Keegan wants ‘minimum service level’ on campuses during strikes

Union brands proposal to limit impact of industrial action on students ‘a spiteful attack on workers everywhere’

October 2, 2023
Gillian Keegan
Source: UK Parliament
Gillian Keegan

The Westminster government will consult on introducing “minimum service levels” in UK universities to limit the impact of industrial action on students, education secretary Gillian Keegan has announced, in a move decried by unions as “a spiteful attack on workers”.

Addressing the Conservative Party conference, Ms Keegan said it was “outrageous” that an assessment boycott coordinated by the University and College Union had led to thousands of students not getting their degrees on time.

She said that ministers would consider extending minimum service levels, introduced earlier this year in sectors such as rail, ambulance and fire and rescue services, to higher education. These allow employers to issue notices to unions to ensure that a minimum service operates during periods of strike action.

The announcement comes after several years of on-off strike action in disputes over pay, pensions and working conditions in UK universities.

“Over recent years we have seen constant strikes [in universities],” Ms Keegan told the conference. “We have seen students not getting the education they have paid for and some not even getting their degrees marked. This is outrageous behaviour.

“I am announcing we will consult to introduce minimum service levels in universities so that they have the tools they need to make sure that students get the teaching that they deserve.”

Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, branded the announcement “a spiteful attack on workers everywhere from a party that has run out of options and will soon be run out of office”.

“We will not stand by while Tory MPs try to force our members to cross their own picket lines,” Dr Grady said.

“The recent strike action on campus is a direct result of the market-driven dogma of successive Tory governments. They have created funding inequalities across the sector and encouraged university leaders to act as intransigent CEOs.

“UCU will use every means at our disposal to fight these threats to our fundamental freedoms alongside the whole union movement.”

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that institutions “recognise the significance of this consultation and we will provide a considered response”, but suggested that he would prefer to work with unions to end the industrial disputes, rather than force members back to work.

“Ucea and our members always study such proposals carefully before responding, but our current priority is working constructively with the unions on a number of vital pay-related matters including the review of the pay spine, workload, contract types and further action to reduce the already falling pay gaps in the sector,” Mr Jethwa said.

“A crucial element of resetting industrial relations in the sector is developing a shared understanding of affordability. For the sake of students and staff alike, it is now vital to work together to end the sector’s recent cycle of industrial disputes.”

Also in her conference speech, Ms Keegan, who holds degrees from Liverpool John Moores University and London Business School, said it made “no sense” to set an “arbitrary” target of enrolling 50 per cent of young people in higher education.

She said that her own apprenticeship with an electronics firm had “changed her life”, and that university “isn’t the only option”.

“Some people may view [apprenticeships] as second rate, but my mission is to change that, to make an apprenticeship the way to come a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, even a space engineer,” Ms Keegan said.

“Many will still want to go university and that will be the right choice for them, and if they do they should get the education that they pay for.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that Ms Keegan’s announcement on minimum service levels was “aimed at UCU…but many managers will be concerned about what it means in practice too”.

“The proposal begs lots of questions. What standards? Which students? What penalties? These can doubtless be resolved in the forthcoming consultation,” Mr Hillman said.

“But the real importance of the new announcement is that it reveals the role university policy could play at the next election. Universities need to do all they can to avoid becoming political footballs by reaching out to policymakers to explain the contributions they make to levelling up, raising skills and economic growth.”

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Reader's comments (2)

All the papers would have been marked and graded if UCEA had agreed to the reasonable inflation based pay improvements agreed in other sectors. Students know where the blame lies. The ball was in UCEA's court to avert the industrial action which would have been better for everybody. There was no mention of the financial hardship endured by those taking part in the marking and assessment boycott and strike action to try and secure a reasonable wage. Did Gillian Keegan worry how long the heating had been on last winter ? The punitive deductions were the thing that were outrageous. The sooner we have a general election the better, to stop the abuses of power we've seen such as the one advocated by the Education Secretary in the article. I really hope there is a change in approach both by UCEA and the UCU in the coming year to negotiate a reasonable settlement and prevent students and staff having to go through this cycle yet again.
An excellent way to create a brain drain. Drive down pay for 15 years, reduce the unit of resource & increase the ever-expanding and mutually contradictory sets of expectations on universities to the point that academics' work cannot be completed within anything like their contracted hours. The final logical stage is to prevent us doing anything about this, by instructing the remaining demoralised people teaching what the government designate as 'rip-off degrees' that paradoxically, our labour is so 'essential' that we are not at liberty to withdraw it, whilst not so essential that we actually be paid for all the hours that we work. This is intolerable in a free society. If academic work in the UK is to become a kind of forced labour at excessive hours for low pay and no collective bargaining, what incentive is there for highly educated people to remain in this profession?