UCU Left Statement on USS and 4Fights

Analysis of the employers’ offer and a strategy to win

A UCU Left Briefing Paper

Considerable confusion has descended on the disputes since the General Secretary’s podcast and e-ballot, and the decision of the HE Committee (HEC) to reject the UCEA ‘final offer’ and to continue the disputes. This briefing paper seeks to explain the key features of the UCEA position and to assess it in relation to the objectives of the UCU disputes, to explain the role and responsibilities of the HEC in disputes, and to explain both the development of the campaigns and the implications of their outcomes.

The USS Dispute

Dispute and campaign

Colleagues in the USS will be well aware of the dual origins of the dispute – an adverse valuation and a refusal of USS to recognise, in a multi-institutional scheme of this kind with guarantee of replacement members of the scheme in future generations (the open and long-term nature of the scheme), that this did not require the imposition of cuts to benefits and increases in contributions.

The UCU campaign is about preserving the guaranteed benefits of the scheme, and stopping the changes that would reduce retirement benefits by 35%. These changes would transfer the pensions risk from the institutional members of the scheme, the universities, to staff of universities who are the beneficiaries of the scheme, despite the fact that these institutions have a combined annual income of £34bn.

The latest UUK position on USS

UUK agreed in signing the joint statement with UCU to prioritise the intention (‘with a view to achieving …’ in the language of the Joint Statement) to restore benefits by April 2024, and will develop a risk-management mechanism that ‘can provide more sustainable benefits and contributions’ in the face of fluctuations in the future valuations of the scheme. The first of these requires consultation with, and agreement from, all of the institutional members of the scheme. UUK agreed to engage in exploratory collaborative work on an alternative method for the 2023 valuation.


Under pressure from sustained industrial action, and in the face of new financial circumstances and a revised valuation, UUK has agreed to look again at the valuation methodology, and to consult its member universities on a restoration of benefits. Yet to describe this as ‘a win’ for the UCU would be to substitute hope for security. This for three reasons:

  • UUK has expressed an intention to restore benefits by April 2024 but has not committed to so doing, and its member institutions have to agree to this policy before it is enacted;
  • UUK has agreed to seek an improved risk-management mechanism in the light of the open and long-term nature of the scheme, but has made no commitment to the preservation of benefits or to restraint on contribution increases should the scheme experience future adverse valuations; and
  • UUK has agreed to explore the options and costs of repaying the benefits that will have been lost to members of the scheme between April 2022 and April 2024 but has made no commitment to such a recovery of these losses – this will depend on costs, and will be subject to veto by the institutional members of the scheme.

This is the information, all the information, that was available to the members of the HEC at its Friday meeting on 17th March.

It does not require any scepticism about the sincerity of UUK negotiators to see multiple ways in which such a position could unravel in practice, and once again threaten members’ benefits and the cost of their contributions, and ultimately the long-term viability of the scheme. There is, therefore, a pressing question about whether this series of agreements by UUK is sufficient to meet the objectives of the UCU dispute. 


All experienced trade union negotiators would argue that a condition of settling the dispute should be guarantees on benefits and contributions, and on the restoration of losses, and that these guarantees should be underpinned by the prior agreement of UUK’s member universities. 

Nevertheless, a separation of the voting on the USS and the 4-Fights disputes had been under discussion informally by HEC members prior to the opening of the meeting. Supporters of the UCU Left group on the HEC were not particularly concerned about whether the voting would be separated or not because their assessment was that the employers’ positions over both the USS and the 4-Fights disputes were equally unacceptable. In the event, separate voting on USS was not formally proposed by any member of HEC, and was not suggested by the Chair. HEC members were faced, therefore, with the choice between termination of all action in all disputes, or the termination of none. 

Whether this refusal to countenance separate votes was the consequence of an inept handling of the meeting or of a determination to attempt to end both disputes simultaneously by holding only one vote to cover both disputes could only be a matter of speculation over motives. The HEC was confronted, therefore, with a choice between ending both disputes or neither. To choose the former course would have been to sacrifice the struggle against pay cuts and for reasonable conditions of service (the 4 Fights) in return for (or, more accurately, in the hope that) there would be a resolution of the USS dispute on the basis of UUK’s declared ‘intentions’.

