Can we talk about this?

Union confrontations will not help the sector achieve the financial stability that secures jobs, Bill Wakeham says

May 14, 2009

In January, I expressed my concerns for the higher education sector in the year ahead. Unfortunately, many of these worries have become a reality. As chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, my concerns relate to the wellbeing of all higher education institutions and staff.

Much has happened since January. Under the threat of a ballot for industrial action by the University and College Union, all parties engaged in discussions facilitated by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, and on 24 March the UCU signed up to national pay negotiations under the new Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES). Five weeks later, the sector finds itself again faced with a strike ballot over a different set of issues, including the UCU's 8 per cent pay claim for 2009-10. I've little doubt that, outside the UCU's higher education committee, many people must be dumbfounded by this action.

In the most challenging economic circumstances in recent history, from which higher education cannot be immune, I appeal for unity. I urge the UCU to work with employers and the other unions around the national negotiating table. This will allow us to seek resolution through dialogue and the formal disputes procedure rather than industrial action. The UCU is publicising this ballot as one on "protecting jobs", but it arises in the context of the 2009 negotiations and is primarily about pay. Employers recognise that, compared with the exceptional pay awards between 2006-09 and the UCU's massive pay claim, their 0.3 per cent offer is modest. But it is realistic, responsible and underpinned by careful analysis.

The 0.3 per cent offer is for everyone on the national pay spine; most staff will also receive a 3 per cent incremental rise. It is also important to establish one other element of context. In April, the British Chambers of Commerce announced that 58 per cent of companies plan to freeze salaries this year, and 12 per cent intend to cut wages; that same month, the retail prices index was -0.4 per cent and was forecast to drop to -3 per cent. In that context, the employers' proposal is credible and realistic.

Higher education employers' prime concerns are to ensure sector sustainability and to protect and support students. Recent Budget announcements and projections show our sector under considerable strain to make savings. Is this a sensible time to consider industrial action over an 8 per cent pay rise alongside a "no redundancy" position?

The UCU's other ballot issue is about job security. It seems to be seeking to destabilise higher education by referring to a "jobs meltdown". This simply is not true. Higher education is not in the same situation as the banking, retail or construction sectors. As Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show, the numbers of academic staff rose by 13.2 per cent between 2003-04 and 2006-07. Many institutions are acting to limit growth in staff numbers through recruitment freezes, voluntary severance schemes and early retirements, but, barring one or two high-profile exceptions, Ucea has no evidence that higher education as a whole is contemplating major job cuts.

The UCU fails to grasp that job security cannot be negotiated nationally in a multi-employer sector. New JNCHES was established to negotiate national pay issues. Guarantees of job security are matters for individual, autonomous institutions working with their locally recognised union representatives, and are beyond the remit of any employers' association. At the same time, higher education staff have some of the best UK employment frameworks, and decisions affecting jobs are never taken lightly. Traditionally, the sector has provided a high degree of job security, and that remains true. However, the bedrock of job security is financial sustainability, and the UCU must understand this.

Meanwhile, all employers urge the UCU to reconsider its ill-judged ballot and to remain in dialogue with them and the other unions. The procedure to which they signed up just five weeks ago set out a formal disputes procedure that sought to avoid damaging industrial action. Why can the UCU not use it and defer a ballot on industrial action until all other routes have been exhausted?

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