Industrial action risks hitting higher education institutions across the UK again this year as the University and College Union (UCU) prepares to ballot members from 30 August to 19 October.

Notice of the ballot has been served to 147 employers, including the University of Liverpool, as part of a dispute over pay. The UCU is demanding fair and equal pay, which includes an end to the gender pay gap and the casualisation of labour. The last round of strike action over pensions lasted for 16 days across four weeks between 22 February and 16 March of this year.

A spokesperson for the University of Liverpool said: ‘Higher education employment matters such as pay are negotiated at a national level by the Universities and Colleges Employer Association, who offered a 2% pay award for most staff, with those on the lowest 15 pay points receiving larger increases of up to 2.8%.’

However, the UCU claims this offer of a 2% increase does not restore the 21% drop in the real terms value of pay due to inflation since 2010, and addresses neither gender inequality nor precarious employment in the sector.

The five higher education trade unions – UNISON, Unite, EIS, GMB and UCU – submitted a joint national claim to the Universities and Colleges Employer Association (UCEA) prior to the first negotiating meeting on 26 March. The claim calls for a pay increase of 7.5% or £1,500 (whichever is greater) to all spine points on the national pay scale and a living wage rate for all campus staff of at least £10 per hour. It also calls for nationally-agreed frameworks for action to close the gender pay gap by 2020, for action on precarious contracts, and to recognise excessive workloads.

Pay and cost of living

It is hoped these demands would help tackle declining living standards, improve staff morale, and address pay inequality and precarious employment. In 2016, 82% of UCU members told the union their pay had not kept pace with the increase in living costs. The Treasury’s Forecasts for the UK Economy, a comparison of independent forecasts, shows predicted levels of inflation of approximately 3% across the year.

The Times Higher Education reported in February that UK universities recorded surpluses of £2.27 billion in 2016/17 and £2.34 billion in 2015/16. In 2016/17 Vice-Chancellors earned, on average, £289,756 in salary, bonuses, benefits and pension contributions, representing an increase of 3.2 per cent on the previous year, higher than the pay increase offered to other staff.

The average full-time salary in the higher education sector was £40,449 in 2015/16, an increase of only £348, or under 1%, from the previous year. However, increasing costs of living have meant academic staff took a 2.8% hit to their pay from 2010/11 to 2015/16. The University of Liverpool is in the top ten when it comes to professorial salaries, ranking ninth at an average of approximately £85,000, well behind the frontrunner, the London School of Economics, on over £100,000.

Gender pay gap

On the issue of gender pay inequality, the UCU highlights a 12.2% (median) and 12% (mean) sector pay gap for academic staff, as well as an 11% (median) and 9.9% (mean) gap for professional support staff. According to Times Higher Education, this meant ‘women’s average salary was 89.5 per cent of men’s’ in 2015/16. UCEA, however, pointed out that the median gender pay gap had almost halved to 5.7 per cent for academic staff the previous year.

According to an Echo article in April 2018, women at the University of Liverpool were paid 19% less than men. This follows a report in 2016 showing the University’s gender pay gap as being £3,220 in 2010, £2,727 in 2011, £2,014 in 2013, and £1,893 in 2014.

Workload

A 2016 survey of 12,113 higher education members found academic staff work an average of 50.9 hours full-time equivalent (FTE), with 78% reporting their workload as being unmanageable at least half the time. The highest average FTE hours per week were reported by professors (56.1 hours), principal research fellows (55.7 hours) and teaching assistants (54.9 hours). Increasing workloads are attributed to rising student expectations due to policies placing the focus on students as consumers. Academics claim this is negatively impacting their ability to engage with conferences, networking, research, reading, and other study or scholarly activity.

Casualisation

Some universities use hourly-paid staff to do approximately 50% of their teaching, with the average being 27%. However, this data may be inaccurate due to the failure of most universities to release their figures. Some casual and hourly-paid staff at the University of Liverpool expressed concerns about the financial burden due to lost wages of going on strike over pensions earlier in the year.

How has the dispute played out?

The first of three scheduled negotiating meetings took place on 26 March 2018. No opening offer was made by the UCEA until the second meeting on 13 April. They offered a 1.7% pay increase, below both the inflation rate and the UCU demand. Also offered was qualified further joint work on gender pay, but the UCEA rejected calls for a monetary payment to recognise the excessive work hours as this is a local issue, and the widespread use of precarious work is not something they wish to address at a UK level.

The third meeting on 10 May saw employers offer a 2 per cent increase for staff on or above spine point 16 and a £425 increase for staff on spine point 15 or below. On gender pay they offered that the working group, set up after a 2017 settlement, look at developing a survey and reviewing action plans.

The UCU views these offers as inadequate. A consultative ballot was called in May, which began in the first week of June. On a turnout of 47.7 per cent, 82 per cent of members rejected the offer and 65 per cent said they are prepared to take industrial action. The UCU engaged in dispute resolution talks with the UCEA and other trade unions, but the results were perceived as unsatisfactory, bringing us to the announcement of the intention to ballot for industrial action.

Anthony O’Hanlon, Liverpool UCU branch secretary, said the result and turnout of the consultative ballot in the branch are encouraging. Nationally, turnout did not reach what he describes as the ‘restrictive 50% ballot threshold’, but, given many members are away for the summer and are unlikely to check emails, they are hoping they can meet this as with the pensions dispute.

In April 2016, the UCU balloted for strike action during pay negotiations, which the UCEA described as ‘premature and damaging’. The offer on the table was improved following the ballot, and strike action that year took place during the summer.

The University of Liverpool have stated: ‘We remain committed to the collective pay negotiations and support this very good pay award which balances the high value we place on our staff with the sustainability of our institution and the financial responsibility we have towards our students.

‘Should industrial action go ahead, we will work hard to ensure that the impact of any action on students is kept to a minimum.’

The University did not elaborate on what measures they would put in place to minimise the impact on students.