By Rob Cuthbert
As the new year begins there is news of balloting for more industrial action by university staff. The continuing dispute between university staff and their employers is deep-rooted and deeply worrying. It may not be like previous disputes, and the employers may not be well-equipped to resolve it, for two reasons. First, because the roots of the dispute are in the marketisation of HE, the result of political initiatives which university employers cannot easily remedy. And second, because too many university employers have done too little to ameliorate the precarity and increased workload which quasi-markets encourage.
Staff at 60 universities across the UK announced in early November their intention to stage an eight-day strike at the end of November over pensions, pay and conditions. Universities UK and UCEA, the employers’ association, wrote an open letter to all staff on 19 November 2019 setting out their arguments, headed ‘letter to staff impacted by the UCU pensions and pay disputes’. The heading blaming UCU (begging the question: ‘who started it?’) may be a misjudgment, but is perhaps only what one side of the disputants would say. Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, wrote for The Guardian on 7 November 2019 that “University staff don’t want to strike for fair pensions and pay, but we’re being forced to”, a statement which the employers objected to. Both sides accuse the other of refusing to come to the table to negotiate. So far, so completely normal in any employment dispute. But then …
“Universities accused of using ‘strong-arm tactics’ to undermine strike action”, wrote Sally Weale and David Batty for The Guardian on 24 November 2019. Cheche Spencer, Students’ Union Women’s Officer at Liverpool University, on 22 November 2019 tweeted her disgust at the University’s message to students, which said it was ‘unlawful’ for students to join pickets. The message said the university would make no allowances for non-attendance when it comes to assessment, and warned international students that failure to attend might jeopardise their visa status. This went well beyond the more measured USS employers’ advice to students during the strike.
Sheffield Hallam University invited students to complete a form stating which of their classes had been disrupted and naming the member of staff concerned. After a student backlash the university removed the section asking for staff names. Students condemned the move as ‘a surveillance tool’ – perhaps a misunderstanding, since the identities of the strikers are hardly a secret, but symptomatic of a misguided managerial mindset. It is also reported that universities have warned staff not to speak to students about the dispute.
These things tend to happen in any dispute: excesses of local zeal going beyond a difficult-to-maintain national party line. But Liverpool and Sheffield Hallam have VCs whom some might regard as members of the sensible tendency, in Janet Beer and Chris Husbands. Beer, as a former chair of UUK, might be expected to be impeccable in holding the line. Husbands is a leading figure in the hardly popular TEF, but has nevertheless seemed able to sustain reasoned debate and argue the case for improvement from within the TEF regime. If these are the zealots, what is going on? It seems as if the employers are deliberately taking a hard line.
The current dispute brings together two arguments, one about pensions and one about pay and conditions. But there is really only one grievance, and that is the growing alienation of staff, increasingly fixed-term, part-time and precarious, in an excessively marketised and too often managerialist higher education regime. As Liz Morrish observed in her blog after the Spring 2018 dispute on 8 June 2018: “The pensions issue seemed to be a conductor for a whole host of other grievances about marketization, financialization, audit culture, management by metrics and the distortions of league tables and concern with university ‘reputation’.” The UCEA/UUK letter said: “While the collective employers’ view is that a fair and realistic outcome has been reached on pay, they acknowledge however that UCU pursued its campaign on three other themes around workload, gender pay/equality and casual employment arrangements, and that these are important matters that their members, and indeed other colleagues, feel strongly about.”
The earlier dispute over USS benefits saw increased militancy and unionisation among many staff who had previously eschewed industrial action; the action succeeded in overturning the threat to move away from a defined-benefits scheme. (Meanwhile a change to TPS employers’ contributions raised the rate to 23.68% from September 2019, which was said to be enough to give UCU what they are asking for from USS employers.) Since the first dispute the UCU-nominated USS trustee Jane Hutton (Warwick) has been dismissed by the USS Board for “breaches of her duties as a director under company law and contract”. An independent investigation led to a report which USS relied on for her removal, but this has not been published in full despite Hutton’s request that it should be. Hutton, a professor of medical statistics and long-term critic of mistakes in USS calculations, had become a whistleblower writing to the Pensions Regulator. She had been denied data by USS executives and could not persuade the USS board to budge from what the Pensions Regulator called a mistake in its earlier controversial valuation. Clearly not everyone is convinced that USS does what it claims:
As the UCEA/UUK letter said, there has been some movement and learning by the employers since the earlier dispute. But not enough for UCU, and in particular nothing offering hope of enough change in the regime which exploits the goodwill of too many committed staff. Some universities (eg the University of Reading) are planning to withhold up to 100% of pay for ‘action short of a strike’ (ASOS), which involves working for contracted hours without the normal unpaid overtime – the irony of which seems to be lost on the universities concerned.
