University leaders have urged staff to not go on strike, as union bosses accuse employers of “playing games” with crisis talks.
In an open letter to staff at the institutions where the University and College Union (UCU) are planning industrial action, the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and Universities UK (UUK) urged staff to reconsider strike action as last-ditch talks continue with no sign of agreement.
The UCU general secretary said employers were “game playing” and refused to continue talks unless employers engaged with their demands on pay and pensions.
The two bodies rejected the union’s accusation that staff had been “forced” to take industrial action, claiming that pay had increased and pension contributions were consistent with those in other industries.
Earlier this month, UCU members backed strike action in two separate disputes – one on pensions and the other on pay and working conditions.
Nearly eight in 10 backed strike action over changes to pensions and 74% supported strike action on working conditions.
UCEA is representing employers in the pay dispute and UUK is representing universities in the pension dispute.
The union said it was “impossible not to talk about pay” when other elements of the dispute – like casualisation, increased workloads and inequality – are linked to it.
UCEA said employees received pay increases of between 3.65% and 1.8% in August 2019, but said further increases were unaffordable. The association added that employers “are fully committed to addressing their gender and ethnicity pay gaps”, and urged the union to maintain dialogue.
The union claims pay has fallen by 17% in real-terms since 2009 because the rising retail price index has outstripped pay increases.
In response to the letter, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Universities’ refusal to talk about pay smacks of game playing, as they must know an offer like this creates real difficulties in trying to resolve that dispute.
“Nobody wants to take strike action, but we need to be talking about all the elements if we are to solve all the problems.”
The union says women and black and ethnic minority (BME) staff are disproportionately affected by lower pay, adding “if universities met UCU’s carefully weighted pay claim that would help alleviate pay inequality”.
According to 2017/18 statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), black and minority ethnic staff in higher education suffer a pay gap of 9% compared to their white colleagues.
Grady added: “You cannot refuse to talk about pay yet say you want to talk about closing pay gaps that exist for women and BME staff.
“Our disputes cover the key problems for staff working in universities and they must all be properly addressed.”
In the open letter co-signed by UUK president Prof Julie Buckingham, university chiefs maintained the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) was “enviable” and “one of the very best pension schemes in the country”.
They said retirement payments for USS members were worth nearly three-times the average in the private sector.
UUK attacked the union for taking strike action, claiming the majority of university employees did not support the move because turnout did not reach the required mandate in two-thirds of universities balloted.
Blaming the dispute on the union being “unwilling to move from its interpretation of a ‘no detriment’ position”, UUK said employers were contributing an extra £250m a year to the scheme – the equivalent of 65p in every pound of increased costs.
The union’s ‘no detriment’ position was set out after the union said employees should maintain payment levels agreed in a Joint Expert Panel report without a reduction in benefits. The body representing universities said “economic challenges” and “legal necessity” had made the increases necessary.
Prof Buckingham said: “In recent months, employers have taken significant steps to protect the value of both pensions and pay because we care about our dedicated and talented staff.
“Universities will do all they can to minimise the impact of any strike action on students, their other staff and the wider community and they know that their colleagues contemplating strike action will want this too. We sincerely hope UCU will see the merit in working with employers on joint and fair solutions.”