UUK guarantees

There is an account now circulating on social media that suggests that UUK has indeed, in agreement with UCU, guaranteed the repayment of lost benefits and the protection of contribution and benefit levels against future adverse scheme valuations. If this is indeed the case then it is the first time that members of the HEC have known about it, and the terms of such an agreement have not been shared with either the members of the HEC or the negotiators, not to speak of UCU members.

For more on the USS offer see the post ‘Have we ‘won’ on USS?’ by Deepa Driver and Marion Hersh.

The Four Fights

The joint unions’ claim was for a pay settlement in excess of inflation, a solution to pay inequality, an end to precarious contracts, and a national agreement that would end excessive workloads. 

The UCU has had unprecedented success, as a result of the efforts of local branches, in overcoming the Government’s anti-trade union laws by exceeding the 50% participation threshold. In so doing it has demonstrated its capacity seriously to damage the operation of universities through escalating strike action and a work-to-contract, and has dramatically increased its membership in the HE sector by demonstrating to staff that it is serious about pay and conditions of service.

Headline pay rates

On the issue of pay rates, UCEA has made no move to meet the UCU’s demand for an award that both covers inflation and restores some of the losses over the last decade and a half. Indeed, its response to the decision of the General Secretary (made without reference to the HEC) to ‘pause’ industrial action so that the climate of negotiations could improve, was to IMPOSE a below-inflation offer that the unions, including UCU, had already rejected.

The imposed award now confronts UCU members with a further erosion of their real incomes in 2022-23 and 2023-24. Real incomes will fall even further … by an estimated 15%, on reasonably conservative predictions of the inflation rate next year.

Moreover, the proposed agreement to reconsider the single pay spine with the focus on ending pay compression on a no detriment basis potentially paves the way for even more pay inequality. No detriment for existing members means consideration is being given to reducing pay for new entrants into the sector. Ending pay compression suggests both a reduction in the number of salary points but slower progress up the pay spine, and could lead to pressure to negotiate on ending annual incremental progression.

Pay inequality

UCEA has agreed to collect and analyse data on pay inequality by gender, ethnicity and disability, and the impact of this inequality on institutions’ employment strategies. It will present this information and analysis to its member universities with a recommendation for them to follow good practice in other sectors, conduct equal pay audits, and to involve the trade unions in the implementation of recommended remedial measures.

In other words, there has been no national agreement to eliminate these pay inequalities, one that is mandatory on UCEA’s member universities. Rather there is the promise of data collection and recommendations, with the outcome dependent on the negotiations and/or industrial action that is organised at a local level by individual UCU branches.

See JNCHES Pay Gaps Review Terms Of Reference March 23

Casual contracts

Ignoring the immediate issue of precarious contracts in the HE sector, UCEA has made a commitment to negotiate over them in 2023-4, and to identify ‘concrete steps which employers are able to implement locally’, and to recommend to its member universities ‘action on zero-hours contracts’. It registers the caveats that a) contract types are for individual institutions to determine, and b) that there are reasons for having indefinite contracts with minimal hours.

Much has been made of UCEA’s implicit criticism of zero-hours contracts, in suggesting that they might be ‘phased out’ (not abolished). This is dramatically to inflate the importance of this specific type of contract in the general problem of casualisation in the sector. Zero-hours contracts are just one form in a range of precarious, casual contract types that plague employment conditions in the HE sector. The UCEA position (see link below) explicitly defends the preservation of some small-hours contracts, depending on institutional ‘need’, and this reflects, in part, the declining significance for employers of ‘zero-hours’ contracts in the light of recent case law.

In other words, UCEA will negotiate with the UCU over the recommendations to be made to their member universities but will come to no mandatory national agreement. Thus the outcome will be dependent on the negotiations and/or industrial action that is organised at a local level by individual UCU branches.

See JNCHES Pay Gaps Review Terms Of Reference March 23


UCEA has declared a commitment to negotiate in seeking an agreement on workloads. This will involve the identification of good practice in workload management, and will recommend local action plans to reduce work-related stress and ill health. It will promote the Health and Safety Executive’s standards and a set of principles as advisory to its member universities, especially in the face of organisational change.

In other words, there is no agreement to overcome the problem of excessive workloads in the sector. There will eventually be UCEA recommendations but the outcome in individual universities will be dependent on the negotiations and/or industrial action that is organised at a local level by individual UCU branches.

