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HE negotiations 2020-21

17 July 2020

The higher education unions' joint claim for 2020-21 [520kb] was submitted to UCEA, the employers' assocation, in March 2020. The Covid-19 crisis and lockdown during the following period meant negotiations did not start in line with the agreed timetable.


After members had taken part in 22 days of strike action and action short of strike action in December 2019 - March 2020, UCU's higher education committee (HEC) in March 2020 paused all further action in regards to the 2019/20 'Four Fights' dispute. At that time, HEC decided not to progress with a re-ballot of branches. That dispute has not been settled and no further action has been taken.

In the autumn of 2020, the delayed negotiations in the JNCHES 2020/21 round concluded and a final offer was made by UCEA. In respect of the final offer and next steps, the national negotiators' report was considered and approved by the special HE sector conference (HESC) in December 2020.



    The higher education committee has called a special sector conference on 9 September 2021 to discuss the current disputes in higher education, including those resulting from the JNCHES negotiating rounds. Members are asked to please keep engaged with branch meetings which will feed into the conference.

    UCU's higher education committee (HEC) met on 30 April and considered the outcomes of the two branch delegate meetings (BDMs) that took place on 16 and 19 April. The key outcomes from both BDMs were that the majority of branches have no clear position on moving to a statutory ballot on the final offer and that the upcoming HE sector conference on 2 June should make the decision on next steps with the 2020/21 rejected offer. HEC endorsed both these outcomes.

    At its meeting in February, HEC considered the member consultative ballot rejection of the 2020/21 offer. HEC also discussed the feedback from the branch briefings held that month, set up to consider branches' views on progressing to a statutory ballot on the rejected UCEA final offer 2020/21.

    In advance of the briefings, branches were asked to consider five questions designed to find out the level of support for a ballot on the offer, what branches needed in this regard and also what branches were prioritising. The responses were mixed. The HEC discussed the feedback and agreed, at this time, not to progress with a statutory ballot on 2020/21 final offer or ramp up the campaign without seeking wider input from branches first.

    In line with the decisions made at the HESC in December 2020, HEC agreed to call branch delegates meetings to consider the views of branches on the 2020/21 final offer and to advise HEC on next steps.

    Branch delegate meetings

    Branch delegate meetings (BDM) are advisory in nature.  Their remit is set out in this guidance produced after Congress 2018 and approved by the NEC [165kb]. They are designed to facilitate participatory democratic input from branches. The outcomes of BDMs inform the decisions subsequently taken by the HEC.

    In regards to the 2020/21 UCEA final offer, two BDMs will take place on Friday 16 and Monday 19 April. The outcome of the BDMs will be considered by a special HEC later in April.

    To facilitate the discussion and to provide consistency in how branches engage their members and feed into the BDMs, they were asked two questions to report back in order to give HEC a representative view of branches on the 2020/21 offer.

    The questions

    Members have rejected the UCEA final offer for 2020/21.

    1. What is the position of your branch on moving to a statutory ballot this academic year on the UCEA final offer 2020/21?
      a) Yes
      b) No
      c) No clear position

    2. If your branch supports a statutory ballot this academic year on the UCEA final offer 2020/21, when should UCU conduct the ballot?
      a) At a time determined by HEC before HE sector conference in June
      b) At a time determined by HE sector conference in June
      c) No clear position

    Branches were asked to seek the views of members to the questions where possible.

    The union's higher education committee (HEC) met on 26 February and considered a number of recent developments and made some decision on next steps.

    Member survey

    HEC received a headline presentation by the researchers UCU commissioned regarding the member survey on industrial action. Over 17,000 members participated. This is a really impressive response rate given everything else members and branches are dealing with at this time. There is a huge amount of data to be analysed and the final report is likely to be ready around the end of April/ early May.  

    New JNCHES final offer 2020/21  

    In line with the decisions made at the HE sector conference (HESC) last December, an e-ballot consultation of members on the final offer made by UCEA took place from 8 to 23 February. Members voted overwhelmingly to reject the employer's final offer as recommended by HESC and the national negotiators:

    • accept: 13.8%
    • reject: 86.2%.

