Universities need more funding to go further on pay, says Ucea

Speaking on eve of strikes, new chair George Boyne says affordability is ‘the big constrictor’

November 21, 2022
Trade unionists and students march through central London in solidarity with higher education strikes to illustrate Universities must win more funding to boost pay, suggests Ucea chair
Source: Alamy

Universities and trade unions should concentrate on seeking to win more public funding for higher education rather than fighting each other, a sector leader urged on the eve of UK-wide strike action.

George Boyne, who has become chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) just as institutions are hit by the most disruptive walkouts in years, told Times Higher Education that all sides in the dispute should unite around the “common interest” of getting a better funding settlement.

Professor Boyne, principal of the University of Aberdeen, said that it would “certainly be the case” that if the sector were better funded then more generous pay deals would be possible, but that this would require undergraduate fees – or, in Scotland, the block grant – to keep up with inflation.

Speaking at the THE Campus Live event last week, university leaders admitted that institutions attempting to balance the books had been “systematically underpaying” staff for years, but warned that getting sector-wide agreement on the way forward was difficult. 

Ucea has opened a consultation with vice-chancellors on whether to bring forward the 2023-24 pay negotiations in response to the cost-of-living crisis, but the results were not due until after the University and College Union (UCU) strikes on 24, 25 and 30 November.

The UCU rejected this year’s pay increase of 3 per cent for most staff, ushering in the latest walkouts, and Professor Boyne said that, although negotiations could become “more productive” it would “need to begin with more agreement on the facts”.

He rejected the union’s portrayal of the sector as being cash-rich – pointing out that a third of universities were in deficit, according to latest accounts – and claimed that the sector “on average has maintained the percentage of its spend that goes on staff”.

Affordability, Professor Boyne said, was “the big constrictor” on whether bigger pay rises would be possible.

“There is a desire to support our colleagues. Without a committed workforce that feels appropriately rewarded and supported, it is really difficult for universities to achieve anything,” he said.

“Every institution recognises the importance of reward in all its dimensions, but the constraint is simply affordability.”

Professor Boyne said declining basic funding and volatility in alternative sources of revenue – such as international student recruitment – were making it very difficult for universities to plan for the long term and “be confident that something that is affordable one year, will continue to be so in subsequent years”.

And an increasingly significant factor is the varying abilities of different types of universities to bankroll bigger pay increases, with growing numbers of institutions handing staff one-off bonuses to help them cope with the rising cost of living.

Professor Boyne said suggested adjustments to the collective bargaining process would soon be put out to consultation and, while informal discussions had shown a desire on the part of both employers and unions to maintain a national framework, it was “becoming increasingly difficult” to hold everyone together.

“There’s an expectation and a hope, I think, both from the unions and universities, that we can find a way to make this work,” he said.

“Any other solution would be more complex,” he added, because, in the extreme, there could be 150 different negotiations, all still subject to the collective pressure of having to match what the others are doing.



Print headline: Universities must win more funding to boost pay, suggests Ucea chair

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Reader's comments (3)

It seems clear that there is no way for all universities to agree and the time for local negotiations has come.
If some universities what to pay their staff more, that is possible under the current framework. While the value of each scale point is determined by national bargining, what scale point each job sits at is determined by each university indeivudally. If well off universities wanted to pay their staff more, without breaking the national agreement, they could just decree that lecturers started at point 41 rather than 38 say. Or they could look at the "rewards in the round", and they could make the job of a starting lecturer easier by hiring more people, and make the job easier: effectively increasing the pay per unit labour by reducing the amount of labour, rather than increasing the pay. Since I don't see them doing any of those things, its all just hot-air and excuses.
One thing that is vital: UCU and UCEA needs to band together to hold USS to account for their flawed assessments and mismanagement of pension funds. We certainly shouldn't be fighting each other over that issue. As for pay, Ian is right. Think outside the box. No more hot air & excuses, please: concrete arguments supported by facts. We need to crack out of the 'them and us' mentality and work together to find affordable and fair solutions to pay & staffing. Again bickering over these issues gets us nowhere.