Latest UK sector pay offer ‘as far as we can go’, say employers

Leaders warn more universities likely to face financial difficulties in coming months as pay stretched to ‘limits of affordability’

January 27, 2023
stacks of coins rising in height showing pay and tuition differentials
Source: iStock

The latest pay offer made to staff at UK universities is “at the very limit” of what the sector can afford and will not be going any higher, according to employers.

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea), said the sector will not be able to increase pay any further than what is already on the table despite the looming threat of 18 days of strike action in February and March.

Ucea’s pay offer increased from between 4 and 7 per cent to between 5 and 8 per cent at the latest negotiating meeting but unions have signalled their intention to reject this, saying it “does not go far enough”.

Instead, they have called for an uplift of 2 per cent above RPI inflation, which hit 13.4 per cent in December.

Mr Jethwa said the sector had done “everything it could” to come up with a “meaningful uplift” and the pay packet had been pushed to its “absolute limit”, putting many institutions that are already struggling with their finances under increased pressure. “This is fundamentally as far as we can go,” he said.

In a briefing ahead of the first strike date on 1 February, Ucea said one of the unions involved in the dispute, Unison, had agreed to hold an electronic ballot of its members to gauge the levels of support for the latest offer.

But the University and College Union (UCU) – which represents 70,000 higher education staff – had indicated that a decision on the offer would be made by its higher education committee.

At the same time UCU has launched a campaign to re-ballot its members to extend its mandate for industrial action beyond April.

Mr Jethwa said this was a “very expensive way of gauging the views of your members without actually asking them if they are happy with the offer on the table”, adding that “we think that could be a way we can resolve this”.

A pay rise of 5 per cent for the majority of workers was in line with what is being offered across the rest of the economy, Mr Jethwa asserted.

Negotiations on other elements of the unions’ claim – including on the issues of casualisation and pay gaps – will begin once the uplift for 2023-24 is decided, Mr Jethwa said, as it was seen as necessary to get the money to people as soon as possible, given the rising cost of living.

He stressed that the longer it takes to get a resolution, “that’s more time when staff are not getting the uplift we’ve offered”.

“There’s money on the table right now and employers want to get it to staff right now,” he said.

Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England and president of Universities UK, echoed the view that the sector could not afford a higher pay increase.

“My prediction is we will have more universities announcing difficulties going forward and having to take dramatic action in order to ensure they remain solvent,” he said.

“That is what we are up against, so there really is no more room to ensure the sector is able to protect the futures of their institutions, their staff and their students going forward.”

He said his own institution had seen energy bills rise from £4 million a year pre-pandemic to £10 million this year. They are projected to hit £18 million in April.

“That is just having to be absorbed; there’s no funding from government or anywhere else,” Professor West said.

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Reader's comments (4)

We need to tackle administrative bloat - lets get rid of the unproductive and also review the pay of some of the senior bureaucrats that are getting paid much better than the academic staff.
Hilarious - a typical response from, I presume, an academic member of staff. One moment it's "let's get rid of all the useless admin people" and the next it's "I'm an academic - why am I being asked to do admin"?
Surely its also about addressing the other issues that have been raised as part of the dispute - pensions, contracts and workloads. These are not 'academic only' issues UCU also represents a decent number of people in Professional Services. How individual institutions create their organisational design, structure their processes to ensure efficiency and the best service for students is not a direct part of this national dispute. Though as a sector we can undoubtedly always do better.
It's almost like we're seeing the obvs fallout of a botched plan to "marketise" universities which in reality leaves them in a dysfunctional (dystopian?) limbo between a commercial and a publicly-funded enterprise.