Update on Negotiations

Latest on Negotiations, 1 March 2020


After more than a week of daily negotiations, Monday 2nd March marks an important test for the USS trustees. It’s the first look our negotiators will get at USS’s draft ‘discussion document’, which lays out their plans for the 2020 valuation. ‘It’s hard to overstate how important this could be’, reports UCU negotiator Sam Marsh; ‘have they had proper reflection and a rethink or is it same old, same old?’ It’s yet another chance for our employers, too, to make clear they won’t accept anything less than a systematic rethink of the faulty valuation methodology, and the implementation of the JEP’s recommendations in full.

While it makes sense for employers to support a long-term resolution to this dispute, we’re worried that, given the slightest chance, they’ll pay as little attention to these recommendations as they did when the JEP’s first report came out. We need to keep them focused on resolving this problem by staying strong on the pickets. And we need to challenge them on why they don’t think their staff deserve more. Last Thursday, our Vice Chancellor, Stephen Toope, yet again refused to make a public statement of the University’s position on either dispute. That’s not good enough. He needs to step up and show some leadership here, by reassuring us he’s working on our behalf, and extending us his public support. If you haven’t already, why not write to him asking why he won’t commit publicly to backing his staff: his email address is VCOEnquiries@admin.cam.ac.uk.

Four Fights

Over the past week, talks have been continuing with UCEA, the employers’ representatives in the Four Fights dispute. Discussions are still in a ‘without prejudice’ stage: that means we don’t know exactly what’s being discussed, but it does indicate that things might be shifting, as our negotiators stretch out the limits of what our employers are prepared to offer. And the pace is speeding up: UCEA have asked for further negotiations with UCU on Tuesday afternoon, to continue working on a deal they once said was their final offer.

We could see some movement over the next week, and if we do, this page will be updated as soon as possible. But if you’ve got questions about how negotiations are going, and where we are at the moment, make sure you come to our meeting with Vicky Blake, UCU President-Elect and negotiator in the Four Fights, on Thursday 5 March13.00, in Great St Mary’s.

Update on USS, 19 February 2020

News is back from the recent UUK consultation. In total, 111 employers stated their position. 84% of them held their position, and refused to make UCU a better offer on pension contributions. The rest supported some kind of offer to pick up the bill for contributions currently being covered by individual members of the scheme.

This is deeply disappointing news, but not entirely unexpected. Jo Grady reports that, throughout the negotiations, it’s become clear that ‘the stubbornness of Universities UK is largely down to a few influential employers – including some of the wealthiest institutions in the sector. This is not about affordability – it is about a group of employers that are ideologically fixated on minimising their commitments to their staff’. The message they’re sending is clear: Universities just don’t care about their staff.

But there are reasons for optimism as we go into these strikes. Those employers who are holding out on a deal employ 55% of USS’s members; given their opinions are weighted according to the number of members they represent, that doesn’t make too big a majority for us to overcome. And for the first time, a sizeable minority of employers are ready to shell out for their staff. That’s a real breakthrough, and it’s only because of our strike action so far. That’s why we have to ramp up the pressure in the coming weeks of strikes. Our employers are sitting on their hands. They think they can ride out these strikes. We have to show them they’re wrong.

Update on USS, 11 February 2020

We’ve just heard news that UUK is consulting its member institutions on whether to make us a new and better offer. They’re asking whether employers would be ready to pay a higher proportion of the contributions hitherto foisted on the scheme’s individual members. This would only be bridging the gap until the 2020 valuation, at which point the relative contribution rates would be rejigged again. But for us, and especially those of us in the lowest-paid and most precarious positions, a reduction of onerous USS contributions would be a significant win. We have therefore written to the Vice Chancellor and all Heads of Houses to urge them to respond to this consultation, and to support the proposal of making a new offer to UCU. Up till now, UUK have held the line in refusing to countenance higher contributions on our employers’ side. The fact that they’re shifting now is a testament to our strike action so far. A deal could be close: but we need to turn out in force for this round of strikes if we’re going to get this over the line.

Overview of Negotiations, November 2019 – February 2020

Negotiations on both the USS and the Four Fights disputes are ongoing, and subject to strict confidentiality requirements agreed between the negotiators. As a result, it can be hard to tell what progress, if any, they’re making. From what we do know, though, our strike action is seeing definite movement from our employers.

