UCU members say Russell Group leaders are sharing strategy in advance of an effort to try to break out of national pay talks. Melanie Newman reports.
University and College Union representatives within Russell Group universities have called a council of war in response to reports of alleged deal-making between vice-chancellors on industrial action and national pay bargaining.
The UCU at Southampton University is to host a delegate meeting on the future of collective bargaining in the Russell Group on October 17.
The summit will take place in advance of a special meeting of the UCU's national higher education committee on November 9.
One senior UCU activist told The Times Higher : "There is a concern that vice chancellors at some Russell Group universities are trying to break out of national pay negotiations."
Human resource managers have approached local union representatives to "sound them out" about the possibility of joining local pay negotiations, the activist said.
"Vice-chancellors are networking like mad, and they have agreed a strategy to take us on if there is further industrial action."
Some universities have agreed to dock the salaries of striking staff by 10 per cent from Day 1 of any such action, the activist revealed.
"The view is that 10 per cent is enough to hurt staff, but not enough to mean that they will lose their homes, generating sympathy for the action."
"Nobody will admit to this, but it is happening and from a UCU perspective it could be dangerous," the activist said.
Talks with employers in July on the review of the Joint Negotiating Machinery for Higher Education Staff were suspended until after November's special meeting of the UCU's higher education committee.
The activist said: "We welcome the national meeting and we believe that national bargaining is important.
"But Russell Group universities are not in the same position as the post-92s. Our employers are networking; we must follow their lead. If one of us is approached by university management, we all need to know what's on offer. We want the best deal from a sector as well as a national viewpoint."
Dennis Wheatley, president of the UCU at Southampton, said that there was no intention of forming a splinter or breakaway group that would negotiate on a sector basis.
"Rather than responding to changes imposed on us by management, we now have an opportunity to become more proactive in setting the agenda for universities. We want this meeting to kick-start that process," he said.
"We haven't called the meeting because we are campaigning for, or have some special agenda for, sector-based negotiations," Mr Wheatley said.
Sally Hunt, the UCU's general secretary, said that national bargaining provided the best protection to staff.
"The truth is that, sadly, we do not trust vice-chancellors who are negotiating locally to offer fair deals," she said.
"Many of them have poor records when it comes to the pay and conditions of their staff and to ensuring equality of treatment for all."
Ms Hunt acknowledged, however, that current bargaining arrangements do need reform.
She said that the UCU was committed to "moving the process forward with employers".
Ms Hunt added: "Too often in last year's dispute it was not clear who the Universities and Colleges Employers Association was negotiating on behalf of, or what mandate it possessed."
A spokesperson for the Russell Group said: "The Russell Group is committed to national negotiations with Ucea, provided the improvements set out in the Ucea consultation are met.
"As part of that process, we are reviewing how to deal with partial performance in a way that is fair to all interested parties."
*Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, told delegates at the Trades Union Congress this week that lifelong learning must be at the centre of the Government's strategy for education and skills. Speaking on a motion about the recent Leitch review of skills, she challenged the Government to "match rhetoric with reality" and to "put lifelong learning back where it belongs at the centre of policy".
Condemning the cuts to adult education budgets, including to ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes, Ms Hunt said: "This is a time to invest in adult and community education for life, not to cut it."
She added: "We in the trade union movement must stand for education as the great liberator. It is a worker's right - not grace and favour to be granted by an employer."