Moving On: the 17 March HEC Decision and Next Steps

Picture of a small child staring at a big staircase about to climb it.

In this blog, as members of UCU Commons on the Higher Education Committee (HEC), our priorities are to outline our position on the questions that were before HEC on 17 March and to suggest some ways forward. But we also understand that there is significant demand for a clear and measured account of what has happened over the past few days, and we try to address this too. This is followed by our ideas for the next steps and how you can get involved in the decision-making process.

Our Position

UCU Commons as a group does not require members to stick to ‘party lines’, but we share common values. One of these is the importance of growing the union both in terms of membership numbers (and thus density) and in terms of member engagement with what the union does and how it functions. We don’t want ballots of disengaged members to rubber-stamp the advice of officials any more than we want decision-making power concentrated in the hands of an ‘upper tier’ of super-engaged activists. We want a well-informed membership to be able to make decisions about our collective course, based on advice and on discussion within workplaces, but equipped to think critically about both of those sources of information. This is not just an end in itself: it is also the means by which we build a union that can take collective action with the power to oblige employers to materially improve the conditions of our working lives.

Member engagement means nothing if we do not involve members as a whole in the big decisions about the course of these disputes. As well as being the union, members are the disputes, and not engaging with them at every meaningful opportunity can only weaken the disputes in the longer term. For a small leadership group to keep a particular trade dispute or programme of industrial action ‘live’ only by willfully ignoring the views of the wider membership damages the union and limits what we can achieve.

We also had clear evidence of an appetite amongst members for this engagement: nearly 50% of HE members voted in an e-consultation, and 2/3rds supported a vote on the offers and to pause action while this consultation took place.

Thus we voted, at the HEC meeting on 17th March, to put the offers from UCEA and UUK to ballots of members. Commons members have different views on the merits of the offers: we cautiously welcome the advances on USS, but are less sanguine about the offer on pay and conditions and especially the headline pay settlement (we discuss the details further in this blog). Nonetheless, taken as a whole, these are new offers, coming at the end of a mandate for industrial action and as we look to potentially look to launch a new round of action. If we continue the disputes, they cannot just continue; they must be successful in winning improved offers, and to do that we must trust members to make a decision on these offers.

Events of the past few days

Tuesday 14 March

Branch reps were invited to a briefing which was intended to introduce the outcome of an Acas negotiation meeting earlier that day. Due to circumstances beyond UCU’s control, this outcome could not yet be shared, but reps were asked to prepare for a special BDM on Thursday ahead of a special HEC on Friday. HEC is the proper decision-making body for the question of whether an offer should be put to members, but it naturally operates best when it has maximum information about the views of those members. One form of consultation, the branch delegates’ meeting (BDM), is mandated to take place before HEC meetings by sector conference policy; another, the e-consultation, can gather views from a large number of members relatively quickly—and speed was important in this situation.

This was because the next round of strikes was due to begin the following day, and so there was a question as to whether all the days of this action should go ahead if HEC decided to put the offers to members. Following controversy over the two-week pause in industrial action in February, a meeting of HEC on 24 February had passed a motion which asserted that it was the only body competent to pause any industrial action. This meant that an HEC meeting had to be held quickly, or members might be left feeling that they were striking and losing pay with no prospect of improving the offers that were under consideration by UCU (firstly by HEC, potentially by members afterwards). To call two separate HEC meetings to consider a pause in action and then a ballot on the offers would have been extremely difficult.

This inevitably created a challenging consultation timetable for all involved, and so even the slight delay in the publication of the offers was damaging—but not the fault of the UCU officials or staff. Disputes can move quickly.

Wednesday 15 March

UCU members in HE were on strike alongside multiple other unions. In the late afternoon, the offers were published to members and the e-consultation opened. The full details of the statements agreed with UCEA and UUK were available on the website, but unfortunately not linked in the e-consultation email. Instead, members were directed to a podcast (with transcript). The podcast was effectively the General Secretary and President Elect’s advice on the offers: that they should both be accepted. As members of UCU Commons, we welcomed the advice, but not the fact that it was harder to find the text of the offers themselves: this contradicted our basic values on member information and engagement. 

This clearly eroded trust in the process, but frustration seemed to focus on the phrasing of the e-consultation and BDM question: ‘Do you support UCU members now getting a vote on the negotiated proposals that have been reached, and pausing strike action (ASOS would continue) whilst this consultation takes place?’ Asking whether strike action should be paused and whether members should have a say on the offer in one question was interpreted by some as an attempt to drive through a pause in action, when technically the consultation could have taken place whilst action continued. Notes for advice given to HEC by Jon Hegerty (UCU’s Head of Bargaining, Organising, Campaigns and Education), reproduced in full in Appendix A below, show that a pause was simply assumed to be a more or less automatic step if consultation went ahead, as the strike action would then have no leverage value. However, a pause still had to be expressly authorised by HEC.

