Work with the workforce

Employers and funders must involve staff in debates about potential changes in the sector, argues Michael MacNeil

April 8, 2010

The University and College Union was delighted, although not surprised, to read that staff in English universities have delivered outstanding results at national and international levels ("In a hard world, it pays to be flexible, say funding chiefs", 25 February).

The Higher Education Workforce Framework 2010 report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England singles out our high-quality workforce, characterised by excellence, creativity and innovation. It also identifies many of the factors driving the debate about the future of higher education.

However, in its consideration of workforce issues, the report has significant flaws. The first is one of perspective: the report is presented as a neutral contribution to debate, but it is not. Although Hefce made a valiant effort to consult the trade unions towards the end of the project, it was something of a token effort when we consider that senior managers from institutions and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association sat on the steering group. The failure to invite anyone who may have presented an alternative to the prevailing managerial perspective is a significant problem when the report's stated aim is to engage everyone in a genuine debate.

The second flaw is the report's loose use of terminology. It is replete with words such as "sustainability", "performance-management", "fluidity", the need to be more "flexible and agile", and the need to consider the "psychological contract". What do these phrases mean? The lack of a shared definition is problematic. Some of the terms are nebulous and others can have various interpretations. In what way do employers want to be flexible and agile? Is it to ensure a proper work-life balance, or should they be considering changes to contracts? What do we mean by the "psychological contract"? Is it about creating the conditions for a secure and involved workforce or is it about the promotion of staff "wellbeing" as an illusory means of corporate social responsibility?

The third flaw lies in an attempt to undermine the role of national pay bargaining. While the supporting research indicated broad support for national bargaining, the report can't help but posit that shifting to local bargaining may enable the entire employment relationship to be renegotiated. The report gives insufficient recognition to the scope that local management and unions already have to respond to their particular circumstances within the national framework agreement (NFA).

Beneficial variants to the NFA have emerged through local negotiation and agreement and, if that is the starting point for discussion, there is plenty to talk about. But the report seems to promote another agenda; one that is based on the mistaken notion that breaking up national collective bargaining will provide local management with unfettered freedom to act as they believe necessary. It won't.

We believe Hefce's faith in human resource management (HRM) as a cure-all for the sector's problems is the report's fourth flaw. We can't help feeling that some proponents of HRM see a unionised workforce as an obstacle to be worked around, rather than with. The report was commissioned before the regressive funding announcements. But I suspect that, even in different financial circumstances, the mantra of workforce flexibility presented as an accepted good would have shone through.

Hefce has started a debate about the future size, shape and organisation of the higher education workforce. We should all engage in that debate but we should also proceed with care. Let us remember that it is our high-quality workforce that has delivered outstanding results at national and international levels for universities.

Of course, there can be improvements to the national system. Let's recognise the national framework agreement as dynamic in nature with both sides able to adjust it to reflect the needs of the sector and its workforce. Let's tackle the gender pay gap. Let's see the employers engage meaningfully in a national dialogue about job security. When all is said and done, the current financial storm will pass - and we, the trade unions, will still be here.

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