After the pay deal, UCU fights on

An assessment boycott has been dropped, but fair pay is still a long way off, says general secretary Sally Hunt

May 15, 2014

A good start would be for those institutions that threatened to dock a full day’s pay for a two-hour strike, to remove the threat

Trade unionists get a bad press but rare is the University and College Union member I have met who relishes industrial action. The overwhelming majority give their all to their students, are more focused on their research than their pay packets and put up with the casualisation that dogs our sector because they love what they do.

Yet that goodwill has been exploited year after year by university employers. The only two significant pay uplifts achieved in this century were won as a result of well-supported marking boycotts and strike action, rather than employer largesse.

It is in that context that the ending of the 2014 dispute should be seen. There are those who see the result as black or white – a vindication for this view or that. I think, however, that it shows something more complex.

For many UCU members, the 2 per cent pay award was beyond what they were expecting from employers who have seemed completely impervious to the consequences for staff of successive below-inflation awards. We have also managed to protect our incremental pay structure, while many other staff in public services battle cuts and other pressures on pay and conditions.

Yet, none of this can or should detract from the substantial reduction in real-terms pay faced by university staff. And nor should anyone claim that this year’s settlement does anything other than stop the rot. Since 2009, pay has lost its value against inflation by close to 15 per cent. This huge loss of salary status for staff at the same time that student fees have tripled is bad news for anyone who cares about our universities.

That brings me to the other significant factor in this year’s dispute. In 20 years, I have never known the reputation of vice-chancellors and principals to have sunk so low. When I met senior Conservative and Labour MPs during the dispute, I was asked by both, in the space of a single week, “what are ‘your’ vice-chancellors playing at”? The source of the incredulity, of course, was the hypocrisy of those at the top who averaged increases of 5 per cent while those who do the work got just 1 per cent.

Big increases in vice-chancellors’ pay are nothing new and nor is the pathetic array of reasons produced by their apologists. But the UCU has lifted the lid off the murky world of the remuneration committees that determine senior pay. Our research shows that far from being transparent, most universities do not even record why they gave the boss a pay rise or the arguments that took place when the vice-chancellor left the room.

Continuing to uncover this disgraceful lack of transparency will be a priority, including arguing that staff and students must now be represented on these committees. Not just because this is public money or because there is something unbelievably arrogant about those who hide behind a redaction culture – which should have no place in a university – but because hearing people who have enjoyed healthy pay rises over the past few years attack their own staff for daring to stand up for themselves sticks in the craw.

A number of universities have much to do to win back the support and trust of their staff and students. A good start would be for those institutions that threatened to dock, or have docked, a full day’s pay for a two-hour strike, to remove the threat or repay the money.

Moving forward, I urge those activists who were disappointed with the overwhelming ballot result or who felt that this tactic or that tactic was wrong, to look at the bigger picture. Whatever side of the argument we are on, everyone must recognise that the UCU needs to increase our membership further and engage with that membership much more deeply so that they understand and support our arguments for better pay and conditions.

Past experience suggests that fair pay will not be handed to us on a plate by benevolent university leaders. We will have to fight for it, every penny. This year is a start – no more, no less – and for that, to every member who supported the union and to the students who came out in support of their staff, I would like to say thank you.

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