Minimum service levels ‘won’t protect students from strikes’

Union and employer body clash on ways to prevent more industrial action as they appear in front of MPs investigating impact of last year’s marking boycott

February 6, 2024
UCU rally in London
Source: Tom Williams

There is “little evidence” that UK universities can avoid more marking boycotts in future, with new laws aimed at ensuring a “minimum service” during industrial action unlikely to work in higher education, a parliamentary committee has heard.

Appearing in front of MPs who are investigating the disruption in students’ education last year, University and College Union (UCU) leader Jo Grady said “technical fixes and rules and procedures” would not help as she claimed employers’ “intransigence” was to blame for the failure to find a resolution to the dispute.

Dr Grady repeatedly clashed with Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea), who also spoke at the hearing and defended the organisation’s insistence that universities stick to a common position on staff pay.

“I’m afraid I haven’t seen much evidence that we couldn’t end up in a situation like this again if I’m honest with you,” said Dr Grady.

“The biggest safeguarding we can have…is to make sure the employment conditions in universities are as first rate as our reputation globally.”

The House of Commons’ Education Committee has begun an inquiry into the impact of the marking and assessment boycott, which ran from April until September 2023.

UCU members refused to mark work and take part in other assessment processes such as exam invigilation as part of a long-running dispute on pay and working conditions.

The committee estimates that the boycott left 11,300 final-year students unable to graduate on time and affected a further 20,000 students “less significantly”. Some were unable to proceed into jobs or further study, with international students – whose visas are tied to graduation – among those most severely affected.

Mr Jethwa said the boycott had affected only a small number of institutions but the fears about disruption were far greater because of the media coverage it received.

He said the price paid by students was “unacceptable” and claimed the union could have pursued other, less disruptive tactics such as boycotting research activities or academic conferences.

Dr Grady said the union had offered an interim agreement to end the boycott that hinged on a commitment to restore pay lost by staff taking part, but said the employer body “did not budge a single inch”.

Queen’s University Belfast was ejected from Ucea at the height of the dispute for offering its staff a higher pay rise than that agreed nationally, and Dr Grady said universities had been concerned about similar sanctions that prevented more progress being made.

Mr Jethwa defended this stance and said universities had been told not to depart from collective employer positions to ensure confidence in the process.

MPs are also investigating the measures taken by institutions to mitigate any marking delays. David Smy, the deputy director of enabling regulation at the Office for Students (OfS), said the regulator was still “engaging” with “a few” universities to “understand what they did during the process and whether we have concerns about that”.

Mr Smy said there was a need for universities and colleges to be clear and consistent in their policies regarding refunds and compensation after some affected students were given cash payments for the disruption they experienced and others were not.

Asked about legislation recently enacted by the government that would force trade union members in education and other sectors to continue to provide a minimum level of service (MSL) during a strike, Dr Grady said she did not believe many university employers would “touch them” and they were “ultimately destined to be futile if we don’t address the issues that make people leave the sector”.

“Do we want to address the issues that have meant we have had industrial action as an annual event in higher education or do we want to try to find technical fixes and rules and procedures that don’t fix the issue?” she asked.

In a rare case of agreement between the two parties, Mr Jethwa agreed “it was hard to know exactly how, in practice, MSLs might work in higher education”. He said institutions might feel pressure to use the new power, which, he believed, might end up being counterproductive by damaging industrial relations further.

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Reader's comments (3)

Yes, a few Us publicly announced a £500 payment for degree result delays; others have probably made payments on the quiet. If consumer protection was working properly such payments would have been automatic as enforced by the OfS/CMA - and anyway as urged by the UUK as the industry trade body.
Raj Jethwa's suggestion that UCU members would do better by pursuing "less disruptive tactics such as boycotting research activities or academic conferences" is instructive. He wants UCU members to take action that primarily impacts who? The members themselves! He wants trade unions to take action that causes the least possible inconvenience to university managements and will be barely noticed by UCEA, the media and general public. I can't see UCU jumping at that idea for strengthening its future industrial strategy. UCEA and UUK have become more and more intransigent over the past dozen years despite the huge injection of funding from tuition fees (spent on buildings, senior management salaries etc rather than frontline staff). No wonder industrial relations in HE have deteriorated so much when this is the openly stated view of the leader of UCEA.
Having heard today about the complex process of getting salary increments I despair at the state of academia. In some universities, a rigid promotion framework has left many academics stuck in the same salary bands for 5 years + (despite a steep increase in the cost of living) with no chance of promotion. They have to jump through many hoops to get promoted. Meanwhile, the other half get huge salary increases and bonuses (an unheard of term in academia). Where is the justice?