    Branch briefings

    Three branch briefings were held in February, with 61 branches represented.

    Representatives reported that there is overwhelming support to reject the offer, however, the position on what to do next was mixed. A UK level ballot at this time would be a real challenge for a number of branches but not impossible, with branches having been focused on pandemic-related issues such as protecting jobs and health and safety for nearly a year. The 'four fights' still resonate as the important campaign, however branches reported workload was the key priority issue at this time. Some pre-92 representatives also commented that their members were more focused on developments with USS.

    The higher education committee discussed this feedback and agreed at this time not to progress with a statutory ballot on 2020/21 final offer or ramp up the campaign without seeking a wider input from branches first.

    Branch delegate meetings

    In line with the decisions of the HESC in December 2020, branch delegate meeting(s) will be organised in March before a special HEC meets in early April to determine the next steps.

    Members working in higher education (HE) (see here for list of employers participating in JNCHES) should today receive an email inviting you to vote on whether you wish to accept or reject the employers' ' final offer [232kb]' on our 2020-21 pay and conditions claim. Please look out for an email from '' which will have the subject line 'UCU consultative ballot on UCEA final offer 2020/21' and will include a link for you to cast your vote online.

    The union's HE negotiators recommend that members reject the offer.

    The consultation is being run by Civica (formerly Electoral Reform Society) and will close at 12 noon on Tuesday 23 February 2021.

    Following the conclusion of the JNCHES dispute resolution process, the employers have made a final offer [232kb].

    The offer falls way short of the claim. UCEA made no offer on pay for this round. The employers through their representatives at UCEA have failed to engage proactively and invest in staff in regards to pay equality and related demands on gender, ethnic and disability pay gaps and intersectional discrimination; ending the sector's dependency on exploitative casualised employment and moving staff to more secure employment; or in addressing the significant increase in workloads caused by the pandemic.

    It has been an extraordinarily difficult negotiating round, dominated by the impact of the pandemic and the employer's unwillingness to be creative.

    Following the rejection by the higher education committee (HEC) of the employers zero % pay offer and no meaningful response to the pay equality and related elements of the claim in July, a protracted stop-start process of talks continued over the autumn of 2020. During this time, UCEA made a limited and conditional offer: accept a pay freeze and there may be some selective work on other matters.

    In anticipation that an offer would be made in November, the interim HE sector conference in December approved a number of recommendations in the national negotiators' report.

    In regards to recommendation 1, a consultative e-ballot will open on 8 February and close on 23 February. The e-ballot is being run for UCU by Civica (formerly ERS), the organisation that manages our statutory ballots. Members in JNCHES institutions will receive an email from Civica with a unique identifier and a secure link to vote.

    The HEC meets on 26 February to consider the outcome of the consultative e-ballot as well as a member survey on industrial action which opened on 25 January. HEC will also make decisions regarding the next steps in the dispute, with due consideration given to recommendations 4 and 5 in the negotiators' report.

    The interim HE sector conference approves the recommendations from the national negotiators relating to the 2020-21 pay round.

    Following concerted joint union side lobbying UCEA agreed to meet and start this year's negotiations on 7 July. At the meeting UCEA stressed their commitment and that of the employers they represent to New JNCHES and national UK bargaining and shared the list of those HEI's that havesigned up to New JNCHES for 2020-21.

    In line with the position set out in the email from the UCEA CEO, UCEA commented on the continued uncertainty created by the pandemic and the modelling HEI's are doing for a range of financial scenarios in which jobs and other terms and conditions are at risk. What employers want is certainty on finances for 2020-21 and this means the positon on a pay freeze has not changed and will not change. UCEA did confirm they were prepared to discuss a range of other matters raised by the unions, they would participate in further JNCHES meetingsand an autumn meeting of JNCHES to review sector finances.

    The was reported back to UCU's higher education committee (HEC). After debating UCEA's pay freeze proposal for 2020-21 it was unanimously rejected by the committee. HEC's view is that employers are acting precipitately and some are using the pandemic as cover for unnecessary and detrimental changes to members' terms and conditions without the full picture on student numbers being available to support these attacks. UCEA should wait until the autumn and then review the situation on pay in the light of the actual data on student numbers.