Although two questions in one, the e-consultation question was not unreasonable when it was released, though it subsequently transpired that there was an appetite for a consultation without a pause, and staff adjusted their approach accordingly when this was voiced in the BDM.

Some inconsistencies in the information presented were of more concern to us: the podcast mentioned settling the disputes multiple times, but also potential future action in the new mandate resulting from the ongoing reballot if necessary, whilst the offers were titled an ‘interim resolution’. It was reasonably clear that no full settlement (meaning the declaration of a new dispute and the running of a new ballot would be necessary before further action could be taken) was proposed, but not crystal clear. The podcast also stated that the agreement with employers was dependent on action being stood down in both disputes—why would USS employers keep to the agreement whilst most of them could still be facing strikes over pay and conditions?—but didn’t mention that members would have the option to vote for an interim resolution in one and not the other. Being legally distinct disputes involving different sets of members, they would have to be balloted as separate votes. But not everyone was aware of this.

This was a highly complex proposal, and not the ‘full and final’ offer to end the disputes that everyone was naturally looking for. UCU comms staff had a difficult task to convey all of this in an accessible way, and we thank them for their efforts, whilst acknowledging what could have been done better.

Thursday 16 March

In the BDM it was clear that dissatisfaction with the nature of Wednesday’s announcement went beyond those who were highly critical of the deal on offer, or normally critical of the General Secretary’s leadership. Sadly, the behaviour of some delegates at this meeting also went far beyond anything yet witnessed in these disputes in terms of aggression and hostility towards UCU staff. As HEC members learned the following day (see Jon Hegerty’s notes in Appendix A below), this behaviour impacted not only the senior staff at whom it was undoubtedly aimed, but also staff who do vital work for the union at all levels in the organisation.

The General Secretary and the staff that she manages are not neutral actors in this process, and they can also make mistakes. We can acknowledge this whilst stressing our faith in them as people of integrity and good judgement with the union’s best interests at heart. Yet they have been presented by some sections of the membership as manipulative and authoritarian, willing to break the rules and override democratic processes to get their own way, with an underhand plan to deliberately ‘demobilise’ disputes as risk-averse union bureaucrats with wholly distinct interests from those of the membership. However divorced from reality this caricature might be, in other circumstances a similar set of charges could be a legitimate political critique. But such serious allegations, so often repeated, will inevitably lead to bullying and abuse which has consequences beyond its intended (high-ranking, well-paid) targets. All of us as members need to think very carefully before repeating or amplifying such narratives: is the evidence sufficient to warrant such extreme charges? Are we falling for the allure of a false ‘us and them’ solidarity against supposed internal enemies?

Friday 17 March

It was almost inevitable that the National Executive Committee meeting before HEC contained an extensive discussion of UCU’s chronic bullying problem. Nonetheless, the HEC meeting itself passed off relatively smoothly. Yet the aftermath has been full of recriminations and uncertainties.

The hybrid HEC meeting (chaired by Justine Mercer, President Elect) and the advice to HEC from the Acting Head of HE (Jon Hegerty) took account of the main controversies of the preceding days. HEC was presented with separate questions on whether the offers should be put to members; and on whether the strike action should be paused during this process (see Appendix B below). Jon Hegerty’s advice was very clear that members would be balloted separately on the interim resolution in each dispute (see Appendix A below). However, the question on the vote by members concerned both disputes. We knew that some other members of HEC wished to ballot members on the USS offer only, and expected them to challenge the chair to try to amend this question. Challenges to the chair are very common in HEC, and can be made by interrupting business with a point of order (one was raised during this particular meeting, on another matter, and was heard). We can’t say why this didn’t happen, but some UCU members are now under the impression that HEC was ‘prevented’ from considering a ballot on USS only. HEC was effectively advised not to make this decision by the Chair and our supporting officials, but we can’t see how it was in any way prevented from doing so.

In any case, it is the view of Commoners on HEC that the best way to make a choice to decouple these disputes (which are linked both intrinsically and by sector conference policy) would be for members to make that decision in their votes on the two distinct disputes, with full knowledge that accepting one and not the other could have unintended and unknown consequences—an outcome like this would be uncharted territory, and members would need to be fully informed of this fact before voting.

The eventual outcome was the decision of a 22-19 majority not to consult members on either dispute, despite the fact that the e-consultation showed 2/3rds of a 50% turnout of HE members in favour of the ballot, and the BDM (when asked about ballot and pause separately, as HEC itself was) was also narrowly in favour of balloting members. The decision of HEC was legitimate and it stands. But by ignoring the majority preference of members, the HEC majority has endangered the very disputes that it wishes to continue. 

What next?

