Ucea chief ‘optimistic’ on routes to avoid ‘perpetual strikes’

Head of university employers’ body talks upcoming industrial action, cost-of-living crisis and future of collective bargaining

August 2, 2022
Members of the UCU trade union during a demonstration to illustrate Pay negotiator ‘optimistic’ on routes to avoid ‘perpetual strikes’
Source: Getty

The head of the body that represents UK university employers has insisted that he remains optimistic that the sector can avoid perpetual industrial action despite facing the prospect of more strikes this autumn.

Unions representing higher education workers are balloting members on whether to walk out again, potentially stretching the long-running disputes into a fifth year.

Alongside enduring concerns over pension cuts, insecure contracts and workloads, the University and College Union (UCU) and Unison have rejected a pay rise offer of 3 per cent, rising to 9 per cent for those on the lowest salaries.

It has led some vice-chancellors to suggest that labour unrest was now baked in to the UK’s system. But Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, insisted that this was not the case.

“We can’t be in perpetual industrial action; we are working hard to make sure we are not in that situation in years to come,” he told Times Higher Education.

“I’m hoping members themselves will make the decision that it is not fruitful to keep going on strike. It can definitely harm students, it isn’t great for the staff who are doing it and, ultimately, it has not helped to resolve anything in the last few years.”

Mr Jethwa repeated his call that the UCU put the pay offer – the highest since 2006-08 but still way below the 11.8 per cent rate of RPI inflation that is driving up the cost of living – to its membership, something the union has said it did not need to do because the proposal was “so insulting”.

Asked about the often-combative responses from the union, Mr Jethwa said: “I fully understand UCU has to say something to its internal audience. What’s more important is what they are doing internally to try to reach an agreement with us.”

He pointed to work done with the unions during the pandemic on ensuring that campuses were safe for staff as demonstrating that working together was possible despite their differences. “If we can build on what we’ve achieved, we can have much greater collaboration,” he said, adding: “I’m an optimist.”

There is also agreement on issues such as tackling gender and race pay gaps, according to Mr Jethwa. But Ucea believes that these are best handled at an institutional level, whereas the UCU wants a national framework put in place.

The question of what can be achieved collectively is likely to be fundamental in the future, particularly if universities continue to recover at different speeds post-pandemic.

Faced with the prospect of a marking boycott disrupting graduations, some institutions recently agreed local deals that involved bonuses and promises of action on various concerns.

Mr Jethwa insisted that this did not undermine collective bargaining and that employers remain committed to the principle, but he said a national conversation reflecting on the process, 20 years after it was established, had begun.

He said the fact that the upcoming UCU ballot would be aggregated for the first time in the dispute – meaning that the entire membership will vote and potentially go on strike together – was “not unwelcome” because “we will know where we stand as a sector”.

“We represent all institutions in collective bargaining, and employers sign up on the basis that it will be a collective negotiation. To then pick them off with disaggregated ballots has always felt unfair to us,” he said.

“Whatever the outcome is, it will be more positive than what we have had in the last year, which is some employers and their students and staff affected and some not.”



Print headline: Pay negotiator ‘optimistic’ on routes to avoid ‘perpetual strikes’

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