In normal times everyone might regard the hours stated in contracts as an acceptable fiction, knowing that professionally committed staff will do what is needed for a proper job, and professional leaders will not exploit their commitment. But these are not normal times. Marketisation in HE goes hand in hand with attempts at deprofessionalisation and growing workloads. In HE, just as in schools and in the health service, employers are discovering that contractualisation of what was once seen as professional obligation means that less of it gets done, and/or it ends up costing more. UCEA/UUK may complain that “The focus of the negotiations was almost entirely on the pay uplift”, but this is common in disputes, and market regimes drive that focus. What makes it much worse for UCEA is that in any pay dispute the employers’ position is fatally undermined. That UCEA/UUK letter might in different times have been more persuasive, but the credibility of vice-chancellors themselves has vanished as for too many years their own pay rises outstripped those of their staff, and universities relied increasingly on lower-paid, part-time, fixed term staff .
The employers are between a rock they did not create and a hard place which they have brought on themselves. The hard place is the deep concerns of many staff about their workload and working conditions, the precarity of their employment, their pay and pensions. (The results of a UCU survey on ‘Counting the costs of casualisation in higher education’ were published by UCU in June 2019.) The rock is the certainty that students collectively will begin to seek compensation from universities for disruption to their studies, even though many, perhaps most, students will at the same time sympathise with and support staff in their campaign. That compensation might turn out to be ruinously expensive and trigger a downward spiral for all concerned.
The UCEA/UUK letter no doubt aimed to win the hearts and minds of staff, perhaps encouraged by the failure of strike ballots in some institutions to cross the threshold needed for authorised action, but the signs are not good and the tactics seem misjudged. Universities need also to win the hearts and minds of students, but using threats about students’ assessment and international students’ visa status is an odd way to go about it. Some university employers in a hole are still digging: Liverpool UCU tweeted on 5 December 2019: “Here we go. @livuni have today asked staff to “recover” (‘make good’!) missed teaching asap. We will not “recover” work we’re not being paid for and our refusal is lawful under ASOS. With yet another intimidating email, the Uni has withdrawn its goodwill. We have withdrawn ours.” It may be that a few overzealous or overexposed institutions are undermining the employers’ argument, but in any dispute the employers’ side will be a coalition reflecting a wide range of opinion: now is the time for the moderates to assert themselves. Anna McKie for Times Higher Education reported on 25 November 2019 that: “At the University of Bristol … the vice-chancellor Hugh Brady … was seen on the picket line. It could be a further sign of university leaders starting to break ranks, after Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, said last week that his institution would be willing to pay more into pensions.”
After the long-running press furore over VCs’ pay the Office for Students has begun to survey and report on pay levels, although the Times Higher Education has gathered and published such data for many years. The OfS said on 19 February 2019: “where pay is out of kilter, or salary increases at the top outstrip pay awards to other staff, vice-chancellors should be prepared to answer tough questions from their staff, student bodies and the public. It is good to see signs of pay restraint at some universities, with some vice-chancellors refusing a salary increase. A number of governing bodies have reduced the basic pay of their vice-chancellor, though we acknowledge that it can be difficult to revisit contractual obligations while a vice-chancellor is in post. We expect to see further progress next year.”
Perhaps it is time for a different kind of leadership, and a different kind of leadership pay. The Committee for University Chairs (CUC) published The Higher Education Staff Remuneration Code in June 2018, full of worthy sentiment and careful drafting, but the only potential limit on pay was this: “Institutions must publish the multiple of the remuneration of the Head of Institution and the median earnings of the institution’s whole workforce annually. This should be accompanied by sufficient explanation and context to enable useful comparison.” Salaries are decided by Remuneration Committees, too often full of people whose yardsticks are drawn from the private sector. In the current dispute, as always, UUK has trotted out the line about needing to pay the best to attract the best talent in a global market, an argument that seems to apply in every case to the field marshals, but much less frequently to the poor bloody infantry. And the VC population is not noticeably more global than the staff themselves. We need a different kind of leadership from governors too. A national formula to guide VCs’ pay may be impracticable, even though it has been achieved for other groups of staff. But putting a staff member of the governing body on the Search/Remuneration Committee for VC appointments would be more straightforward. Such staff governors would naturally be obliged to maintain strict confidentiality, as with so many other issues for all governors. Advertise an explicit salary range for every vacancy of VCs and perhaps others in the senior management team, and apply the same annual uplift as the weighted mean of the uplift for all staff in the university. Allow those presently overpaid to continue to the end of their hopefully fixed terms, then reboot. Then institutional leaders might be able to restore some credibility as leaders in discussions about pay and conditions. The UCU has its own difficulties in seeking to swing its diverse set of members behind any effective collective action. In the present dispute the employers are making it easy for UCU, by appearing to ignore or deny the realities that their highly committed, intelligent, articulate and analytical staff confront every day.
Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics