- This blog was authored by Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI.
Videos recently emerged of disruption to graduation ceremonies at the University of Edinburgh. Disappointed at receiving only an apology note in lieu of a degree certificate and angry at the failure to resolve the dispute, students chanted and carried protest signs on stage. On encouragement by a student speaker, many ripped up their note.
Universities and unions are in a standoff, and the scenes demonstrate how emotionally charged and bitter the dispute has become. The most protracted quarrel is between the University and College Union (UCU), which represents university staff, and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), which negotiates on behalf of universities and other HE providers.
Graduands at Edinburgh did not receive their results because of a refusal to mark “summative” work by lecturers and teachers, under a UCU strike mandate dating from 20 April. The mandate expires on 30 September, but could be renewed, so talks appear the only route out of the crisis. In this area, there is a glimmer of hope – there have been “constructive” discussions in recent weeks – but real progress appears some way away.
A report by UCEA that relatively few institutions are seriously affected by the boycott will offer little comfort to those left in limbo. Particularly concerning are reports of the boycott’s harmful impact on international students. One reason Edinburgh drew the ire of its graduating cohort was its treatment of its international cohort, who have been told they must go home, await their results, and apply for another student visa before they can continue their study in the UK. The impact of the boycott is complex.
The problem of collective bargaining
A popular trend is to blame universities for their failure to negotiate. In media interviews after the Edinburgh protests, students attacked university management for their “failure” and said they should pay their staff more. But pay increases are determined not by individual institutions, and rather by collective negotiations between UCEA and the unions.
The current collective bargaining system dates from 2001, when ten separate negotiating groups were merged into one, the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES). In theory, collective bargaining can be in the interests of both universities and unions. For universities, it takes the pay increase “out of competition”, meaning they don’t need to bid higher than other universities to lure staff. For unions, it allows them to organise on a national level where pressure might be greater and gives staff more stability. As a result, collective bargaining remains popular both among higher education providers (145 of which took part in collective negotiations this year) and unions (the UCU has said pay fragmentation poses a “fundamental threat” to higher education).
Yet due to wide differences between the financial security of universities, the collective bargaining system is under strain. At the top end of the financial security ladder, just six universities hold 60% of the total surplus in the sector. At the bottom, institutions like the University of East Anglia and the University of Kent have indicated they may not be able to meet the level of pay rises instructed by UCEA this year. For such institutions, a substantial pay rise on the level demanded by UCU is essentially infeasible.
UCEA is therefore left with the thankless task of finding an acceptable level for universities without provoking union industrial action, a task at which it has failed more often than succeeded in the last decade. If it cannot, there is a risk that fewer institutions will negotiate collectively. Queen’s University Belfast just became the first to break away from UCEA in this negotiation round.
Government to the rescue?
The problem appears to be, therefore, the worsening financial situation of a small number of institutions. As Mark Corver writes in his chapter of HEPI’s 20th anniversary collection, the real unit of resource in England has dropped from £9000 in 2012 to just £6060 in 2023, including a real loss of £3 billion in the HE sector since August 2021. For some HE providers, this is catastrophic. They cannot pay their staff more if they can barely meet current costs. Real funding must be maintained, if not increased – which may involve, for example, raising fees in line with inflation. With no new funding, it is unclear where providers will find the money for a pay rise.
Naturally, UCU argue that universities on the whole generate easily enough surplus to fund generous pay rises for their staff. In responses, institutions say they need the surpluses for investment and can’t spend it all on pay. Regardless of this dispute, as shown above, the surpluses are not equally distributed. To raise pay while keeping collective bargaining, we must improve the balance sheets of struggling institutions. In exchange, government may expect something back, such as a greater contribution to local economies and meeting societal needs (see Chapter 13 by Jonathan Grant). To meet union demands, therefore, may involve a relatively radical rethinking of the higher education sector – though that does not mean we should oppose them.
There are also cheaper steps government could take to limit the fallout of the boycott. Where international students have been sent home because they do not have a degree, the Home Office should apply discretion, as the Department for Education has already done by temporarily relaxing the requirement for prospective teachers to have a degree. Indeed it has already started to do so. Yet such steps only address the symptoms of the problem. If we are to compensate our HE staff properly, we will all have to pay for it.