about the sector’s finances, it is surely a tragedy that such a misunderstanding risks students’ futures by disrupting their progression and graduations.

Of course, institutions are doing everything they can to support students and to mitigate the impact of the marking and assessment boycott. The vast majority of academic staff are not participating in the boycott and the vast majority of students will not be impacted by it. But it only takes a small number of staff to feel aggrieved or students to feel anxious to impact the whole campus community.

There are some UCU members still participating in the boycott with a heavy heart because of their genuine concern for students; and others are not participating out of the very same concern. But this article is not about the many details of the ongoing dispute; it is rather to try and seek solutions and explain why this industrial action needn’t be this way.

Why it needn’t be this way

It didn’t need to be like this. It was out of a genuine concern for their employees that HEIs agreed to propose to unions an early start to the 2023-24 pay round. In December 2022 – during what turned out to be financially more secure times for most institutions than now – we agreed to this process because it presented a rare and unique opportunity to try and address sector-wide cost-of-living concerns. This process led to pay uplifts of between 5 to 8 per cent, nearly half of which was delivered to staff six months early. The second pay uplift, from 1 August, is yet to be delivered and providers are determined to do so, regardless of further challenges and circumstances.

Institutions took a significant risk agreeing to a pay uplift six months before they had any certainty about their finances for that period. Since then, further energy and other cost hikes have put huge pressures on institutional spending and many now face steep increases in employer contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.

But this misunderstanding is nothing new. For years, campaigns have focused on shouting the claim that there are billions under the sector’s campus mattresses. Meanwhile institutions have argued the opposite until they are blue in the face: with figures and explanations, but perhaps often reticent to draw too much attention to financial frailties for obvious reasons.

Just the facts

I have been involved in industrial relations for over two decades, often on the union side. In many negotiations, my role was to sit in a room with my opposite numbers to try to understand what was available to fund the pay increase. Then the negotiations could actually begin. When I worked for the Police Federation, the Police Negotiating Board, as it was then, had a technical working group which agreed the financial position of the service and what was available to fund increases to pay and allowances. When I worked for the British Medical Association, principled bargaining meant that we worked with the employers’ analysts to agree the modelling that underpinned changes to pay and contracts.

The absence of an agreed perspective of affordability is a shortcoming of our bargaining process in the HE sector. We all pride ourselves on working for and in higher education institutions because they in turn pride themselves on their commitment to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge.

The sector carries out cutting-edge research in every academic discipline – so why can’t we work to apply impartial research to help all sides understand finances and how these impact on pay uplifts? In a sector whose mission includes reaching an objective understanding of the facts, surely having such a shared perspective should be a given?

So where do we go from here?

UCEA is willing to work with the trade unions to arrive at a shared perspective on sector finances. We would support an independently facilitated exercise to establish the factual position in relation to funding and the financial challenges facing different sets of institutions. If the unions are willing to work with us on this basis, then hopefully it isn’t too late to reset our industrial relations.

This blog was also published by Wonkhe on 20 June 2023