Striking university staff are determined to secure a deal that tackles burnout and makes their working lives more liveable, Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) has insisted, ahead of talks at the independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas).
Speaking on the sixth day of coordinated strike action across the higher education sector, Grady told the Guardian that for the UCU and fellow higher education unions, the dispute has never been just about pay.
“For our members, obviously we do need a pay offer that deals with the cost of living crisis and what’s been a 25% pay cut since 2009; but our members are also incredibly concerned about burnout workloads and the moral stain of casualisation in our sector,” she said.
“For us this is about: can you put food on the table? Can you pay the rent? Can you get through this inflation crisis? But it’s also about: we are not going to tolerate working in a sector any more that treats people like this. So we have shown a lot of strength,” she said.
“It’s about having lives and colleagues and workplaces that are full of people who are buzzing to be there, rather than absolutely drained.”
University lecturers have long complained about the creeping casualisation of their sector, with many staff on short-term, insecure contracts which leave them struggling to make ends meet.
Ucea, the universities and colleges employers’ association, has insisted that long-established rules of engagement between the two sides specify that pay should be settled first, before other issues can be looked at.
But Grady says pay cannot be dealt with in isolation. “We really need the employer to put forward a rounded offer,” she said, suggesting new “framework agreements” on dealing with such issues as insecure contracts, excessive workloads and ethnicity pay gaps.
The two sides have agreed to take part in talks at Acas next week, in the hope of reaching a settlement.
University employers recently made an improved offer of a 5% pay rise for the coming year, 2023-24; but UCU members overwhelmingly rejected it in an online ballot, with more than 80% of the 30,000 respondents voting against.
Responding to UCU’s rejection of that offer earlier this month, Ucea’s chief executive Raj Jethwa pointed out that it was the most generous made by the sector in two decades, and was worth up to 8% for some staff.
“UCU asked its members to reject our offer, but the union knows that many higher education inistituions’ finances are severely stretched in the face of falling real income and rising costs. It is hard to reach a settlement without a degree of realism. Our offer is a genuine attempt by employers to address cost of living pressures,” he said.
Four other unions representing staff in the higher education sector, including the GMB and Unite, will be involved in next week’s negotiations alongside the UCU, which has 70,000 members.
The unions currently have another 17 days of strikes planned for February and March, across 150 universities, which will go ahead if no resolution can be reached.
The action is part of a historic wave of strikes sweeping the public sector in recent weeks. Ambulance workers from Unison were also on strike on Friday, as part of the bitter ongoing pay dispute in the NHS.
Grady, who is a lecturer in employment relations as well as a trade union leader, said workers across different sectors had drawn strength from each other. “People inspire each other,” she said. “Everything feels economically crushing,” she added, but “people are saying, ‘absolutely not’”.
Government ministers have insisted they are ready to negotiate with the public sector unions – but have repeatedly declined to discuss pay for 2022-23, instead pointing ahead to the coming year’s settlement.
Ucea also insists both sides agreed to prioritise pay, and points out that it had offered to pay part of the promised increase upfront, this month.