What is going on in the HE national negotiations?


  • These talks concern ending the Marking and Assessment Boycott
  • Pay, casualisation, workload and pay gaps are not on this table: at best, these talks may lead to restarting negotiations
  • Employers are not making an improved pay offer, but have offered a ‘review of sector finances’
  • We need to launch the summer reballot, not just for leverage now, but to keep up pressure in the autumn
  • Democracy is essential: any offer must be put to a Branch Delegate Meeting before going to HEC and an e-ballot

On Friday, members received an email from the General Secretary about the talks with UCEA. A rather cryptic ‘joint statement’ between UCU and UCEA has been published on UCEA’s website.

Members are engaged in a Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) in order to persuade employers to increase their offer on pay and engage in meaningful negotiations over casualisation, workload and pay gaps.

We all know that the MAB has been difficult to carry out. On top of the professional and personal sacrifice, it is extremely stressful for staff. Members are facing up to threats of 100% pay deductions and often prolonged deductions. These threats have already been carried out in many cases, and some members have even received zero pay!

But we are doing this in order to move the employers on the demands of the dispute. The scale of this action and its impact is due to the cumulative anger in the sector of staff who have seen employers hold down pay and continue abusive practices of casualisation and overwork. The MAB is less like a strike and more like an underground organised movement that has included staff who did not take part in strike action in the past.

The joint statement says

Today’s exploratory talks between UCEA, UCU and the other joint unions’ side secretary were constructive, although there is still significant ground to be covered. We have explored obstacles to resuming negotiations and bringing an end to the Marking and Assessment Boycott, with both sides recognising the complexity of the issues. Both sides welcomed the positive tone of the discussion and have identified dates for further urgent talks. Further discussion will also take place with the Joint HE Trade Unions to consider the scope and remit of a review of sector finances.

This statement after the first day of negotiations follows a letter from UCU General Secretary Jo Grady to UCEA two weeks ago. In this letter she set out terms of reference for an ‘interim agreement’ and the following approach to negotiations:

  • Any suspension will require UCEA to recommend an immediate end to punitive pay deductions and a return of deductions to members.
  • Any suspension will require a commitment from employers to recognise staff’s entitlement to leave and to a reasonable workload on their return to normal working.
  • Any interim agreement will be subject to consultation with UCU members.
  • University staff have already rejected the 5% pay award UCEA began imposing in February (2023), and continue to demand that UCEA improve pay to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.

The employers have refused to talk to the unions about pay since they declared the pay offer for August 2023 as ‘final’ in February. They placed preconditions on negotiations on casualisation, workload, pay gaps and ‘the review of the pay spine’ (considering whether to delete and adjust salary points at the lower end of the national pay scale) that ruled out any industrial action by any trade union for the duration of those negotiations.

So why are they talking now, and what does this ‘positive tone’ refer to?

Decoding the statement

In order to decode the statement we have to read the bullet points in Jo Grady’s letter. This sets out UCU negotiators’ brief as to negotiate an end to the MAB.

On the one hand, an agreement to stop and return any deductions made would obviously be welcome. But if the employers wish student work to be marked by staff who set assessments and taught the students in the first place, it will be essential anyway!

With the exception of Queen Mary, which faced significant strike action, and Goldsmiths, which was in a parallel local dispute over redundancies, no deductions were made for MAB participation last year. Although this negotiation is more complicated with 145 institutions at the national table rather than at 30 local ones, the realpolitik is essentially the same.

But what about actual positive movement on the issues of the dispute? What is the substance of the statement?

The final bullet point is unclear. It seems only to ask the employers to note that the unions continue to demand an increased pay offer, but not to commit to it.

The UCEA statement says ‘[f]urther discussion will also take place with the Joint HE Trade Unions to consider the scope and remit of a review of sector finances.’ But ‘a review of sector finances’ means ‘open the books’ at best. It does not put new money on the table. Given the financial speculation and capital overspend that many universities have engaged in over the last decade, this review could easily turn into a platform for the employers to plead poverty. It is likely that many will.

UCU is currently negotiating the end of the MAB without demanding a concrete commitment from the employers to move on the Four Fights – the entire point of the dispute. By contrast, branches in the MAB last year were able to extract concrete commitments from their employers, and in some cases additional payments, as a condition of ending the MAB.

What can we do at this critical point in our dispute?

We have to stop our union giving away our leverage. It is not enough to say ‘hold the line’ if these negotiations will be the end of the line!

The first step is to call a summer reballot and demand that other Sector Conference decisions are respected and implemented, as members have a right to expect. It is possible, within UCU rules, for the relevant officers to trigger the ballot. Of course this should have happened at the last HEC meeting, however, the agenda item which would have triggered the ballot was ‘timed out’ by other business.

The reballot must begin immediately. If the employers are kicking negotiations over pay into next term, we need those talks to begin in the context of a credible threat of industrial action. Other trade unions, including UNISON, are lining up to take strike action next term.

Launching the reballot will also send a strong signal to the employers in the current negotiations that members expect a better deal right now.

The second step is to demand that any offer from the employers is put to an official Branch Delegate Meeting (BDM) before an HEC meeting is convened to discuss it. This is the very least we should expect, and has been how UCU has consulted over negotiations since 2018. Yet it seems that sections of the UCU leadership are averse to doing this. Could it be that they worry that branch reps won’t stand for a sell-out?

Calling a BDM is a basic requirement. Local branches negotiating the end to the MAB last year put offers to branch meetings and debated whether the offer was good enough. But there was no official BDM called ahead of the last HEC meeting which voted (by a majority of one) to approach the employers with these conditions.

Democracy is not an added extra. It is essential to our union’s health and strength. Whether one thinks that an ultimate offer is a good or bad one, we must not let our union slide further into undemocratic practices. Nor must we permit the undermining of reps and activists who have led the MAB in the branches, and every single member who is holding the line for their union right now in the face of management intimidation.

Passing motions

An example model motion is the following (passed at KCL on 12 July)

MAB for the win!

This branch believes that

  1. the MAB is currently exerting huge pressure on the employers
  2. now is not the time to offer concessions
  3. the offer of an ‘interim agreement’ sends a dangerous signal that we have no stomach for the fight.

This branch calls for

  1. an urgent BDM to discuss the MAB
  2. the decisions of Sector Conference to be respected and implemented, including the summer reballot, which should begin immediately.

This branch resolves to contact our geographical and UK-wide representatives on HEC to explain the way they voted on the key motions at last Friday’s meeting and under what circumstances they would vote to overturn decisions made by HE Sector Conference.

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