See JNCHES Pay Gaps Review Terms Of Reference March 23

Summary of ‘4-Fights’

There has been no binding agreement on any of the campaign’s objectives: headline pay, pay equality, workloads, or precarious contracts. The UCEA refrain that it cannot commit its individual member institutions is an admission that it knows that there are many that will do no more than acknowledge the existence of UCEA’s recommendations. Were this ‘offer’ to be accepted by members then that would constitute a dramatic defeat for the UCU nationally, which would then have local ramifications for the position of UCU branches.

Strategic Considerations

It has long been the wish of the managements in many HE institutions either to break away from national bargaining, or for national bargaining to be ended. Though this would incur some additional HR costs for the management of their institutions, it would also enable them to recruit on the basis of regional or local conditions, to create their own pay scales, and to determine institution-specific conditions of service. What is not least disturbing about the recommendation of the General Secretary to accept these offers and impositions is that such a recommendation appears to be oblivious to the strategic damage that this would cause to the strength of branches, and thus to members’ conditions and job security, and to the cohesion of the sector around a common pay spine and commonality of conditions of service. The recommendation of the General Secretary is either in ignorance of, or in unintentional collusion with, the drive to end national bargaining de facto.

It has always been the case that the individual universities have insisted on their independence of action in implementing national agreements. The conclusion to national negotiations always resulted only in recommendations to UCEA’s member institutions. Any that then failed to implement the ‘recommendations’ (i.e. the national agreement) would/should be targeted with the full force of UCU sanctions. Yet what is now proposed in UCEA’s position is something that is beyond that arrangement. Written into the declared intentions are explicit caveats that allow transgressive workloads where local circumstances dictate, and that openly proclaim the existence of objective local circumstances that would justify precarious or low-hours contracts.

The dangerous implication is clear. A growing proportion of institutions in the sector will make claims about their exceptional circumstances in order to justify postponing the implementation, or ignoring, the national recommendations. This will mean that the responsibility for securing recognition and implementation of any national agreement will be devolved from the national campaign down to local branches. 

The outcome then will depend on the local balance of forces: the financial position of the institution and the consequent resolve of its management set against the size, density and level of organisation of the local UCU branch. Large, well-resourced local branches will secure implementation of the agreement; smaller and less well organised branches will not. The terms and conditions of service in the sector would then increasingly diverge, creating a multi-level segregated series of HE markets, with differential provision, and with predictable consequences for staff incomes and working conditions.

UCU Processes and Responsibilities

It is now public knowledge, because of an irresponsible release of information from the last HE Committee meeting into the public domain, that there is continuing tension between the General Secretary and the HE Committee on both the handling of the dispute and the responsibilities and the processes through which disputes are managed in the UCU. For this reason alone, it is important for members to understand the democratic structure and processes of the UCU.

Democratic principles

The internal structure of the UCU is designed to make it as democratic and as member-led as it is possible for such an organisation to be. The basic principle is that discussion and debate constitute the foundation of any democratic process. So, the starting point is debate amongst members in branch meetings, where local branch officers and delegates are elected by members after full discussion. Branch delegates represent the branches on the Union’s Regional Committees, at national Congress and Sector Conferences (for HE and FE respectively). The national Congress (and the HE and FE Sector Conferences) are the supreme policy-making bodies of the UCU. Between Congresses, the National Executive Committee (or its FE or HE sub-committees) interprets and oversees the implementation of Congress (or Sector Conference) policy. Members vote in national elections for their representatives on the National Executive Committee.

The HE Sector Conference (HESC)

This is the annual, policy-making conference for the UCU on matters pertaining exclusively to the HE sector, and takes place as part of the annual, national Congress of the Union. Amongst other things, it determines the union’s objectives in respect of pay and conditions, and its industrial strategy. If there are urgent policy matters that arise between Congresses, 20 branches can collectively requisition a Special HE Sector Conference (SHESC) to debate that issue only.

The Higher Education Committee (HEC)

The HEC is a sub-committee of the National Executive Committee (NEC), and consists of all of the members of the NEC elected by members from the HE sector. In respect of national HE disputes (or other national issues affecting the HE sector), it is the body that has responsibility for oversight of the dispute and its organisation, and is the body that considers offers from the national representatives of the employers, and decides whether these sufficiently satisfy the aims of the struggle for that offer to be put out to a members’ ballot for acceptance or rejection. The HEC normally takes reports and advice from the HE National Negotiators who are those elected by the annual HE Sector Conference to negotiate with the employers’ representatives on behalf of UCU.

