Prospect of more local deals deepens fractures in UK pay dispute

With national talks aimed at ending the marking boycott at a standstill, some universities are looking to take matters into their own hands

July 3, 2023
Teachers from UCU protest to illustrate Prospect of more local deals deepens fractures in pay dispute
Source: Getty images

Both sides in the UK’s pay dispute are struggling to retain a united front amid the “chaos” of the marking boycott, with universities and union branches increasingly prepared to break ranks to ensure students can graduate.

Queen’s University Belfast became the first institution to settle the dispute locally last week, with academics resuming marking after agreeing a 2 per cent pay rise on top of the contested nationwide increase of between 5 and 8 per cent.

The closely watched move came after a string of statements released jointly by universities and their University and College Union branches, the latest of which have been more explicit about the need to reopen talks on pay; something the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says most institutions can ill afford to do.

“The situation actually seems quite chaotic, which is inevitable in a sector without any real planning, central control or direction,” said Glen O’Hara, professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University.

“Both the management and staff sides now seem divided and uncertain, and it is likely that the division and confusion will only deepen.”

Alex Prichard, president of UCU’s University of Exeter branch, said he felt that the Queen’s deal had been more harmful to employers than the union because Ucea “had spent the entire period trying to hold the line on pay increases, which has been really problematic for institutions that can afford to pay more”.

He suggested the deal opened the door to more institutions breaking ranks and said he was aware of several other branches being offered similar talks. 

George Boyne, principal of the University of Aberdeen and chair of Ucea, said it was still considering how best to respond to Queen’s but “even if there is one institution – or a very small number – able to afford a higher pay award, that does not make any difference to affordability for the whole sector”.

Such settlements were also proving problematic for UCU, which opted last year to pursue a national strategy that depends on all branches taking action collectively. The influential UCU Commons group warned in the wake of the Queen’s deal that “a national union, on an aggregated ballot, engaged in sector bargaining, has limited room for local deals particularly if they involve changes to a national strategy”.

Gregor Gall, visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds, said other branches would therefore resist agreeing local deals because of the risk of “fragmenting the national dispute”.

He said the fractures that have developed remained small, with those universities that have chosen to speak out struggling to land their message.

But such statements have continued to be released. Senior leaders and the union at Birkbeck, University of London, last week urged “both sides to reengage to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible”.

It called for a conversation about the sector’s finances “with the aim of reaching a mutual understanding ahead of the 2024-25 pay round”.

A University of York statement was more explicit in its view that pay talks should resume sooner because the current offer is “not what staff deserve”.

This countered Ucea’s long-held position that the talks are closed. Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said he did not support their reopening “and that remains, as far as I can see, the position adopted by the vast majority of universities”.

He said progress could instead come on elements outside the pay settlement, which could include an “independently led exercise to establish the factual position in relation to higher education funding and the financial issues facing institutions, recognising that they vary from place to place”.

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