    With regards to the equality and pay related elements of the claim, HEC expressed concern on the lack of a meaningful responses regarding a UK-level job security agreement, prioritising work on the impact of the pandemic for BAME and other disadvantaged groups, the detrimental treatment of precariously employed staff and the consequences of increasing workloads. HEC did agree to continue to meet UCEA alongside the other trade unions and negotiate on these matters.

    Dates for future JNCHES meetings are under discussion and we will update in due course.

    Branch officers are updated on the progress of the 2020-21 joint claim. UCU's head of higher education, Paul Bridge, said 'Branches will by now be aware of the lack of progress in the 2020/21 new JNCHES negotiations. By way of background, the joint trade unions submitted our claim in March before the lockdown, in expectation that negotiations would begin on 31 March and conclude before the end of April. However, since the submission of the claim and the unfolding impact of the pandemic, the employers' representatives at UCEA repeatedly stated they were not in a position to start this year's negotiating round as they did not have a mandate from employers. UCEA and the HE trade unions kept the situation under regular review. The joint trade unions position is that we should begin negotiations as soon as practically possible. This position has been regularly reported to the higher education committee.

    'At the end of last week UCEA wrote to the JNCHES joint trade union side confirming the position of the employers in regards to the new JNCHES negotiating round for 2020/21.

    'The joint trade unions have sent an initial response to UCEA.

    'The position of UCEA and through them the HEIs they represent, regarding this year's new JNCHES negotiations is concerning and an unprecedented development. It raises many questions about the employers' willingness to engage in pay and related matters for this year and a commitment to new JNCHES negotiations beyond that. At a UK level UCU will continue to press the employers to engage in the negotiating process and provide sector leadership on this matter.

    'The initial response from the joint trade unions seeks a range of commitments and guarantees and UCU will continue to work alongside the other HE unions on these matters.

    'What is needed at the new JNCHES level is stability, a plan to get us through the pandemic and a commitment to meaningful joint working based on the existing agreements and structures that we have UK level. UCU will continue to defend UK level bargaining and the new JNCHES agreement and work with our sister unions who also share our position.

    'Branches have an important role to play in putting pressure on their employers to confirm their support for the new JNCHES agreement and their commitment to UK level bargaining.

    'We know that branches are responding magnificently to a wide range of issues that have emerged with the pandemic. UCU has produced a range of resources for branches, which can be found here.

    'The financial impact on the sector and individual HEIs is acute but varied and the need for a joined up response is pressing. UCU has also our 'jobs first' campaign with targeted resources for branches designed to help you defend members' jobs whatever the challenges being faced at your institution; please read this guidance.'

    Email from Raj Jethwa UCEA chief executive

    I am writing to you as the Joint Union Side Secretaries. As you will be aware, UCEA has recently sought indicative views from its member institutions on the 2020-21 pay round. This consultation has confirmed the significant extent of the financial challenges facing our subscribing institutions. 

    UCEA's members are fully aware of, and very grateful for, the efforts of staff across all higher education institutions who have helped the sector to cope with the unprecedented challenges created by the pandemic. However, the scale of the problem is such that many institutions face high levels of financial uncertainty, with the real potential for significant financial challenges in the 2020-21 year. While institutions will try their utmost to minimise the impact on jobs, for many this will be extremely difficult.

    In order to plan effectively, institutions need to minimise the degree of uncertainty facing them. Given the sizable proportion of institution budgets dedicated to the workforce, our members have indicated that they require clarity on pay bill for 20-21 as soon as possible to help with their planning. If this is not resolved it will simply add further uncertainty. 

    In view of the likely forthcoming pressures facing the sector, UCEA now believes it would be unwise for there to be a pay uplift for the 2020-21 round. We recognise that this will be disappointing for you and your members. I must stress that the conclusion that there should not be a pay uplift this year has not been arrived at lightly by our members. 

