COVID-19 has affected most areas of life – and higher education is no exception. When the University of East Anglia (UEA) found itself facing a £35m shortfall because of the pandemic, the employer asked staff to take voluntary pay cuts through reduced hours, and to consider voluntary redundancy.
University bosses also wanted to impose a blanket pay freeze across all staff, delaying scheduled incremental rises for long service.
But in late August, UEA agreed not to subject lower-paid staff to the increment freeze, and to continue working to avoid any compulsory redundancies.
Why did things change?
UNISON organises support staff at the university. Once the profound effect that the pandemic was going to have on the university became clear, branch secretary Amanda Chenery-Howes and workplace representative and communications officer Dylan Brook Davies (pictured above) – together with representatives from UCU and UNITE – were invited to weekly meetings with senior management.
The vice-chancellor frequently attended, and discussion centred on the impact of COVID-19 on everything from working from home to the institution’s finances.
It became clear that savings would be needed
“It very quickly emerged that university finances were going to take a serious hit once the dust had settled and after the immediate impacts had been dealt with – students moving off campus, staff moving to work from home, exams being cancelled,” explains Ms Chenery-Howes.
“A finance working group was established with representatives from across university management, as well as campus unions.
“It became clear that there would need to be savings made by the university, and in May, we were presented with a set of proposals that would provide the adequate savings to fill the gap that UEA was predicting we would be looking at.”
The proposals included measures such as a reduction in all non-pay costs – some of which came organically as a result of Coronavirus: the international travel budget, for example, wasn’t necessary in the initial stages of the pandemic – and some measures that would directly impact on staff pay, in the form of an increment freeze.
“The overwhelming majority of UNISON members are among the lowest-paid on campus,” Ms Chenery-Howes says. “And as our members consist of staff such as cleaners, grounds staff, and security, it is UNISON members who have kept campus running and safe for the students who chose to remain on site once lockdown had been enforced.
“We knew as a union that to impose any freeze on the lowest-paid members of staff would be a morally wrong decision – and UNISON does not condone pay cuts for any staff – so we could therefore not be seen to be supporting any freezes to increments for any staff, regardless of pay grade.
“We had to come up with some creative solutions to avoid these measures being imposed, such as negotiating a voluntary reduction in working hours scheme, as well as ensuring that the negotiations looked to the future by securing UEA’s endorsement of UNISON’s higher education campaign.”
A clear majority to protect lower-paid staff
With proposals on the table, the branch opposed the proposal to implement pay cuts and in negotiations, were adamant that those who remained on site should not have a real-terms pay cut imposed on them. Ms Chenery-Howes says that the union “worked hard to negotiate an outcome which would ensure that all the lowest-paid members of staff on campus will receive their increments as normal.
“When UEA and the other two unions agreed a proposal that meant that the lowest pay grades would be unaffected by the increment freeze we, along with UCU and UNITE, balloted all affected members and the proposal was accepted with a clear overall majority voting in favour that those staff on the highest salaries should bear the brunt of the cuts.
“UNISON was delighted to receive no negative responses from our members.”
Ms Chenery-Howes describes it as “a massive win for UNISON and our membership, adding: “This has been an incredibly difficult time for staff at the university – not only have we had COVID-19 hanging over us, but the threat of losing jobs and pay as well.
“If UEA is going to successfully emerge from lockdown, it’s the cleaners, IT technicians and facilities staff who will make it possible as much as anyone else. It’s right that their pay is protected.
“What UEA staff, and universities across the UK really need is action from the government to protect higher education and its vital contribution to our economy and society.
“It won’t just be staff or students that suffer if our universities are left to cut themselves out of existence.”