Universities split over pay deductions for action short of strike

Ucea chair’s institution among those to decide against withholding salaries

December 3, 2019
UCU strike at Goldsmiths, University of London
Source: Eleanor Bentall

UK union members taking industrial action in the row over pay and pensions face varying policies on salary deductions for taking action short of a strike, depending on the institution in which they work.

Members of the University and College Union were due to return to work on 5 December after an eight-day walkout, but were set to continue action short of a strike, including working to contract, not covering for absent colleagues, and refusing to reschedule lectures lost to strike action.

A survey of the 60 universities involved in the industrial action by Times Higher Education found that there were varying responses to this form of industrial action. All institutions said that they would not deduct pay for working to contract, but many argued that failing to cover for colleagues or to reschedule lectures would be a breach of contract.

As such, this would be deemed “partial performance” and, under the 1996 Employment Act, staff could be deducted their full pay for any days affected. Institutions that said that they would do this include the universities of Stirling and Warwick and Goldsmiths, University of London.

Some, such as Loughborough University and the University of Sussex, said that they would monitor the impact of action short of strike before making a decision on pay deductions. Others, including the universities of Bristol and Reading, said that they would deduct 25 per cent of salary for partial performance, while the University of Exeter said that it had listed a number of “priority activities” to be completed by 13 December and would deduct pay only if these were not fulfilled.

However, a number have elected not to deduct any pay for action short of strike (ASOS). These include the University of Southampton – whose vice-chancellor, Mark Smith, chairs the board of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, which is negotiating with unions on pay – as well as Cambridge, Ulster, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Kent universities. The same position has been adopted by City, University of London and Heriot-Watt University, which said that it “does not anticipate the ASOS set out by UCU will amount to partial performance and hence would not anticipate the need to deduct pay in relation to ASOS”.

Most institutions added that they “reserve the right to review” their policies if the industrial action continues.

The variation is another sign that there is not total agreement between university leaders on how to respond to the strikes, after Hugh Brady, Bristol’s vice-chancellor, joined staff on the picket line. He told THE that his institution has “worked collaboratively with our staff and the local UCU branch to put our collective views forward and [we] have argued for higher employer contributions” to the Universities Superannuation Scheme pension fund. On pay, he said that Bristol was “advocating for higher increases across the sector”.

“I urge UCU, Ucea and Universities UK to get around the table to talk through issues around pension and pay as soon as possible and agree a way forward,” Professor Brady said.

Koen Lamberts, the University of Sheffield’s vice-chancellor, has written to UUK calling on it “to work with UCU to find a meaningful negotiated solution so we can end the disputes”.

Professor Lamberts said that he had been pushing for the adoption of the recommendations of the first report of the joint expert panel set up by UCU and UUK to examine the future of USS.

“The failure to adopt those recommendations, which were widely supported by employers, means we continue to be in dispute over the [USS pension] scheme,” he said.

Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said that “action short of a strike is staff working to their contract”.

“Refusing to pay someone for essentially doing their job only emphasises just how much extra work staff do that is not recognised or appreciated by their employers. That is one of the reasons staff are on strike and universities should be seeking to deal with that, rather than effectively locking their staff out,” she said.


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