    Given the shared interest between all of us concerned with the sector in achieving a sustainable future for it, our proposal is to seek your agreement to a pay freeze for 2020-21, with the exception of adjustments to those points on the spine necessary to meet statutory National Living Wage levels. 

    The scale of the potentially difficult financial situation facing the sector means that institutions need this certainty as soon as possible, without necessarily going through the full negotiating process. Giving institutions this clarity as quickly as we can will better position them to make decisions which minimise the impact on jobs. However, in doing so, we would emphasise UCEA's ongoing commitment to national collective bargaining and our intention to recommence negotiations in 2021-22, subject to that being possible at that time. In our view this is the best way of preserving the national collective bargaining machinery, both this year and beyond. In reaching such an agreement UCEA would be absolutely clear, on behalf of our members, that we remain committed to the New Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (New JNCHES) as the central committee for multi-employer negotiations and dialogue on pay and pay-related issues. 

    If this position could be agreed, we would suggest a continuing dialogue between UCEA and sector unions through the rest of this year, potentially following the format of our recent roundtable. This would allow us to monitor the financial situation as autumn unfolds and to share perspectives on the impact on the workforce. Such a dialogue would also help to inform our preparations for the 2021-22 negotiating round. 

    I appreciate that this is a difficult message to receive, but I hope that the Union Side will give it your fullest consideration, recognising the gravity of the situation. As we have emphasised previously, UCEA is committed to working with sector trade unions as we seek to deal with the challenges created by the pandemic. 

    I look forward to your response and, if it would be helpful, I am happy to discuss this with you further. 

    Best wishes, 

    Raj Jethwa
    Chief executive 

    Appendix 2

    Joint trade union initial response to UCEA

    The Joint higher education trade unions, EIS, GMB, UCU, Unite, UNISON, were extremely disappointed to receive the statement from UCEA in relation to pay for the forthcoming year from 1 August 2020. We know that the proposal to not provide any annual pay uplift for higher education staff will anger and concern many particularly given the hard work of staff during the coronavirus lockdown.

    The joint trade unions, in response to the UCEA position, are calling for the following:

    • consideration to be given to increasing pay by, at least, inflation in order to ensure that staff don't suffer a pay cut from 1 August 2020;
    • consideration to be given to providing increases to address compression at the lower end of the pay spine along with increases in pay on the lowest spinal column points in order to meet the national living wage (and the Living Wage Foundation rates where that is followed): 
    • a national higher education job security commitment; 
    • a commitment to the New JNCHES national bargaining structures for 2021/22, and future years, with HEIs signalling clear commitment to this process; 
    • a New JNCHES pay negotiation meeting to be held before mid-July 2020;
    • for the New JNCHES autumn meeting to be convened as a higher education pay and finances review meeting 
    • for discussion to continue on the equality and pay-related elements of the joint unions' claim including, but not limited to, tackling the gender and ethnic pay gap, casualisation of the workforce, workloads, Scottish JNCHES sub-committee.

    Claim headlines

    The headline points in the national claim for 2020/21 [520kb] are:

    • an increase in all higher education salaries by the Retail Price Index plus 5% on all 49 points of the national pay spine; for all pay related allowances including London weighting, to have same uplift
    • the minimum hourly rate of pay for staff employed by universities to be £10.50 per hour1. This is to be applicable to staff at all HEIs whether the standard full-time weekly employment contract is 35 hours per week or above
    • addressing compression of the pay spine, with the aim of restoring the 3% differential between pay spinal column points over the next three years
    • for all universities to become Living Wage Foundation accredited employers ensuring that outsourced workers receive at least the Foundation Living Wage rate
    • for the standard weekly full-time contract of employment to be 35 hours per week at all higher education institutions
    • ending pay injustice - meaningful, agreed action to tackle the race, gender and disability pay gap; to take an intersectional approach to the ways in which intersectionality and protected characteristics impact on pay equality
    • meaningful, agreed action to address excessive workloads and unpaid work; action to address the impact that excessive workloads are having on workforce stress and mental ill-health
    • JNCHES to establish working group/s to look at career development, progression issues and training opportunities in higher education
    • to establish the Scottish sub-committee of New JNCHES as set out under the New JNCHES agreement; to review and consider how the Scottish Fair Work Convention dimensions can best be applied at a UK level
    • agreeing a framework to eliminate precarious employment practises and casualised contracts, including zero hours contracts, from higher education
    • converting hourly paid staff onto fractional contracts; agreeing national guidance to end the outsourcing of support services in higher education and to bring staff into in-house employment.

