York’s Vice Chancellor and UCU call for negotiations to end ongoing marking boycott

Charlie Jeffery has issued a joint statement with York UCU on the need to “get back to meaningful negotiations”

The University of York’s Vice Chancellor, Charlie Jeffery has spoken in Wonkhe on the need to “break out of the cycle” of industrial conflict and “get back to meaningful negotiations on pay and conditions”.

The joint statement, co-authored by the local UCU branch executive at the University of York, looks to find a new way to progress on the issue on pay and conditions. Despite progress in negotiations with the employers in the USS pension dispute, Charlie Jeffery recognises the need for new negotiations for successful progress on pay and conditions, since the current cycle of industrial conflict is at a dead end.

In the article, he said the cycle of industrial conflict “has been debilitating for staff, compromising welfare and career opportunities, and damaging to a generation of students already deeply impacted by Covid-19”.


‘National negotiations are at an impasse’

Focusing on the lack of progression and stalemate industrial conflict, Charlie Jeffery first highlighted the need to “break the impasse” by finding a “new path” of negotiation. He said: “We need, as employers and trade unions, to get back to meaningful negotiations on pay and conditions. We’ve shown it can be done on pensions.”

Bolstering his argument with the successful progress of the pension dispute, he said how they have even begun to “explore measures that would guard against future instability if economic circumstances change” in regards to pensions. Charlie Jeffery said: “And – together with the USS trustees – employers and unions are collectively pressing both the UK Government and the Pensions Regulator not to impose tighter, over-cautious regulation in future. That capacity to work together to think into the medium term is crucial.”

Going off the successful negotiations on pensions, Charlie Jeffery asked: “Are there ways in which employers and unions can build a shared perspective on the future of pay and conditions in the sector?”

Looking at the future, he said: “We made some progress a few months ago on a set of long-standing issues which have vexed the sector, working up draft Terms of Reference for action on the national pay spine, minimising casual contracts, closing pay gaps and ensuring workloads are at – and stay at – reasonable levels.

“There’s a balance to be struck here between employer concerns about university autonomy and the demands of trade unions that these matters must be subject to UK level frameworks. But we could still work in negotiations to strengthen these Terms of Reference, perhaps creating shared baselines that universities would be expected to meet to improve working conditions.”

‘Many staff now face real hardship’

Charlie Jeffery moved on to talk about the issues at stake, focusing on the need for joint recognition in order to have successful negotiations where meaningful movement forward can take place. The two main problems he outlined were that that pay rises have not been aligned with inflation and that universities are in unstable financial positions which has meant higher pay rises are too risky.

He said: “The bigger sticking point in the national negotiations is pay. To move ahead we need two things. First, we need – as employers and unions – to jointly recognise that real wages, as across the wider public sector, have been gradually eroded since 2008 by repeated below inflation pay rises. With high inflation over the last two years, that erosion has been accelerated. Pay rises in 2022-23 and 2023-24 have lagged seriously behind inflation. Many staff now face real hardship.”

‘We are grappling with a broken funding system’

He continued: “Staff at York and elsewhere – who have always worked with great commitment, and in recent years through particularly difficult circumstances as a result of Covid – deserve more. The risk is that increasing numbers of staff feel they cannot develop good, sustainable and rewarding careers in the sector. We need to change this. As we look ahead to resuming negotiations, we need to find ways to begin to reverse the decline in real wages.

“But second, we should also – as unions and employers – jointly recognise that the financial situation of the sector is at risk of becoming precarious. We are grappling with a broken funding system which systematically underfunds the true costs of both home undergraduate teaching and research and leaves us reliant on other unstable funding sources.

“Combined with the effects of recent inflation, it has put a growing number of universities in a position where higher pay rises could bring further financial risk. Some universities – even with the below-inflation pay rises of the last two years – are now in a highly problematic financial position.”

‘That will require us to think in new ways’

Charlie Jeffery looked positively towards the actions that needs to be taken. He highlighted the need for sector-wide agreement that staff deserve more, that the last two pay awards have no met the needs of staff, and that employers feel they are not in a position to afford more. He said that with this sector-wide agreement, “as we have seen around USS, we can turn to how we can fix the situation in future.”

Once again, focusing on joint recognition, he provided suggestions to fuel sector-wide agreement, saying “That will require us to think in new ways. One would be to set up a framework for shared understanding of sector finances, perhaps with independent leadership. This could enable employers and unions to build a clearer shared perspective on a sustainable approach to reversing the decline in real wages, which is vital for our sector’s future.”

Charlie Jeffery also added that there is a need to abandon the “annual, short-term and reactive negotiations” when approaching the issue of pay, and instead “develop multi-staged or multi-year deals that would enable employers to plan ahead with greater certainty, which would support developing and implementing the frameworks”.

He said: “This would likely involve putting guardrails around these pay deals through stabilisation mechanisms, analogous in outcome to those under consideration for USS, so we could manage changes in economic circumstances.”

He admitted that the University of York does realise that the current pay that staff receive is not the pay that the staff deserve. He said that those at the Uni do have a “vigorous, shared commitment to building and making a shared case to both government and opposition for fair and sustainable funding for the sector.” But, Charlie Jeffery importantly highlights that they cannot achieve sustainable and appropriate funding in an effective manner if there is an constant engagement industrial disputes.

Charlie Jeffery concluded by saying: “At the University of York we are clear that negotiations must restart to enable a different path to be found. We think that many others among employers and the trade unions across the UK want this too. Let’s do it.”

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