The Offer, And The Details In

On 15 March 2023 UCU officials wrote to all members in the union outlining a composite offer finalised and made by two employer associations: UUK and UCEA. This offer was communicated to members in a range of ways, but first through a “podcast” format, and then through a more detailed (and harder to find) layout of the offer on the union website.

This was combined with an e-ballot, not on the offer itself, but on whether or not it should be put to the membership to vote on. Today there is an emergency Branch Delegate Meeting and tomorrow an emergency meeting of the Higher Education Committee.

Amidst all this, there has been quite a lot alleged about “the offer”, that it’s a betrayal, that it’s a breakthrough, that it is basically what we had “on the table” in 2020, that it does nothing, et cetera.

UCU Commons members have been looking at the offer and working through what we think about its component parts. Just so we’re all clear on this: UCU Commons does not have a “single take” on this kind of thing. That’s simply not how we are organised, and not what we are for. We’re united by our values, and have some quite good debates about industrial strategy, union organising, all sorts really.  Members of Commons have voted no in the e-ballot, with good reasons, members of Commons have voted yes, also with good reasons. We’ve been discussing it all together ever since the offer was put to us. Gathered here are some of our thoughts.


Here, Commoners with any experience of the USS dispute seem to see a clear and unambiguous “win”: lowering of contributions, prioritising the restoration of benefits, all subject to the next valuation of the USS pension scheme but importantly with a strong agreement of shared principles for the pension going forward. If combined with “conditional indexation” in future, the pension could well be secured for the long haul. UCU’s negotiators on the USS dispute are saying this is indeed how best to read the agreement.

Verdict: This is a win, and quite an important one. USS members deserve, indeed, they have a right, right now, to a vote on accepting this offer on USS. Anything else would be holding their pension hostage to the fortunes of the rest of the sector, which is deeply unethical and a long way from solidarity.

On Pay:

Employers have stuck at 8/7/6/5/5. Which is, on pay alone, what we were asked about in an e-ballot earlier this year, and which members rejected as insufficient by about 80%. That was and remains a pretty clear steer, and the union’s leadership did advise voting no on that pay offer at the time.  We are pretty sure many if not most employers can afford improvements to this pay offer, and one UCU Commoner did a bit of digging on exactly this question. It’s not conclusive of course, but it is likely the pay offer is a lowball. On pay gaps, employers have effectively promised to close them over time and be held to that promise, which is what the unions asked for in the dispute claim.

So the pay offer is clearly unsatisfactory on its own terms. However, employers have also agreed to revisit and update the “spine points” system which governs pay increases in higher education. The new things we have now, as we shall see, are terms of reference. And on the pay spine, these terms of reference state that negotiations will include:

As with any framework for negotiation, this is somewhat vague. Members seeking crystal clarity right now on what exactly a new pay spine would look like shouldn’t hold their breath. There is a meaningful and significant possibility, though, that this review will produce what amounts to a small pay rise for the entire sector, and importantly it might produce much better pay progression, as getting rid of the current squeeze between spine points is a stated goal.

Verdict: So the verdict on pay, as it has to be on many things in this offer is: “much depends on those negotiations”, because 8/5/5/5 could become, in 2024, more like 10/7/6/6 once spine points have been changed. It is very difficult to know, and perhaps on that basis alone should be voted down right now. UCU members are certainly not wrong to want more certainty and stability.

