Facing facts when it comes to industrial relations

By Jerry Cope
22 May 2023
Jerry Cope is UCEA’s Deputy Chair of Board and member of the New JNCHES negotiation committee. He is currently Chair of London South Bank University, as well as a range of other unpaid appointments. He was previously Chair of the board of governors at Kingston University, and Chair of the Prison and NHS Pay Review Bodies between 2005 and 2019.

Facing facts when it comes to industrial relations

This pay round and the current set of circumstances resulting in a UCU Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) targeting students’ learning, education and future career prospects is unprecedented. There is little time left even though the MAB is only being observed by a small portion of UCU members in a minority of places. In my 30+ years of negotiations, discussions, calculations and considerations with many friends in the trade union movement, and on pay review bodies, across a number of sectors, there has always been one vital ingredient for any chance of progress or settlement – facts. Facts that need to be gathered, understood and agreed by all parties who may disagree on policy but are at least working from a common base.
It is stating the obvious that the current New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) pay round, not for the first time, is proving to be very difficult. One element is clear from these discussions – that establishing the facts is critical before decisions and compromises can be made. Both parties have an obligation to students and staff across the sector – to clarify and understand months of pay and conditions negotiations. UCU’s 2023 Congress, with a long list of HE IA motions, is this (27 May) weekend and this looks to be a last chance for an agreed solution. UCU has a moral obligation to reconsider the Acas facilitated agreed terms of reference which the two negotiating teams, after days of detailed discussion and compromise, agreed upon for the reform of the pay spine; the disability, ethnicity and gender pay gaps; workload, and contract types. These are all vital issues to everyone working in HE. 

Financial factors and facts

As I leave the sector at the end of this summer after some 20 years in various unpaid capacities, I am frightened that an opportunity to make progress on these hugely important issues will be thrown away by a small number of individual trade union colleagues, mainly because of a lack of common understanding around the parlous financial state in which large parts of the sector, caught in frozen fee levels, finds itself. Yes, there are a minority of Institutions with healthy surpluses, but as a recent OfS report makes clear even those Institutions may be over-reliant on overseas students, which if government rumours are followed through, may not in the future be as fruitful an area of recruitment. The Sunday Times (Cash crisis sparks chaos on campus, 21 May) makes clear that in contrast there are many Institutions struggling and having to shed courses and jobs to stay afloat.

This variation across the HE sector puts pressure on our national bargaining. I believe in National Bargaining as being of benefit to all parties, as I made clear in a Report, that I undertook for the then Chancellor on the NHS and which may well not have been the conclusion he was angling for. But national bargaining, strongly supported by trade unions and most employers in HE comes with restrictions and compromises.

Avoiding another decade of disputes

Even so, with countless recent HE pay negotiation rounds ending in dispute in the past decade, it is clear that the bargaining structure itself is not working as well as it could and needs to be looked at by all parties. UCEA began a listening exercise back in 2021 involving all of 173 member HE institutions. This National Conversation on Pay Bargaining (NCPB) has recently concluded and the recommendation from the consultation, based on 18 months of engagement, is to adapt the approach to pay negotiations within the current structure.  UCEA will now develop an approach to negotiations based on this response from the sector and discuss with the trade unions. The main thrust will be simplifying how decisions are ratified and streamlining and focussing the disputes procedure.

Trade union honesty to members is urgent

Against this background of poor finances and a bargaining system struggling to cope with the realities, I would have hoped, actually expected, that the unions would have grasped and run with the hard-fought deal secured by their negotiators to progress the ACAS terms of references. Instead UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) recommended that these areas be rejected even before the stage of detailed timetabled talks began. This seems to be based on some completely unsubstantiated view that there is more money to be found in this negotiating round. The reality is that the UCU, indeed all the trade unions, should relay the pay uplift facts to members– that a revised pay offer for 2023-24 given the current financial situation is not possible. Then we can all get on with securing the long sought after progress in these other crucial areas.
I have tried, and nearly succeeded, to avoid too many employer partisan statements in this blog but I will finish with one fact – although some may get more, and some less, the pay settlement, already implemented and in HE staff pay packets, is comparable to offers already accepted elsewhere in both the public and private sector, despite the HE Sector being one of the UK’s most financially pressured sectors.

To conclude, we all need some common fact-based sense to stop further harm to both students and staff, and as the Sunday Times also makes clear, turn the attention of both employers, trade unions and students to securing a reasonable financial operating environment from politicians, of whatever colour, for the HE sector as a collective whole.