As university strikes drag on, the general secretary for the University and College Union (UCU) has said the union is “willing to alter and reduce” its demands to help settle the crisis.
In a letter to members, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said union negotiators were offering “an olive branch to employers” to help resolve the two industrial disputes which have led to 14 days of strikes at 74 universities between 20 February and 13 March.
“We have made it crystal clear to employers that we are not inflexible. In the interests of securing that long-term change, we have extended an olive branch to employers by offering to compromise on some of the demands which we started our industrial action with,” Ms Grady wrote.
The general secretary said strike action had been necessary and that she now believed UCU was “in reach of agreements that could put this union and the sector on the right footing and bring about real long-term change in the way staff are treated”.
“What really matters, however, is the power which you give us through your withdrawal of your labour. It shouldn’t be this way, but sadly strike action is what moves our employers, and it is continuing to have an effect on them,” Ms Grady reported.
Time will tell if concessions will conclude the industrial dispute. A spokesperson for employers involved in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) said the announcement was not “a serious move from UCU to find common ground”.
Before the strikes began, Prof Mark E Smith, chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, told reporters many universities “were at the edge of the comfort zone” and could not afford to improve their pay offer.
At a press conference on the eve of UCU strikes, representatives from Universities UK (UUK) maintained they had support from vice-chancellors. A poll of university chiefs found that 84% supported the UUK position on the USS and believe it is a fair conclusion to the 2018 pension valuation, a spokesperson said in February.
Commenting on Jo Grady’s letter, a UCEA spokesman said: “There has been no change on the pay offer, but talks remain ongoing.”
Pay: what will the union compromise on?
In its so-called Four Fights dispute – which covers issues relating to workloads, job security, inequality and pay – the union said UCEA, which represents the 69 employers involved, had been “receptive in principle to many of the additions and amendments which we have asked them to make”.
UCU has now signalled it would accept an offer of a 3% increase in pay to resolve the dispute. Ms Grady conceded this compromise was “significantly lower” than the 3% plus RPI (a 5.2% increase) originally demanded by the union.
However, it is higher than what was originally offered. UCEA had offered an average rise of 1.8%, increasing to 3.65% for the lowest paid.
In a letter to members last week, Ms Grady said negotiators had prioritised:
- on pay, our negotiators have indicated that they are open to an offer that falls between the employer offer of 1.8% and our original demand of 3% plus RPI (5.2% as of December).
- all institutional action plans on job security, equality and workload should be implemented by working groups with clear deadlines
- all action plans should be implemented in collaboration with recognised trade unions
- all action plans should be publicly available
- unions should be given more detailed, reliable information on equality, workload and job security than employers currently provide via the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) and other outlets.
In her latest address, Ms Grady does not specify what progress had been made on these other priorities, other than to say “employers have not closed off all discussion of an improved pay offer, but they have been less open to it than they have to making concessions in the other three areas”, which may imply resolving the pay dispute is the final hurdle to be cleared.
She said she would recommend the union’s higher education committee (HEC) should consult members on whether to accept the 3% increase.
Pensions: what will the union compromise on?
In the union’s dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), employers had “not yet tabled an offer to cover the unfair contribution increases,” Ms Grady told members.
“Until now, we had maintained that employers needed to cover all of the contribution increases that have been imposed since 2017, so that members would return to paying only 8% of their salary. Yesterday, our negotiators indicated that they would be willing to recommend an offer of 8.4%,” the general secretary continued.
This compromise would be a climb down from the union’s “no detriment” position, which led to the UCU strikes. The union initially maintained that members’ contributions should not rise and any increasing cost of the USS should be covered by employers.
A spokesperson for USS employers said in response to the UCU’s latest position: “We do not see this proposal as a serious move from UCU to find common ground. It is very clear from our consultation with employers that an another rise of 1.2% of salaries, in addition to the increase that employers have made from 18% to 21.1% is not affordable for the vast majority.
“The new UCU proposal also includes further conditions, not published on their website, that are wholly unacceptable to employers. We are continuing further talks with UCU and would be willing to consult employers on a reasonable and fair proposal to resolve the dispute”