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Taking action in higher education

Autumn action fists

Further talks and more on the Four Fights dispute

24 February 2020 | last updated: 5 March 2020

As we start the second week of this wave of strike action, I would like to give you some more detail on where we are in negotiations in the Four Fights dispute.

Further talks scheduled for today 

UCEA, the employers' representative body, have scheduled a meeting with our negotiators today, but only on the understanding that they will 'nuance' and 'clarify' the offer which they made at the end of January rather than changing its substance. This is not good enough.  

I will update you after today's meeting, but unless our employers' position changes significantly, we are very unlikely to have any reason to suspend our strike action. 

In the meantime I would like to explain to you what our negotiating targets are and set out what a victory might look like in this dispute. 

More information on our Four Fights 

Every year we submit a set of demands to employers. The demands are a combination of concrete, specific ones and more open-ended, long-term aspirations. Click here for an accessible breakdown of all the demands we submitted to employers in March 2019, which formed the starting point of our current dispute. 

Employers offered very little of what we asked for until you gave the union a strong mandate for strike action in our ballot last term. After we called the first wave of strikes they agreed to reopen negotiations.  

During the talks we have had since then, UCU's negotiators have been willing to compromise on several aspects of our original demands. It is the employers who are being stubborn. The offer which employers tabled at the end of January represented a step forward which we could never have achieved without your industrial action - but it still falls short of the reasonable and achievable targets which our negotiators have set for this dispute. 

Most importantly, our negotiators have said to employers that we are willing to devolve the implementation and enforcement of national agreements on workload, job security and equality to the level of individual institutions. For instance, we would expect every institution to have a rigorous action plan to close its pay gaps for BME staff, but the specific steps which they take to do so might differ from one institution to the next. We are glad that employers have finally agreed to sector-wide expectations on these issues, but they need to be implemented locally in a fair and consistent way. 

Employers will claim that we have been inflexible, but this was a major concession on the part of our negotiators. There will be national working groups for monitoring and comparing institutions' progress, but a lot will depend on branches' ability to make sure that their employers are upholding our national agreements. The sticking point that remains is that employers are not offering to create reliable mechanisms and procedures which we can use to hold them to account.  

Here are some of the key priorities our negotiators have set out and which employers still refuse to incorporate into their offer to us: 

  • on pay, our negotiators have indicated that they are open to an offer that falls between the employer offer of 1.8% and our original demand of 3% plus RPI (5.2% as of December).
  • all institutional action plans on job security, equality and workload should be implemented by working groups with clear deadlines
  • all action plans should be implemented in collaboration with recognised trade unions
  • all action plans should be publicly available
  • unions should be given more detailed, reliable information on equality, workload and job security than employers currently provide via the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and other outlets. 

Alongside these there are extra targets on workload and job security in particular which our employers still refuse to meet. 

On workload: 

  • workload models need to be realistic, accurate, comprehensive reflections of the hours which staff actually work
  • staff should not be assigned more work than their annual workload quota permits
  • institutions should provide campus unions with data on staff reporting to occupational health for workload-related reasons. 

On job security: 

  • employers should commit to abolish zero-hours contracts. Most employers do not use them and other countries (e.g. Ireland) have effectively banned them
  • procedures for converting fixed-term staff to open-ended employment should be faster than the statutory minimum of 4 years
  • there should be clearer and firmer criteria for conversion of hourly paid staff to fractional contracts. 

We have given employers a lot of room for manoeuvre. The fact they have not agreed to these simple demands indicates how wedded they are to exploitative business models that intensify precarity and inequality and cause burnout among staff. That is what we are trying to change and that is why the union's higher education committee has called you out for a second, longer wave of action. 

Employers could resolve this dispute now and it would cost them hardly anything. In fact, many of the things we are asking for could save them money over time. It is a tragedy for the sector that they are permitting the largest strike in its history to continue. The blame lies solely with them - do not let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

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