HEC meets again on 30 March, and UCU Commons members will be tabling motions that would guarantee a full consideration of the different options for consulting members on the offers. The motion we would ideally like to see passed (numbered 1 below) would be to consult members on both offers separately. This motion, and two others which we hope would pass if that one should fall, are reproduced below. Motion 1 will be circulated with an open letter to UCU members to sign over the next two weeks. (This is of course dependent on any offers still being on the table by 30 March.)

We still believe that members should have their say in both disputes, and not just because of the industrial relations realities of overlapping groups of employers. USS is clearly the better offer, but many post-92 members also voted in the e-consultation in favour of a ballot and their wishes must be respected (see this blog by Commoner Dave Hitchcock).

What you can do

The most important thing you can do right now is, if you haven’t yet done so, to return your ballot papers to extend our mandate. Vote yes to industrial action and ASOS (or at a minimum, please vote to make sure we get to threshold) and post back. Last safe posting day is 28 March; order a replacement ballot here. We need to extend our mandate and threat to employers beyond the end of April.

The second thing to do right now is find out who your branch delegates are for the BDM on 23 March (which is being held, in line with Congressional policy, to precede and inform the 30 March HEC). Ask if your branch has filled its quota of delegates. If not, why not volunteer to be a delegate? Attend your GM before this BDM; take part in any e-surveys your branch sends out. 

Also, in the immediate term, keep an eye out for our open letter with Motion 1 below attached to sign in advance of the HEC on 30 March. Sign up to our substack here if you’d like to receive news of what we’re doing as it happens and get an alert for this open letter when it goes live; and follow us on Twitter here.

In the mid-term, there is a Special Higher Education Sector Conference (SHESC) tabled for Wednesday 19 April. This will decide the future of our disputes post-reballot. Keep an eye on your branch’s delegate quota and offer to be a delegate if there’s space. Feed back to your delegates in advance; and make sure they are voting in line with what the majority of the branch want.

In the slightly longer term: UCU’s annual Congress, where policy is made, takes place in Glasgow over late May Bank Holiday. Advice on delegates and voting is as above—have your say, give your feedback, get involved.

You can also email HEC members here to make your views known (needs a login). Do make sure to only choose HE members of NEC though; our FEC friends deserve some peace!

In the long term—please keep engaged, get involved, do what you can. You are the union.

Emma Battell Lowman, Laura Chuhan Campbell, Jo Edge, Chris Grocott, Emma Kennedy, Esther Murray, Chris O’Donnell, Bijan Parsia, Ben Pope, Emma Rees

Commons Motions for the 30 March HEC

Motion 1: Let members decide the future of our disputes

HEC notes:

  • Overwhelming support and high turnout from members completing the esurvey to both pause action and consult members on the offers available;
  • The outcome of the BDM which expressed a wish to consult members on both offers;
  • The coupling of both disputes, and a strong desire by members to fight and if possible resolve them together;
  • The argument that only the USS offer should be put to members, despite the fact that many post-92 members voted in the esurvey and should have their wishes respected;
  • Members’ anger over HEC’s decision and loss of faith in the ability of HEC to act in their best interests;
  • UCU’s claim to be a member-led union.

HEC resolves:

  • To put both offers out to members as soon as possible as separate consultations, without recommendation, in order to allow members to make the decision over the future of our disputes.

Motion 2: Consult members on USS offer

HEC notes:

  • The excellent progress made on the USS dispute by UCU’s negotiators;
  • The offer on the table in regard to this dispute.

HEC resolves:

  • To put the USS offer out to members without recommendation.
  • To give members clear advice on the possible ramifications of accepting this offer without also accepting the offer on pay and pay-related claims  for those balloted in both disputes.

Motion 3: Consult members on pay and pay-related offer

HEC notes:

  • The importance of giving members at all institutions currently in dispute, but especially post-92 institutions, a say in the future of our disputes;
  • The good progress made on casualisation; workload and pay gaps, in line with our original claim;
  • The subpar pay offer which is nevertheless in line with what other unions are currently settling on.

HEC resolves:

  • To put the pay and pay-related offer out to members without recommendation.
  • To give members clear advice on the possible ramifications of accepting this offer without also accepting the offer on USS for those balloted in both disputes.