On Casualisation

UCU Commoner Ben Pope has a ton of experience on casualisation matters and is the outgoing casualised members representative for the union nationally. Ben has offered some initial thoughts on the terms of reference agreed for casualisation, or what employers are calling “contract types”. UCEA has said it will recommend to its members the following arrangements:

“indefinite contracts with a fixed or minimum hours to be the general form of employment relationship between employers and employees in HEIs. We accept that there will be specifically defined reasons in any organisation for offering indefinite or fixed term employment arrangements without fixed or minimum hours where it is appropriate. We would expect these reasons to be discussed between HEIs and their local trade unions”

This is a good potential step and it could signal a change in some employment relations in higher education, but, there is real risk to precarious staff in this sort of arrangement nationally, and it goes as follows:

At University X, there is a course called “loving philosophy”, Phil, a postgraduate researcher, gets hired on a fractional, but “permanent” contract, to teach this very popular course every year (let’s say it has 400 students, and Phil is doing all the seminars etc). That’s already a pretty bad arrangement (an 0.2 FTE or so?). Phil’s contract then specifies a minimum number of hours he will be paid for every year no matter what, and then if the course recruits more than that, Phil is paid more too. So Phil’s wages are now directly tied to how many students join his class.

Question: where do we think Phil’s employer is going to set that bottom limit of working hours to? 400 students? Or much less than that?

So while there is enormous potential in getting a national agreement to end “zero hours contracts”, what we must be very careful about in the future is, what exactly are we replacing them with? What if they are simply replaced with “10 hour contracts?” That hardly helps anybody in the long run, and simply bakes in precarity.

Verdict: Universities are financially addicted to all sorts of different forms of casualised labour. Anyone expecting them to unilaterally end these practices right now probably isn’t being realistic, but by the same token, expecting them to firm up genuinely less exploitative employment relations in this sort of term-limited negotiation… well, whomever is in there negotiating better be absolutely across the details of this issue. There is a minor win here in the sense employers have for a long time basically refused to enter meaningful negotiations on this at all. But is it enough?

On Workload:

As you might expect, the workload terms of reference are far and away the most vague of the three. Union members often underestimate how much harm the current lack of any national principles or systems is doing to working conditions in HE. And our demands on workload are often vague, so the responses we get are… well, also vague. Here’s the workload terms of reference:

Some of us with experience of negotiating workload locally have looked at these terms of reference and see one major potential shift: new “principles at a UK-level which employers are able to apply… on workload management”. Carrying out equality impact assessments on all workload management systems is also a good thing, but frankly all employers really ought to be doing this already anyways, and if they aren’t, they should start now before someone notices. The Health and Safety Management standards as a “minimum” also sounds theoretically good, but as any local branch caseworker or rep will know, about half of our job is getting the university to appropriately follow its own existing procedures already, so it’s not clear how much this would change things.

On these potential principles: first of all, the ways employers currently “count” working tasks in different ways across the sector is really awful for us all; it creates wildly varying working conditions, encourages special pleading and the creation of little “pockets” of good working conditions at the expense of others, and is just genuinely and thoroughly dishonest about the nature of academic work.

But, and it is an important but, if these principles nationally have actual meaning and actual teeth, branches across the UK can get into really important localised negotiations on a strong footing, with decent odds of improving the working lives of their members.

Verdict: This looks vague (and it is), but if the union was able to nationally field a team of people that could lock in a meaningful framework on workload, with specific guardrails and which importantly did not let any employers “off the hook” in selected cases, that would be a significant step forward for working conditions in Higher Education. It is a big “if”, but again, employers simply have not agreed to meaningfully address this in the past in this kind of format, with this kind of specific outcome (principles to be applied nationally).


Buried in the detail of these terms of reference there lie some potentially important steps forward. But is that enough? None of these steps are “real” yet, because all of this is frameworks for discussion, promises to keep talking in a real way. Clearly immediate commitments from the employers will be thin on the ground. Meanwhile, how many thousands of staff are so fully burned out, so distrustful of everything about their working lives now? How can the damage of the last decade in Higher Education be remedied? What does that change for the better actually look like?

So at the end of the day, for members this will have to come down to their own analysis of “what we asked for” versus, in the longer term, what we might get, from our dispute so far. The only thing that ends our dispute is members voting to end it.

It’s down to all members now to decide what happens next.

Finally, a reminder of what we asked for in the claim at the beginning of the dispute.

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