University strikes: union calls on ‘sensible’ vice-chancellors to pressure sector body on pay

In an open letter to the University and College Union, the employers association said it would re-open negotiations on some elements of the dispute

The University and College Union (UCU) has called for “sensible university leaders” to put pressure on the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) to negotiate a pay settlement after eight days of strike action.

The association – which represents employers involved in a dispute over pay, workloads, gender and racial pay gaps, and casualisation – sent an open letter to the union pledging to return to the negotiating table for “constructive dialogue”.

In her letter, UCEA chief executive Helen Fairfoul said the association had employers’ support to discuss casual employment arrangements, gender and ethnicity pay gaps and staff workloads.

But Ms Fairfoul added: “We have been and remain clear that we have no mandate at all from the collective of employers to re-open discussion of the final offer on pay.”

UCU, which staged strikes in 57 of the 147 universities it balloted on the dispute, rejected the offer and said further discussion was “impossible” unless the UCEA agreed to also discuss general staff pay – a key part of the decision to strike.

The union claims pay has fallen by 17% in real-terms since 2009 because the rising retail price index has outstripped pay increases.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “You refuse to talk about pay, yet say you want to talk about closing pay gaps that exist for women and BME staff or to look at casualisation and how people are stuck in poorly-paid roles.

“The disputes cover the key problems for staff working in universities and they must all be properly addressed. The growing number of vice-chancellors who have joined their staff on picket lines or said they want to do more but can’t intervene in a national dispute need to step up to the plate.”

Ms Grady asked “pragmatic and sensible vice-chancellors to come forward” and pressure the UCEA to re-open the national salary negotiation.

Read more: December strikes: crisis talks stall with days to go

The UCEA has given UCU until Wednesday 11 December to return to the table, in a bid to make progress before Christmas.

The association admitted that some of the work on casual employment, pay gaps and staff workloads falls outside of the remit of the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) – a committee of employers and union representatives – but added: “We do think there is some scope for further consideration of sector-level work on the three issues”.

The employers’ association suggested introducing “greater certainty of hours” for staff on casual contracts, new “high-level commitments” from sector employers on gender pay gaps, and new protocols to stop staff working out of hours.

In a statement released before strikes commenced, a spokesperson for UCEA said: “It is completely unrealistic in the collective pay arrangements for UCU to attempt to force all 147 employers to re-open the concluded 2019-20 national pay round. The outcome was already at the very limit of what is affordable, and the ballots confirm that the vast majority of employees in these institutions understand the challenging context.”

The UCU claims to have gained 3,500 new members since strike action was announced.

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