Higher education conference debates ongoing pay dispute

‘The situation cannot go on unchallenged. We’re not afraid of taking action’

Top table at Higher Education Conference 2020 in Newcastle, a speaker is speaking in front of a 'Together we rise in UNISON' graphic

UNISON’s higher education activists met in Newcastle yesterday, for their first in-person conference since the onset of the pandemic. With workers experiencing “the worst cost of living crisis in 30 years”, pay was at the heart of their debates.

Since 2009, pay for higher education (HE) staff has lost around 28% of its value, as a result of below inflation rises year on year. Soaring inflation in 2022 brought this situation to crisis point, leaving members in HE facing real hardship.

The union remains in dispute over 2022/23 pay, after the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) imposed a 3% pay increase – a real terms pay cut – in August. Industrial action took place across 19 universities last year, with some branches continuing to take action this month, in a bid for a pay rise that keeps up with inflation.

In the meantime, having called for an earlier than usual start to the 2023/24 pay round, the UCEA has again disappointed, with an offer last week that falls far short of the HE unions’ claim for £4,000 or RPI + 2%, whichever is greater.

UNISON members are currently being consulted on that offer, with the SGE recommending they reject what is another real terms pay cut.

Mobina Begum, chair of the higher education service group executive, updated delegates on recent developments, before introducing a motion that states the union’s pay demands for 2023/24.

“Our work is not being valued by our employers,” she said. “We helped keep universities running during the pandemic, and continue to do so, but have been rewarded with falling real terms pay.

“With the cost of living crisis, and greatly increased bills, members simply can’t afford to live on the money that the employers impose. Our members are using food banks. Our students are feeling the effect of the burn-out and the frustration of staff in higher education.

“We need to restore the buying power of wages in higher education. We dedicate so much of ourselves to our institutions, but are not appreciated.”

Ms Begum noted the increasing numbers of UNISON members prepared to take strike action over pay. And she added: “We will continue to fight for fair pay and conditions in higher education. We will continue to fight for an end to poverty pay in higher education. We will continue to fight for the respect we deserve.

“The situation cannot go on unchallenged. We’re not afraid of taking action. We will go out on strike when we need to. We know that our collective power has strength.”

Delegates approved the motion, which includes the demands for 2023/24 for:

  • Reform of the pay spine to achieve a minimum spinal column point of £15 per hour;
  • Agreement that all higher education institutions (HEIs) become Foundation Living Wage employers, extended to all staff on campus;
  • Agreement with the HE employers to oversee the introduction of a maximum 35-hour working week in all HEIs;
  • Joint union and employer action to eliminate the gender and ethnicity pay gaps;
  • A national agreement to reduce precarious employment in the sector – seeking, as far as possible, for all staff to be employed on permanent contracts;
  • A national agreement to bring outsourced workers in HE back into direct university employment;
  • A national agreement on hybrid/flexible working.

In the event that the pay claim is not met by the employers, the service group executive is charged with escalating the pay campaign, with a clear plan that may include industrial action.

Delegates heard several times during the day how HE branches had increased membership during the pay dispute, particularly those taking strike action.

Jenny McHale of Leeds University branch, one of those continuing to strike this month, said: “Our branch has grown our membership in the last 12 months, due to the feeling of anger and frustration that members feel at the lack of understanding and empathy from university bosses.”

Ms McHale also raised the issue of one-off payments that some universities are paying staff in acknowledgment of the additional costs incurred due to increased working from home since the pandemic. Though welcome, she said, too many were not receiving this money.

She proposed a motion with the aim of ensuring that “all staff, no matter what grade they are, or which university they work at, receive this payment, in addition to the pay rise that we all deserve.”

The motion calls on the service group executive to meet with the employer as early as possible, outside the normal pay negotiation cycle, with a view to negotiating a one-off, non-consolidated payment to all staff to mitigate the extra financial impact of working from home.

Iz McAuliffe of Cymru/Wales proposed a motion making the real living wage the minimum requirement for pay agreements.

But she also reflected the sad state of affairs for all low-paid workers in the UK when she told delegates: “Organisations promote themselves as real living wage employers as if it was a badge of honour, when it is actually calculated as the rate which allows people to live – not to thrive, or prosper.”