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Fears over the possibility of industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU) have resurfaced following the latest breakdown in negotiations between the union and university representatives.
Following a ‘derisory’ proposed pay increase of 0.3%, as well as the renewed threat of widespread redundancies across the higher education sector, UCU began the process of balloting individual university unions on May 1. UCU are set to make a final decision on industrial action later this month, on May 22.
Industrial action by lecturers and academic staff over the summer term could potentially have a significant impact on students across the country.
When lecturers went on strike in 2006, monitoring and assessment of exams were severely disrupted. Some universities were left having to cancel exams, whilst at others, students were left waiting months for essays and projects to be returned.
The primary motivation for strikes to take place on this occasion was the announcement on March 30 by the Universities and Colleges Employer’s Association (UCEA) that up to 100 institutions were planning for widespread redundancies.
However, tension between UCU and UCEA had long been growing around disputes over pay increases for university staff.
UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, blamed the “failure of employers to react to the growing crisis,” for UCU’s decision to resort to balloting its members. She went on to say “The key thing is to ensure that we have a situation where all acknowledge that redundancies are a final resort, not the first option as seems to be at some institutions at the moment”.
UCU have taken considerable criticism for their decision, not only from UCEA but also from the National Union of Students (NUS). Speaking to the Guardian, NUS president Wes Streeting said: “Given the effects of the current economic climate on the graduate jobs market, students need industrial action by university staff like a hole in the head”.
Jocelyn Prudence, UCEA Chief Executive, called UCU’s decision “premature, inappropriate and out of process”, and asked UCU to “reflect on the wisdom of asking its members to take industrial action at this stage”. She also pointed out that the issue of redundancies was one controlled by the universities themselves, not UCEA.
The meeting between the two associations that that took place on March 30 was expected to see the formulation of a new pay deal for the higher education sector. The last deal, in 2006, saw salaries increase for academic and related staff by 10.37% over two years, followed by a further 5% increase the following year, in line with RPI inflation.
This year, UCU requested a pay rise of 8%, which would increase higher education sector pay in line with public sector workers’ pay. Despite the 2006 deal, a UCU report in 2008 maintained that higher education salaries remained ‘very uncompetitive’. UCEA’s later offer of a 0.3% increase was bluntly condemned in a statement by Ms Hunt as ‘derisory’.
Whilst previous pay increases had stood comfortably above the rate of inflation, this year’s offer stands well below the current RPI of 2.9%.
UCEA, however, defended the 0.3% pay offer as ‘realistic, responsible, and credible under the current circumstances’. A statement by the association condemned UCU’s requests as “constructed without any reference to the exceptional recent pay increases or to the current economic environment.” They also repeatedly highlighted the recent higher education cuts in this month’s budget, which cost the HE sector £400m.
UCU have expressed their desire to continue negotiations, but with the increasing pressure on universities and UCEA due to recent funding cuts, a national agreement to protect jobs may be difficult to implement. Two major university groups, the Russell group and the 1994 group, the latter of which Lancaster University vice-chancellor, Paul Wellings, is soon to become chair, have both expressed concern that examinations could be heavily affected by strikes.
A message from the vice-chancellor to staff at Lancaster recently expressed hope that it would be possible “to avoid any action that may damage the experience of our students and the job security of our staff”, but also warned that in the event of a strike, staff pay would be immediately withheld.