British universities must usher in a “new era of partnership and respect” with staff to restore trust and goodwill lost in recent strikes over proposed pension cuts, union leaders have warned.
With University and College Union members voting almost two-to-one in favour of a deal offered by Universities UK over the future of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, attention has now focused on how institutions will repair workplace relations damaged by the dispute that led to 14 days of walkouts in February and March.
The UUK proposal to create an expert panel of actuarial and academic experts nominated in equal numbers by UUK and UCU is likely to be the vital first step in re-establishing trust in senior management, but union leaders have said that this kind of cooperation must also be more in evidence across higher education as a whole.
“Universities have slipped into a world where staff, their pay and pensions and their working conditions are seen as a drain on resources – in fact, staff are the beating heart of universities,” said Vicky Blake, president of the University of Leeds’ UCU branch, who added that university workers felt like they “have been taken for granted for too long”.
Senior teams need to reflect on the strike’s unprecedented support and the anger that drove it, said Ms Blake.
“They need to engage with criticisms, rather than just making noises about them,” she added. One concrete way of showing this would be a promise that staff who participate in work-to-rule action would not be docked pay in any future actions, Ms Blake said, adding that “just because these hardline tactics are legal, it does not mean institutions should use them”.
The industrial action, which resulted in UUK dropping its original proposal to end the element of the USS that guaranteed members a set level of income in retirement, had led staff “to refresh their understanding of how power worked in universities”, with many now seeking to get involved in governance, said Ms Blake, meaning that the staff voice is likely to be much louder in future.
“This will be very significant – people are really turning the screws [on universities] on how the UUK consultation [on USS contributions] was carried out and want to know who made these decisions on behalf of their institution,” she said.
Under the deal between UUK and UCU, the expert panel will seek to draw up proposals on contributions and benefits aimed at maintaining defined benefits. In a statement, UUK said that “reviewing the methodology and assumptions in the current valuation will build confidence, trust and increase transparency in the valuation process,” but said staff must “remain open-minded about its possible findings”.
Chris Howorth, chair of Royal Holloway, University of London’s UCU branch, said that he hoped the dispute would usher in a “new era of partnership and respect” between management and rank-and-file staff.
“If this action has shown us anything, it is that we must work together as partners or we will end up in a new era of confrontation that neither party wants,” said Mr Howorth.
“University management must be more motivated to engage in dialogue with staff and it’s been so disappointing that this isn’t their automatic approach,” he added, saying higher education required an “era where true leadership, common purpose and shared academic values take over from managerialism”.
Meanwhile, universities have offered a 1.7 per cent baseline pay increase for the 2018-19 academic year, which would match last year’s pay outcome. The average pay increase would be above 3 per cent once uplifts for seniority were considered, said the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association, which negotiates on behalf of universities and will hold its final talks with the UCU on 10 May.