Branch Delegate Meetings (BDMs)

These are periodic, national, on-line meetings of delegates to report from branches to the GS and to the HEC on the mood, attitude and views of members as expressed in individual university branch meetings. They constitute a form of ‘testing the mood’.

Plebiscites and Members’ Ballots

These two mechanisms should not be confused. They are radically different.

Members’ ballots

A members’ ballot is a mechanism whereby individual members decide in an electronic or postal ballot on the acceptance or rejection of an offer from employers (for example), that offer having been already considered by the National Negotiators and by the HEC, and having been determined by the HEC as an offer worthy of being presented to the members, and with a recommendation from the HEC either to accept or to reject it. The HEC may be of the majority view that an offer should be rejected but still think it a sufficient advance to be worthy of members’ consideration in a ballot.

Why not put ALL offers from the employers to a members’ ballot automatically? Wouldn’t that be more democratic? Why bother with the detailed discussions on the HEC before a decision is taken to ballot members or not? If a ballot is agreed, why delay it so that branches can meet to discuss the details of an offer? In fact, an automatic members ballot would not be democratic at all! 

A) Timing

First, a democratic decision depends on that decision being informed by the details of what is on offer (the circulation to all of the precise wording of the offer), and by having the alternative interpretations of those details exposed to critical investigation in branch discussion and debate. An informed decision is conditional on members’ reflection and judgement after collective discussion in branch meetings. If a ballot, whether informal or formal, is organised precipitately then that would preclude the opportunity for discussion and debate, and would remove the opportunity to hear the views of others before a decision was taken. That would not be a democratic process. Ballots of members’ opinions are not just desirable. They are essential to the proper functioning and effectiveness of a trade union. Their functioning as part of a democratic process, however, depends on their timing: the full information has to be provided to members sufficiently in advance, and with time for the organisation of branch meetings for discussion and debate before the ballot. 

In the case of the General Secretary’s recent informal ballot of members there was no time either for receipt and digestion of the offer in detail, or for branch meetings for discussion prior to voting.

B) HEC decision on balloting

Second, the automatic triggering of a ballot in response to new offers would mean that there was no means for the HEC members, familiar as they are with the ongoing struggle and the negotiations, and the employers’ evolving tactics, to determine whether the ‘offer’ was frivolous and a tactical ploy, or was a serious offer worthy of putting to the vote. If all offers were automatically put out to a members’ vote in a ballot then the obvious tactical invitation to our employers’ representatives would be to make a series of marginally improved offers, well short of the Union’s claim, knowing that ballot exhaustion would eventually deliver them an acceptance of an inadequate offer. That is the reason why it is UCU policy for offers to be considered by the HEC prior to being put to members for acceptance or rejection. This is not because HEC members are always more experienced or more tactically astute than other members but in order to prevent or at least deter our employers’ representatives from so manipulating the system. Every union, without exception, recognises this tactical question, and presents offers to its relevant committee first before presenting them to members.

In the case of the General Secretary’s recent informal ballot of members this was conducted prior to the meeting of the HEC whose responsibility it was to consider whether to put the offer to members, and it was decided on by the General Secretary in defiance of the Union’s policy on membership surveys of opinion.

C) HEC recommendation on offers

Third, any ballot of HE members on the acceptance or rejection of an offer in an on-going dispute has to come with a recommendation from the HE Committee. While supportive of the Union, and desirous of a successful outcome for their disputes, many members are not fully informed about the issues at stake, and when confronted with a requirement to judge an offer are in need and want of, and usually demand, interpretation and guidance from those who have been elected to follow the issues in detail. It is the responsibility of the HEC to offer that guidance. That is why it is UCU policy that in putting an offer to members, if it is appropriate to do so, there should always be a recommendation from the HEC, one way or the other. 

see: motion HE2, HESC 2014

At the recent HEC meeting, the rejected proposal was to put the offer out to a formal members’ ballot without any recommendation from the HEC, in defiance of UCU policy.


