Breaking the cycle

By Professor George Boyne and Raj Jethwa

6 November 2023

Professor George Boyne, Chair of the UCEA Board and Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and Raj Jethwa, UCEA Chief Executive argue that progressing pay negotiations depends on finding common ground

Industrial relations in UK higher education have become increasingly problematic. Even though multi-union and multi-employer negotiations through the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (NEW JNCHES) have rarely been easy, the past few years have seen industrial action become an agonising annual cycle that was paused only by the pandemic.
Most recently, the University and College Union’s marking and assessment boycott (MAB) caused significant anxiety and disruption for some students and higher education institutions.
It is important to remember that the pay uplift itself was a genuine attempt, backed by employers, to address cost of living pressures facing staff. Despite the clear financial challenges facing the sector, higher education institutions agreed to proposals from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association to start the pay round early, support those on the lowest incomes, and implement almost half of the uplift six months early. Despite these good intentions, UCU still went ahead with the MAB.
This may lead some to conclude that employers were wrong to take such positive steps. We would disagree. Our overriding objective was always to do as much as we could to support all staff within the limits of affordability.
The vast majority of UCU’s members did not back a boycott that would damage their own students, and two-thirds of academics are not members of UCU or any trade union.
By contrast, the steps UCEA took in this year’s pay round were based on an extraordinary consultation with our members, seeking their support for our approach. We received their comprehensive backing.

Reaching agreement

What can be done to make the next pay round work better, and to reach an agreement that delivers progress in the many important areas that are the trade unions’ focus?
Good progress was made in many of these areas during negotiations with unions earlier in the year. Despite this progress stalling—and regardless of the outcome of the current industrial action ballot—employers are ready to work with trade unions on the reform of the pay spine, and on delivering reductions in equality pay gaps, including those involving ethnicity, disability and gender. They are also willing to hold discussions on workload concerns and to work on the use of contract types.
Further questions revolve around how to avoid a continuing pattern of disputes in response to the outcome of pay negotiations with limited finances. As we look ahead to the next pay round, the question on our minds is whether we can find common ground with the unions on the issues that the sector is grappling with.

Bridging the gap

After all, on the substance of many of these pay-related issues, employers and unions disagree little. It is the mechanism for addressing those issues that is the subject of contention.
Traditionally, the unions have insisted on a sector-level collective agreement, binding on all higher education institutions. Our members have been concerned that this would be too blunt to recognise the nuances of the unprecedented circumstances facing individual providers. However, since there is a genuine willingness among employers to understand and promote good practice in all key areas, surely there is a way in which UCEA and the unions can bridge this gap in approach.

Financial uncertainty

At the same time, we recognise that many of our members are anxious about their medium to long-term financial position. Many higher education institutions face uncertainty about future international student numbers. More than half of our members also face significant financial uncertainty because of the impact of employer contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.
Last month, the Department for Education admitted there would be no financial support from the Treasury to deal with the five percentage point increase in the employers’ contribution rate.
This increase - from April - will see employer contributions for staff in the scheme rise from 23.68 per cent to 28.68 per cent. Earlier in the year, UCEA and sector unions jointly lobbied DfE to argue against it; perhaps employers and unions could find common ground over the TPS challenges ahead.
Introducing a degree of stability into industrial relations - and ensuring a period of open negotiation - would allow us to focus on the important work we need to do to support students and staff. We need to consider all options.
First, we need to progress the independent review of sector finances. Delays in getting it started mean this is highly unlikely to be concluded before the next pay round takes place. But we do need to find a way to rebuild trust and confidence in the negotiations.

New pressures

This is not just for the sake of the sector. Higher education plays a critical role in society, enabling individuals to realise their potential and contribute to the creation of knowledge for the widest public benefit. Higher education institutions are significant employers and anchor institutions, rooted in their local communities and generating jobs far beyond their campuses.
They provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds, driving social mobility and improving life chances and quality of life through their social, cultural and economic impact.
Significant changes to the sector’s funding model have created new pressures for institutions and placed increasing strain on industrial relations over the past decade. Unions and employers need to work together to try to address them.
Both have a responsibility to set aside recent disagreements and disputes, to think outside the box, and to help give industrial relations a reset.
As Chair and Chief Executive of UCEA, we can confirm that our members are eager to get beyond the annual cycle of damaging disputes and open to exploring with trade unions how this might be achieved.

This blog was originally published on 5 November by Research Professional