Employers refuse to back down on eve of UK university strikes

Universities decline to make fresh offers on pay and pensions as union prepares for second round of industrial action

February 18, 2020
Source: Eleanor Bentall

UK university leaders have declined to make fresh offers to unions over pay and pensions ahead of strike action beginning on 20 February.

The University and College Union has called out members in 74 universities for 14 days over February and March. It will be the second time this academic year that staff have gone on strike, after they walked out for eight consecutive days at the end of last year.

Universities UK, which is representing employers in the pensions dispute, recently consulted its members and found that 84 per cent of 111 employers who responded did not want to give a new offer to UCU.

The pensions debate centres on member contributions to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which increased to 9.6 per cent of salary, up from 8 per cent last April, in a bid to close the fund’s reported deficit. At the same time employers’ contributions rose from 18 per cent to 21.1 per cent.

UCU has remained steadfast in its “no detriment” position, which opposes cuts in benefits and increases in contributions for members.

The UUK consultation found that only four employers wanted to offer additional 0.5 percentage points in employer contributions. This was first mooted in August 2019, and would mean that members paid 9.1 per cent while employers paid 21.6 per cent, but the original offer was rejected by UCU at the time, because employers tied the request to the cancellation of industrial action.

UUK’s consultation also found that 14 employers wanted to offer between 0.6 to 1 percentage points more and two employers wanted to offer more than 1 percentage point.

Alistair Fitt, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and a member of the Employers Pensions Forum for Higher Education, said that universities told the consultation that they could not afford to pay any more.

“They are already committing £250 million more a year,” he said. Most universities felt that 9.6 per cent was a “fair conclusion”, Professor Fitt added.

Mark Smith, chair of the University and Colleges Employers Association, which represents universities in the pay and working conditions dispute, also said that universities had made offers that “pushed them to the edge financially”.

Employers have refused to move from their offer of a minimum pay rise of 1.8 per cent for 2019-2020, as many are already in “precarious” financial positions, Professor Smith said. Many are running deficits and “although I wouldn’t want to make alarmist predictions” on their futures, you could see how significant increases in the cost of staff, which take up half of universities’ overall income, would increase the pressure on them, he said.

However, Ucea has made “substantial offers beyond what we’ve ever done” on the use of casual contracts, gender and ethnicity pay gaps and workloads, Professor Smith said. In January, Ucea set out a framework of “expectations for the sector” that include promises to reduce the use of casual contracts and set out how universities will tackle the gender and ethnicity pay gap.

Professor Smith added that he believed that UCU should have consulted members on what they had been offered, in the way that Universities UK did.  

Asked whether striking staff would be able to take their lecture notes or videos off the university server as part of industrial action, Professor Fitt said that “the normal arrangement is that the intellectual property lies with the university, not the lecturer, that’s the law of the land”.

“But academics really care about student learning, so the students are normally their absolute priority, so I hope it’s very unlikely that will happen,” he added. “Universities are considering a range of ways in which they can help their students and make sure they don’t miss out.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said it was “frustrating that UCU members are being forced to walk out again to secure fair pay, conditions and pensions. This unprecedented level of action shows just how angry staff are at their universities' refusal to negotiate properly with us.

“If universities want to avoid further disruption then they need to get their representatives back to the negotiating table with serious options to resolve these disputes,” she said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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