UK pay talks reach crunch point as unions debate employer offer

Falling inflation and no strikes have taken the sting out of negotiations this year, but that hasn’t made reaching an agreement any easier

六月 10, 2024
Source: iStock/loeskieboom

Talks aimed at agreeing a pay rise for staff at UK universities have reached a crunch point, with the financial crisis in higher education posing issues for both sides as they seek to finalise a deal.

With time running out, given the extra money is expected in pay packets from August, both unions and employers will stage key meetings this week to discuss a package of measures, which?91原创?understands includes a rise of 2.3 per cent for staff covered by the process.

This would be much lower than last year, when?pay rose by between 5 per cent and 8 per cent?in response to soaring inflation; an increase that many universities have cited as part of the reason they are now?having to cut jobs?but one that was rejected by the University and College Union (UCU), which staged an acrimonious?five-month long marking and assessment boycott?in response.

Despite increased financial challenges, this year’s process has been notably calmer, with UCU – the biggest of the five trade unions involved – lacking a mandate to take industrial action after its?most recent ballot failed.

Sources close to the process have stressed a renewed willingness on both sides to agree a deal, with a review of the pay system and action on?key issues such as casualisation and workloads also on the table as part of the proposed agreement.

“Despite a growing financial crisis in the sector, employers are determined to achieve a realistic but fair pay offer alongside progress in many of the other important areas identified by the trade unions,” said Raj Jethwa, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea).

“We are also proposing a much-needed review of the pay spine alongside meaningful progress on contract types, workload and pay gaps. Discussions are ongoing and there is much which can be achieved in this year’s pay round, but nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

The 2.3 per cent offer is understood to have been increased marginally from 2.2 per cent over the course of five meetings between March and May but it still lags behind the unions’ claim, which called for an increase matching the retail price index of inflation – which stood at 3.3 per cent in April – plus an additional 2 per cent.

Even in the unlikely circumstances that the offer went as high as 4 per cent, it would still cause “ructions” within UCU, said Gregor Gall, visiting professor in industrial relations at the University of Leeds.

This was because of the “bad feeling” produced by pay disputes of the last few years and the perception that any increase should make up for losses already suffered, he said, adding that there would be pressure from the left to reject the offer and go back on strike.

But the union also faces the challenge of trying to balance demands for higher pay with the financial insecurity of many institutions. Its higher education committee meets on 10 June to decide what to do next, with an update expected from the union by 11 June.

The other unions involved – EIS, GMB, Unison and Unite – are also all due to consider the deal ahead of a Ucea board meeting on 12 June. If no agreement has been reached by then, the body could choose to impose the rise, although this could risk reigniting tensions with the unions.

Professor Gall said on the employer side a strain was being placed on national bargaining “as some of the Russell Group universities may be able and willing to pay a bit more where they operate in international labour markets”.

Strikingly, however, almost all institutions signed up to participate in national negotiations again this year, despite the difficulties faced.

One of those not on the list, Queen’s University Belfast – which was?suspended from Ucea?for agreeing a local pay deal in the midst of the marking boycott – announced last month that it had agreed to pay staff 13 per cent more over three years in addition to a one-off non-consolidated payment in what the institution hailed as a “new era of industrial relations”.

Nottingham Trent University – which left the national pay negotiating process nearly three years ago – has also just agreed a two-year settlement with its staff which will include a one-off payment of ?500 or 1.5 per cent of salary, a?2.5 per cent pay uplift?in August 2024 and a further 2 per cent?in August 2025.

Vice-chancellor Edward Peck said the deal also included?additional measures such as closure days, increment payments and?grade revisions which had all been?requested by staff. “This ability to resolve these priorities of colleagues as part of the overall negotiation is one of the major benefits of local collective pay bargaining,” he said.

In March, Imperial College London – which has long not participated in national collective bargaining –??a pay deal equivalent to a 4 per cent rise overall.




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Reader's comments (9)

I suspect many universities will say they can't afford to pay even 2.3% and defer it for the allowed 11 months. Others can afford it more easily. There's a growing gap between rich and poor universities.
2.3% is laughable but completely expected due to the lack of leverage UCU has after the years of failed strikes. Is collective bargaining still the best approach given that staff at the Institutions who have left it are getting better deals ? The employers talk of a growing financial crisis in the sector, but this is one they have created by focussing too narrowly on the foreign student market, ridiculous capital expenditure, money wasted on vanity projects and expanded and unnecessary staff recruitment for admin roles that simply aren't needed. The sector funding model obviously needs to change, but Universities also need to look internally and see how much financial waste there is in the system. ( How many people are currently spending on items that aren't needed to use up a budget before year end ?)
I can't help but wonder if people who comment about admin roles have ever actually tried to do one of them. Given the increased regulatory burden and need to deliver a wider range of support services to students and academics (some of whom seem to think it is ok to bully admin colleagues on a fraction of their pay), I think if they actually tried it they'd soon change their minds. Far better idea that people work together than create a divide when times are tough. I am also pretty sure that some capital expenditure is a waste but in many cases arguably a safe working/study environment must be a good thing?
I've worked in an admin role in HE for nearly 30 years so do have some knowledge of what they actually entail and do completely agree with you about some of the ridiculous anti comments I see posted here. My point wasn't aimed at admin roles generally - it was more regarding the increase in Head ofs, assistants, assistant to the assistant etc. who basically create work to fulfill their existence - the roles that try and implement text book frameworks without any knowledge of the business or how it works , the roles that create endless documentation that is read once and then left on a drive, the roles that do lots of analysis on projects only then to find there is no money to undertake them, the roles that analyse demand and then say there is no resource to deliver it and of course any role with a strategic prefix. Then we have capital expenditure in a model of declining student and staff attendance - surely it is better to give students and staff cutting edge hardware and software, digital upskilling and AI experience than having world class toilets. Its is the waste in this system I was criricising and how much more productively resources could be used if ledership teams were abit more forward thinking and accountable.
This comment was very close to home. I've long lost count how many admin roles and admin support staff we have but since people come and go in these roles, it is interesting to see how many unfinished projects they've left behind (unfinished excel sheets, abandoned Teams groups, outdated document that deem redundant before they are even released). Why do we waste so much money and then cry we don't have money to fund basic needs?
2.3% ! |What happened to 10% I'm leaving my union ! i need that ?17 a month now!
Too much spent on executive roles, excessive new buildings and generally senior management roles that simply aren’t needed.
Too much spent on executive roles, excessive new buildings and generally senior management roles that simply aren’t needed.