A plebiscite in these trade union circumstances, by contrast, is a ballot mechanism aimed not at enabling members to make a decision but rather designed to manipulate the outcome, and thus to be able to claim that the ballot organiser’s preferred outcome is the democratically expressed wish of the populace. Plebiscites are normally characterised by tendentious questions, that are more or less sophisticated and sometimes intentionally confused or convoluted, and which incline voters towards the choice that delivers the organiser’s preferred outcome. Often accompanied by infantalising positivity, they are usually timed in such a manner as to preclude the possibility of discussion and debate in advance. In this form, they are not forms of democratic expression but rather of populist manipulation. That is why UCU Congress decisively rejected their use in the UCU.

see: motion 50 Congress 2011; motion L5 and motion 63, Congress 2012

It is with deep regret that it must be observed that the General Secretary’s recent informal e-ballot that sought to end the disputes took the form of a manipulatory plebiscite. As a member of UCU, whatever one’s position on the acceptability or not of UUK and UCEA positions and their ‘final offers’ on the disputes, it must be a matter not just of regret but of concern for the future of the UCU that this practice should have been adopted. Not least is it of concern because it is categorically against the Union’s policy on the use of plebiscites 

Winning the Disputes


In our current dispute, there have been tactical and strategic differences from the start between the General Secretary and the majority of members’ representatives at HE Sector Conferences and on the HEC. Opposed from the start to escalating strike action, to linking up the USS and 4-Fights disputes, and even to fighting on pay issues at all this year, the General Secretary’s objectives and strategy (which seemed to focus narrowly on the USS campaign) were defeated again and again by delegates from both pre and post-92 institutions at Conferences, and by members’ representatives on the HEC. 

Members’ elected delegates at Sector Conferences and their elected representatives on the HEC carried motions insisting, 

    1. that pay was indeed an issue that had to be fought over this year,
    2. that while the USS and the 4-Fights disputes were technically separate (in that it was conceivable that one could be settled while the other could continue in both pre- and post-92 institutions) the action to betaken on both disputes needed to be taken together in order to maximise the pressure on the employers,
    3. that token, one-day actions needed to be replaced by escalating action in order to win, preventing the employers from waiting out single days of strike action, and
    4. should culminate in a MAB that would prevent credible awards to graduating students.

The recent decision of the HEC on the disputes was based on the view that it is still possible for these disputes with UCEA and the university employers to be won. That is a judgement arrived at by argument, and not by the imposition of the position of one faction or another on the HEC. There are three groupings on the HEC, defined by their different understanding of what is required to win disputes in the interests of members: the ‘UCU Left’, the ‘Commons’, and the ‘Independent Broad Left’. Groups of this kind are not peculiar to the UCU; they form in all trade unions, and are inevitable. None of these groupings represent a majority on the HEC. Majority decisions are arrived at, therefore, through arguments that persuade those members of HEC who are associated with none of the three groups, or arguments which are persuasive across the groups. Such was the case in the recent HEC decision. This was not a decision dictated by the numerical superiority of any faction.


The resort to plebiscites and to suspending action without the sanction of the HEC were attempts to override the loss of the argument, and the rejection of the General Secretary’s strategy. It is to be hoped that the adverse general reaction to the General Secretary’s recent decision to try to use an informal, e-ballot plebiscite to go over the heads of the members of the HEC will be the end of this practice, contrary as it is to UCU policy.

Nevertheless, this attempt to end the disputes while the Union is in the last two weeks of a formal ballot to renew the mandate on industrial action has been both disrespectful to branch activists engaged in the GTVO campaign, and disorienting for branch committees and members alike. The process has been very badly handled, if that is not to add insult through the use of an understatement in relation to the current situation.

From the beginning, the General Secretary’s focus, having lost her proposal not to fight over pay, was to oppose escalating strike action and to counterpose to it the marking and assessment boycott (MAB). She was wrong about strikes but she was right about the importance of the MAB. Unfortunately, she now wants to end the disputes, and to call off the MAB as well as the strikes.

Winning this year

These disputes can still be won this year. To win these fights and to defend Higher Education, our jobs and our conditions, we need to do four things:

  1. Build large and vibrant pickets this week on each of the strike days to signal to the employers, and to their representatives in UCEA, that the dispute is not over, and to build confidence amongst our members despite the confusion of the last week.
  2. Continue the effort by branches to GTVO, and to ensure a ‘yes’ vote in the current ballot to renew the action.
  3. To begin the process, school by school, and faculty by faculty, to organise the best coordinated and most widely supported MAB that the UCU has ever deployed.
  4. To organise local Strike Committees in every university, composed of all those active in the industrial action, whose regular and frequent meetings can discuss and debate the direction of the campaign, and can coordinate local initiatives.

UCU Left
21st March 2023