What follows is a short summary of negotiations on each dispute. We’ll update this page fairly frequently to take account of any changes, with all updates appearing at the bottom of the page. You can also find out the latest news on UCU’s website, here (for Four Fights/Pay and Equality) and here (for USS).


Our negotiations on USS have been boosted by the publication last December of the second report from the Joint Expert Panel (JEP). The panel didn’t mince its words: overall, it said, ‘the Scheme’s valuation governance does not work well and is no longer fit for purpose’. Once again, it found that the current approach to the valuation of USS was ‘overly restrictive’, and needed to be overhauled if it was going to win back the trust of the scheme’s members. The JEP made several recommendations to this effect. It found that the valuation process should be opened up to USS members, giving them a say in how much risk the scheme should take; and it emphasised the urgency of the situation, writing that the findings should be implemented before the 2020 valuation was completed. UCU welcomed these conclusions as soon as they were published. Both the first and second JEP reports vindicate the Union’s criticisms of USS, and point towards a way of rebuilding trust in the scheme.

The JEP’s intervention had significantly increased the pressure on USS and UUK to face up to the evidence. While paying lip service to the first report’s findings, UUK made no objection when USS disregarded them entirely in producing its latest valuation. That’s started to change. Representatives from UCU, UUK, USS, and even the Pensions Regulator have been meeting to discuss different ways of calculating the upcoming valuation of the scheme. To have our negotiators inside the room is an important and promising step forwards, given how casually UCU’s critique of the valuation process was dismissed back in 2018. It only happened because of the strike action we took then; and it’s only strike action now that will focus employers’ minds on pushing home the JEP’s recommendations, rather than letting USS ignore them once again. As UCU General Secretary Jo Grady has commented, the implementation of both reports’ conclusions won’t go all the way to settling this dispute. But it will clear the path for more accurate valuations of the scheme in the future, and holds out the prospect of a long-term solution for this long-running problem.


Four Fights/Pay and Equality

Last year, the employers’ representatives at UCEA — the Universities and Colleges Employers Association — continued to hold out on UCU’s demands. Specifically, they were refusing to discuss setting sector-wide expectations on pay and equality to which their institutions would then be held. Those expectations are at the heart of what UCU is asking in this dispute. To tackle endemic problems like the rise in precarious staff, the rise in workloads, and the opening-up of pay gaps for female and BME staff, we need employers to sign up to a common code of conduct, a sort of declaration of principles. That won’t solve everything, and it won’t be the end of it: we’ll need concerted local negotiation to make sure universities are as good as their word. But it’s an important start.

Since then, though, UCEA has changed its tune. So much so that at the end of January, they made us a preliminary offer that covered contractual arrangements, workload and mental health, and gender and BME pay gaps. Unfortunately, the offer was nowhere near good enough. Most of its proposals seemed to be restating current employment law, merely describing the existing relations between unions and employers and recasting them as some sort of gold standard. There was a disappointing lack of detail in the offer: we weren’t told how we could ensure these proposals had teeth, how we could assess our employers’ progress on these goals, and how we could hold them to account if they weren’t moving fast enough. And on the pay offer — 1.8%, below RPI inflation — there was no movement at all. This offer was formally rejected by UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) at its meeting on 30 January.

However, there are several important things to note about the offer. The first is how much it had conceded to UCU’s initial claim, recognising as it did that the HE sector as a whole had to acknowledge and act on issues of casualisation, workload, and pay inequality. That’s something they’d previously refused to accept. The second is the timing of the offer. It’s no coincidence that it came through just after staff at another fourteen institutions voted to join the industrial action, and just before the HEC met to decide on calling another round of strikes. The threat of impending strike action, it seems, is needed to make our employers take any realistic steps towards resolving these disputes. We wish it didn’t have to be like this; but with the positive results from those other fourteen institutions, we’ve got greater leverage in the negotiations as they continue. We’ve already seen some Vice Chancellors breaking ranks: Anthony Forster, the VC of the University of Essex, admitted last November that universities could afford to pay their staff more, and we’ll likely see others join him as the strikes continue to bite. If they want to end this dispute, for the sake of staff and students, our employers need to make us a serious, detailed, and meaningful offer.