A. Notes for Jon Hegerty’s briefing to HEC, subsequently shared with HEC members:

  • Behaviour – I accept feelings are running high but the behaviour of some UCU members in the past 48 hours has not been acceptable – towards each other and towards staff (abusive messages on social media, describing staff as “a bunch of arseholes” during the BDM, being accosted by a member in a coffee shop etc).  In my 35 years as a trade union official I’ve never encountered bullying and harassment like this. Following the BDM I had to spend time with UCU staff who were very upset. HEC members need to be mindful of their responsibilities to set a tone and to contribute to a welcoming atmosphere in which comradely debate and disagreement can exist. 
  • Atmosphere – as disputes get closer to a resolution and offers become firmer, views become stronger and more polarised.  Compromises, inevitable in any dispute, become more painful to consider.  This is inevitable.  The key is to conduct ourselves calmly, to consult as widely as possible, and do everything we can to listen to members and to reflect those views fairly.
  • Industrial landscape – We have maintained strong solidarity links across the movement.  We have coordinated strikes where there is both an industrial and a political advantage to doing so.  We have been taking our action during a broader moment in the UK, and therefore the wider industrial landscape is important.  Health unions (RCN, GMB, Unison) are settling at 5%, The BMA are probably entering negotiations on a similar basis to the other health unions.  FBU settled at 7%, NEU have called a pause to their industrial action.  The RMT are currently consulting their members on an offer of 9.2% over 2 years (4.6% per year), and the CWU continue to take action without a new/firmer offer on the table yet. 

UCU have achieved something historic in the pension dispute – the restoration of a 35% pension cut. In the pay dispute, where the leverage the trade unions have is not as strong (given the other 4 unions are not in possession of a national ballot) we have achieved an end to zero-hour contracts, are making progress in other areas and a 5-8% pay deal – We have achieved all that on 25% density. Is 5-8% enough to restore the pay erosion we’ve seen since 2009? No, but it is comparable to the pay deals that other unions have received and are settling on – many of the other pay disputes not including the additional elements such as the ending of ZHC and movement on non-pay issues that we have been campaigning on for years. 

UCEA statement this morningThe UCEA Board met yesterday and endorsed the terms of reference agreed as part of the Acas negotiations. UCEA is fully committed to working with the HE trade unions on the implementation of the terms of reference to positively reset industrial relations in our sector. 


We have listened to both the HEC Briefing and the BDM about a desire to separate the question into two – whether to consult members and whether to pause action.  We also will take back the comments about the wording of any questions in the future. But – we also need to recognise that over 36,000 members did vote in that survey. This is half of those in the dispute. We cannot and should not dismiss the survey results.

  1. Question One asks whether the proposals put forward by UCEA and UUK should be put to members in a formal consultation.  It is clear that both members and the BDM endorse this view:

Members survey – 36,070 voted 67% voted in favour.

BDM – 52% were in favour of consulting members with only 32% opposed.

If HEC endorse this approach:

  • Our strike action next week and disputes will continue.
  • The re-ballot will continue.
  • Members will be engaged as per the overwhelming wishes of the BDM and the member survey. 
  • Members will be consulted separately on the two disputes as relevant (i.e. members in both disputes will receive both consultations and those in one will receive one).  Members will be able to vote differently in both disputes as they wish
  • HESC Resolution HE6 calls to maintain the link between the two disputes until sufficient progress is made in one or both to justify separation.  HEC may feel sufficient progress has been made to justify separation at some point in the dispute.

If HEC do not endorse this approach it will be clear that they are going against the clear will of over 36 thousand members and the clear outcome of the BDM and I think we will have serious and legitimate questions about confidence in the HEC.

We also have to question whether the employers will continue to engage in further negotiations if we make this decision or whether negotiations will now be at an end.

  1. Question Two asks whether strike action (but not ASOS) should be suspended whilst the consultation takes place.  This was the clear wish of member in the survey response. If HEC support this, we will be able to send out suspension notices immediately and inform members late this afternoon.  

If HEC do not endorse this action it has to ask itself – what would be gained from three days of strike action and asking members to forego three days of pay?  Not suspending action was the preference of the BDM, but we know from the survey this is a position that only 1/3 of the members back. It’s a genuine question – I don’t see an advantage but members of HEC may be able to enlighten me.  There is no leverage to be gained with UUK or UCEA at this moment because we’ve agreed to proposals and haven’t begun the further negotiations yet.

We also have to consider the risk that further industrial action could result in UCEA withdrawing from negotiations

Members survey  – 36,070 voted (around half of the HE membership) with 67% in favour of pausing the dispute (since the questions were merged)

BDM result– 16% in favour 70% against

There Issues about conditionality of disputes and resolving both in pre 92s – i.e., do we need to resolve both simultaneously. We linked the disputes, balloted, took strike action on them together. We’ve always been seeking to resolve them together – so too have employers. 

Jon Hegerty

Head of Bargaining, Organising, Campaigns, and Education

B. Full text of the questions voted on by HEC:

  1. Should the proposals agreed with UCEA and UUK relating to the USS and Four Fights disputes be put to UCU HE members in a formal consultation?
  2. Should the strike action called for 20th – 22nd March be suspended?

C. An alternative proposal for the ordering of HEC’s business was made by Bijan Parsia and can be seen here:

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