Re-thinking New JNCHES

David Duncan, Chief Operating Officer and University Secretary, University of Glasgow 
David is a New JNCHES employer representative but writes this blog in a personal capacity.  

I can confidently say there is no better place to work than a British university. It is a fantastic sector – world class in its research and teaching, hugely admired internationally and vitally important to our collective wellbeing. I am immensely proud to have worked in a succession of universities that make a huge contribution to the common good.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that, throughout the last two decades, HE employer-employee relations have been far from optimal; wave after wave of industrial action has adversely impacted on students across the UK. Many of these disputes have been about pay – the unions want more; the employers say they can’t afford it and strike action (or ‘action short of a strike’) ensues. At sector level, pensions benefits have also been a focus of discontent, and more recently, other issues such as workload and pay equity have come to the fore. The unions argue that staff have not received a ‘real-terms’ pay increase for the best part of a decade; the employers say they are putting everything they can into pay rises despite static student fee income, serious international competition and, in some cases, weak balance sheets. As things stand, we remain in dispute over the last two annual pay rounds and are facing at least one ballot for strike action this autumn.

Is the New Joint Negotiating Committee for HE Staff (‘New JNCHES’) actually working? If the only results are an unhappy workforce and periodic disruption to the student experience, it may be time to try something new – local bargaining, perhaps, regional negotiating forums, or negotiation by sector group. Separate negotiations with academic and support unions? Or should we review the entire negotiating machinery at national level and try something completely different?

My personal view is that national collective bargaining remains the right approach. UCEA and trade union representatives are united on one key point – negotiations are challenging, time-consuming and energy sapping; we would all be losers if pay talks break up into a series of fractious, time-consuming local encounters. However, some fresh ideas about every aspect of the negotiating process are long overdue. Both sides have already begun to think about this but here are a few additional suggestions about how we might move forward.

1. A deeper understanding
Both sides need to work harder to develop a common understanding of the state of the sector – its financial position, the risks and challenges it faces, and the political and economic contexts in which it operates. This might best be done through jointly commissioned research, delivered by non-partisan sources. It could form the starting point for negotiations in place of the current long-term stand-off.

2. Devolved discussion forums 
Further mutual understanding might be fostered by the creation of meaningful forums for each of the home nations. At present, the debate tends to focus on demands for a Scottish sub-committee; these are stoutly resisted by Scottish HEIs, which see no advantage in a devolved negotiating committee. But a properly structured set of forums outside of the formal negotiating process in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might usefully inform the national discussions, highlighting regional variations in funding, recruitment markets and regulatory frameworks. A version of this already exists in Scotland and building on this approach could foster greater understanding between employers and trade unions. The timing of meetings could be arranged to inform rather than duplicate or detract from the national negotiations. A couple of meetings a year might not put too great a burden on the employers or local trade union reps.

3. A broader negotiating forum
The trade unions have long argued that non-pay issues should be addressed in the New JNCHES forum, introducing it into their joint claim just over a decade ago; the employers (under the auspices of UCEA) have not been open to this, arguing that they represent autonomous bodies and that non-pay issues can only be negotiated at institutional level. Joint work over non-pay items have been consistent in pay offers but I think there may be scope for further compromise here. By the same token, there is an argument for revising the way that pay and pensions are handled across two organisations on the employer side.

4. A level playing field
This may be too controversial for some, but in the long run it would be helpful for everyone if universities could agree a common baseline on the working week and the voluntary living wage. The sector has made strides in recent years to increase the minimum wage – settlements are almost always weighted towards the lowest paid. But perhaps we need a discussion in the sector about whether employers could collectively make a commitment over the long term to pay everyone the voluntary living wage for a standardised working week. This might send a clearer signal that we value all our employees and are committed to their welfare.

5. Partnership working
There have been some shining examples of trade unions and employers working together for the benefit of the workforce (the Technicians’ Charter leaps to mind together with the development of resources produced jointly by UCEA and the trade unions). We should do more of this sort of thing – joint national initiatives which draw on the expertise of both sides to develop staff, celebrate good practice and create new opportunities for staff to advance their careers.

6. Multi-year deals
Multi-year deals generally have a bad name, mainly because employers and unions worry that they are committing to something which will prove to be a bad deal if circumstances change. This could be avoided by including conditions for years two and three. Multi-year deals have the great advantage of giving everyone a year off from the pay negotiations and allowing them to focus on other, more fruitful topics; they also give beleaguered finance directors a degree of much-needed certainty.

7. Binding arbitration
Finally, why not consider binding arbitration rather than mediation? I’m not sure it would work, but it might be preferable to long drawn-out dispute meetings, followed by ballots and industrial action. It is difficult to think of a recent occasion when strike action has led to a higher pay settlement, but the pain suffered by students whose education is disrupted by the strikes is real enough. Surely there must be a better way?

It may be that senior managers and trade unionists alike will throw up their hands in horror at some of these ideas. But if we are to make progress from the current impasse, we need to be willing to think the unthinkable and try something new. It is high time both sides reflected on what that might look like.