    List of participating HEIs under JNCHES 2020-21

    University of Aberdeen
    Abertay University
    Aberystwyth University
    Anglia Ruskin University
    University of the Arts London
    Arts University Bournemouth
    Aston University
    Bangor University
    University of Bath
    Bath Spa University
    University of Bedfordshire
    Birkbeck, University of London
    University of Birmingham*
    Bishop Grosseteste University
    University of Bolton
    Bournemouth University
    University of Bradford
    University of Brighton
    University of Bristol
    Brunel University London
    Buckinghamshire New University
    University of Cambridge
    Canterbury Christ Church University
    Cardiff Metropolitan University
    Cardiff University
    University of Central Lancashire
    University of Chester
    University of Chichester
    City, University of London
    Courtauld Institute of Art
    Coventry University
    University of Cumbria
    De Montfort University
    University of Derby*
    University of Dundee
    Durham University
    University of East Anglia
    University of East London
    Edge Hill University
    University of Edinburgh
    Edinburgh Napier University
    University of Essex
    University of Exeter
    Falmouth University
    University of Glasgow
    Glasgow Caledonian University
    Glasgow School of Art
    University of Gloucestershire
    Wrexham Glyndŵr University
    Goldsmiths, University of London
    University of Greenwich
    Harper Adams University
    Heriot-Watt University
    University of Hertfordshire
    University of Huddersfield
    University of Hull
    Keele University*
    University of Kent
    Kingston University London
    Lancaster University
    University of Leeds
    Leeds Beckett University
    Leeds Arts University
    Leeds Trinity University
    University of Leicester
    University of Lincoln
    University of Liverpool
    Liverpool Hope University
    Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts
    Liverpool John Moores University
    Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
    London Metropolitan University
    London School of Economics & Political Science
    London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
    London South Bank University
    University of London (Senate)
    Loughborough University
    University of Manchester
    Manchester Metropolitan University
    Middlesex University
    Newcastle University
    Newman University
    University of Northampton
    Northumbria University
    Norwich University of the Arts
    University of Nottingham*
    Nottingham Trent University
    Open University
    University of Oxford
    Oxford Brookes University
    University of Plymouth
    University of Portsmouth
    Queen Margaret University
    Queen Mary University of London
    Queen's University Belfast
    University of Reading
    Robert Gordon University
    University of Roehampton
    Rose Bruford College
    Royal Academy of Music
    Royal Agricultural University
    The Royal Central School of Speech & Drama
    Royal College of Art
    Royal College of Music
    Royal Holloway, University of London
    Royal Northern College of Music
    Royal Veterinary College
    University of Salford
    University of Sheffield
    Sheffield Hallam University
    SOAS, University of London
    University of Southampton
    Solent University, Southampton
    University of South Wales
    University of St Andrews
    St George's University of London
    St Mary's University College, Belfast
    St Mary's University, Twickenham
    Staffordshire University
    University of Stirling
    University of St Mark & St John (Plymouth Marjon)
    Stranmillis University College
    University of Strathclyde
    University of Suffolk
    University of Surrey
    University of Sussex
    Swansea University
    Teesside University
    Trinity Laban
    Ulster University
    University College Birmingham
    University College London
    University for the Creative Arts
    University of Wales Trinity Saint David
    University of Warwick
    University of West London
    University of the West of England, Bristol
    University of the West of Scotland
    University of Westminster
    University of Winchester
    University of Wolverhampton
    University of Worcester
    University of York
    York St John University
    Writtle University College

    *Participate for part of the workforce only.

    Last updated: 7 July 2021