Pay negotiations “closed” as strikes continue to cause disruption

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The University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) has asserted that pay negotiations with trade unions are now “closed”, claiming “there is nothing more to discuss with the unions.” The announcement comes as further strike action takes place at Lancaster University, with a full day of strike action held on Thursday Week 4.

In a letter to the unions explaining their decision, Chief Executive of UCEA, Helen Fairfoul, described the 1% pay increase offered as “the limit of affordability” and said UCEA will advise all higher education institutions (HEIs) to implement this increase if they have not already done so.

UCU, which represents academic staff across the United Kingdom, held a joint strike with members of Unite and Unison during Thursday Week 4 and a further two hour strike on Monday Week 5. They claim their members pay has fallen by 13% in real terms since 2009, despite tuition fees for students trebling and a recent survey showing university ‘top managers’ saw an average 8% pay increase in 2013. However, UCEA claim pay last year actually rose by 3% in HEIs after incremental pay and merit awards are accounted for and that as the higher education sector faces a “very uncertain future” staffing costs must be controlled.

One member of the Lancaster branch of UCU (LUCU) told SCAN said that despite this announcement the dispute is not settled. Further strike action has been warned, as well as a boycott on marking, despite the fact negotiations on next year’s pay is set to begin in March. Members of UCU have been working to contract since November 2013, which involves not working beyond contractual hours or performing additional voluntary duties.

The LUCU member – who wanted to remain anonymous – suggested both UCEA and individual universities were abdicating responsibility, with vice chancellors saying the matter has been delegated to UCEA and UCEA claiming it cannot place an improved offer because the vice chancellors will not let them. When SCAN contacted the University’s Human Resources department they said “The University engages in national pay bargaining via UCEA and this approach is endorsed by the [University] Council on a year by year basis.”

The position of UCU is supported by the National Union of Students (NUS) and LUSU. VP (Education) Joe O’Neill told SCAN he believes “negotiations shouldn’t be over at all.” “With vice chancellors up and down the country being granted generous pay increases, it seems completely astounding that UCEA feels comfortable cutting hard-pushed staff’s pay down by 13%,” O’Neill said. “I stand fully by the aims of the strike. This is about fundamental fairness in higher education.”

While some students have felt frustrated that teaching time is being cancelled due to strike action, UCU believe students should support strike action. A flyer distributed across Lancaster University campus states that UCU campaigned against the increase in tuition fees to £9000 and that “students and staff should not allow themselves to be pitted against each other… but rather should find common ground and whenever possible, work together to defend education”.

“If the pay cuts don’t stop, the quality and reputation of our higher education system will suffer”.

In a statement addressed to students and provided to LUCU members on behalf of LUSU, O’Neill expressed a similar sentiment: “I fully appreciate the anger students feel when they are now paying £9,000 a year to find lectures and seminars are cancelled, and I am sure the academics striking would too. It wasn’t us as students who turned ourselves into consumers and customers, so universities shouldn’t be surprised when we start acting like it.

“So with that in mind, I suggest you let the Vice Chancellor know you think he needs to use his influence to push for a fair deal for our teachers. Rather than be angry at a postgraduate teaching you whose extensive workload pushes them below minimum wage, be angry at the senior management that are letting this all go on.”

The LUCU member SCAN spoke to was of the opinion there may be an ulterior motive to UCEA’s stance and that they want the dispute to continue. The member believes many top universities would like to break away from national pay bargaining, with negotiations being taken by either individual universities or groups of them, and predicts this may be suggested in the future. While this may allow top universities to retain and attract the best staff, the member warns it will weaken UCU and make it harder to negotiate on pay and conditions in the future.

The dispute between UCU and UCEA began in October when the union voted in favour of strike action. Since then, there have been strikes in both Michaelmas and Lent terms of this academic year. UCEA claim that support for the strikes has dwindled and most institutions report a “no to low impact” of strikes.

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