Autumn – a need for new beginnings

By Raj Jethwa, UCEA Chief Executive
4 September 2023

As our sector approaches a new academic year it is usually a time of excitement, preparation and opportunities. But for many students and staff it will be a time of uncertainty, anxiety and frustration given the impact of recent industrial action and ongoing threats of possibly more still to come. 

HE institutions have for months been doing everything they can to support students and to mitigate any impact of the marking and assessment boycott (MAB). It is now clear that the vast majority of academic staff did not participate in the boycott and the vast majority of students saw little disruption to the experience. In some cases there was no impact at all. Some UCU members ‘participated’ in the boycott with a heavy heart, despite their genuine concern for their students and the realisation that they sat in an evaporating pool. 

But it only takes a small number of staff to feel aggrieved or a small number of students to feel anxious for the impact to be felt across our whole sector, which is still bruised from the challenges of the spring and summer.

One of the most disappointing social media messages about the MAB in recent weeks has come from those claiming that employers have ‘won’, or that UCU has ‘lost’. There has not been a single winner during the MAB. Only losers, across our sector and for our sector as a whole. And, of course, some of our students, those in our sector who matter most, have borne the biggest repercussions.    

Damaging silence from trade unions 

In the interests of our students and staff, HE employers will continue to seek a resolution to the current dispute. 

Today I wrote to Jo Grady once again, reminding UCU and the other four trade unions of my letter of 4 August which detailed employers’ proposals to resolve the outstanding aspects of the 2023-24 New JNCHES negotiating round. Despite our reminders and pressures, it remains perplexing that we have still not even received a reply. 

It is now a month since my letter to UCU containing UCEA’s proposals. Not to even respond is unfair to our sector, but especially to those students who have suffered as a consequence of the MAB. Discourtesy aside, surely there is an obligation and responsibility to students seeking to progress in life with their degree classifications in their hands – as well as UCU’s own members – to respond to UCEA’s offer for these important talks?

The trade unions said that they would all be able to revert by 16 August, allowing for their internal processes to take place, including UCU's emergency Higher Education Committee (HEC) meeting on Monday 14 August. We all know how disappointing the outcome of the HEC meeting was as UCU chose ‘take further strike action before the end of September and to begin preparations for a new ballot in order to renew UCU's industrial mandate in the pay and working conditions dispute, meaning disruption could continue this year and well into 2024’.

It is no secret that local branches have broken ranks with the UCU’s HEC and made local agreements with individual universities to end what remains of the MAB attempts. It is also no secret that nearly all students have graduated

UCU is about to announce the outcome of their e-ballot which will determine the remainder of this HEC ‘tactic’. Although UCU is in the process of calling strike action, the 2023-34 pay round is closed and the remaining portion of the 2023-24 uplift was implemented from 1 August 2023. It seems senseless to inflict further damage on students and staff through unnecessary industrial action.

The potential proposals for progression

Our proposals are clear. Facilitated by Acas, we would meet with all five sector trade unions to agree the terms of reference and membership of the independent assessment of sector finances. Our proposal also recognises the significant progress that was made earlier in the year, when terms of reference for further negotiations were agreed through Acas collective conciliation. Those terms of reference, signed-off by all parties in March, offered the opportunity to work together on issues of importance to employers and unions alike – on the pay spine, workload, contract types and pay gaps. Despite the support of UCU’s negotiators, UCU’s HEC advised its members to reject the Acas terms of reference. We propose additional meetings, as required, to see whether the four terms of reference can be developed further and finalised. This would enable us to begin the important work in each of the four areas identified within them. 

This is a substantial package of joint work which employers and unions could usefully be progressing together. I have highlighted how the package includes UCEA’s offer to work with the trade unions to arrive at a shared perspective on sector finances. As I set out in my June blog, we support an independently facilitated exercise to establish the factual position in relation to funding and expenditure and the financial challenges facing different sets of institutions. It is frustrating that this could have begun by now. 

I very much hope that the sector trade unions share UCEA’s aspiration to improve the industrial relations climate within the sector and to bring to an end the cycle of industrial action, specifically targeted at students, which has been a persistent feature of pay rounds over recent years.

Movement from both sides to move forward together

The sector as a whole feels concern for those students affected by the boycott. Some of UCEA’s member HEIs have been severely impacted by the MAB across the spring and summer. UCU’s HEC has made some extremely disappointing decisions to call strike action and hold ballots for industrial action alongside the ongoing MAB. Despite this, UCEA has agreed to progress these talks on these important areas of work. 

But UCU must be honest with its members about the fact that a further pay uplift in the 2023-24 pay round is not possible. It has at no stage been an option for the majority of HEIs in the pay round, but there is much more to negotiate and progress that is vital to trade unions and employers alike. 

I remain committed to working with the sector trade unions and believe it is not too late to reset industrial relations for the good of our students and our staff.