Stay together or go alone? National pay bargaining reconsidered

System comes under strain during difficult period for industrial relations but most appear committed, despite some notable departures

May 30, 2023
Rodrigo Perez gets fired from a Human Cannonball to illustrate Stay together or go alone? National pay bargaining reconsidered
Source: Getty

UK universities’ commitment to collectively negotiating pay and working conditions for staff appears to be coming under strain, with institutions rich and poor struggling to find a common way forward.

Some cash-strapped universities have signalled they are unable to pay staff the uplift of between 5 and 8 per cent instructed earlier this year by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea).

At the same time, the University and College Union (UCU) is still pushing for higher wage rises and action on precarious contracts and pay gaps. The University of Cambridge and Queen's University Belfast have called for negotiations to restart to attempt to find an agreement that would end the current marking boycott.

Union members at the recent UCU congress backed a motion that warned “fragmentation of national negotiations is a fundamental threat to the future of HE”. 

Ucea has been conducting its own review of the process which is understood to have identified continued support among vice-chancellors and the vast majority still participate in the framework.

But some universities have begun to opt out and negotiate local deals in an attempt to avoid the widespread industrial action that has characterised the sector in recent years.

Nottingham Trent University left national pay negotiations 18 months ago and is one of the only major universities to have avoided strikes. Vice-chancellor Edward Peck said the decision was made to allow local talks to focus on the whole reward package, rather than just pay, which he said tended to be the focus of national talks.

He said the “openness and honesty” that he hoped had been built up with staff allowed such talks to be fruitful, with employees able to raise with him directly what should be in the offer. Last year staff received an uplift of 3.5 per cent – slightly higher than the national agreement – as well as a one-off payment and, for some, additional leave. 

Professor Peck said the salary offer for this year was once again about that negotiated nationally alongside another one-off payment and also addresses a range of other areas requested by staff.

Rhiannon Lockley, the chair of the UCU branch at Birmingham City University, which has not participated in collective bargaining for an extended period, brought the motion to congress.

It called for a “nationally resourced strategy group” to be set up to deal with the risks to national bargaining and more support for the branches that find themselves outside the framework.

Ms Lockley said she feared that moving away from national bargaining would hasten the pathway towards “an even more marketised model where universities are competitors”.

Wages would be driven down at some universities but up at more elite institutions, she feared, which was “not good in terms of delivering something that is coherent, networked and run in the interest of students”.

She warned vice-chancellors that BCU’s experience showed opting out was not a route to “much easier local bargaining”, pointing out that the branch has balloted successfully twice – in 2021 and 2023 – as part of two lengthy local disputes and secured an offer akin to the national deal this year.

Elsewhere, financial circumstances have forced some universities to diverge from the agreed pay rise. Institutions that participate in national bargaining are allowed to postpone pay rises for 11 months in exceptional financial circumstances.

The University of East Anglia has put all pay rises on hold as it deals with a £30 million deficit while the University of Chichester has withheld the majority of this year’s rise until the summer. At the University of Kent, a consultation has begun on “difficult decisions we may need to make around pay”, a spokesman said, adding it has not yet decided whether the Ucea-instructed rise due in August will go ahead.

Duncan Adam, the chair of the UCU branch at Staffordshire University – another institution that did not participate in the latest round of national negotiations – urged his university to be part of talks again in future. Collective bargaining, he said, “allows greater certainty that we will get a better pay award compared to local bargaining and maintains some sort of parity within the sector”.

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Reader's comments (2)

How many of the pre 1992 Universities, especially the Russell group, can easily afford a higher pay award, but prefer to hide behind the post 1992 Universities inability to make such an award to save monies for their pet projects?
There is already disparity in pay in the sector, with some university staff receiving teachers pensions and salary whilst higher salaries are linked with USS pensions.


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