Out-Law News

Communication key as 68 universities face more strikes

Emma Noble tells HRNews about counteracting negative publicity when faced with industrial action


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    Staff at 68 universities across the UK have voted in favour of 10 days of strike action in the long running dispute over pensions, pay and working conditions. The University and College Union (UCU) said more than 50,000 university staff were expected to take part, beginning with a five-day walkout from 14 February. Back in December, staff at 58 universities took part in three days of strikes. 

    As The Guardian reports, there are two separate disputes going on. The first is over pension cuts for members of the University Superannuation Scheme which provides pensions to the UK’s older universities. The second is over low pay and working conditions, including objections to the relatively insecure fixed-term contracts used to employ many teaching staff. 

    The UCU has said if no agreement is reached in the forthcoming talks, 44 universities would take part in the first week of action, a five-day walkout over the pensions dispute; 68 would take part in two days of action beginning on 21 February over pensions, pay and terms; and 39 would take part in three days of action beginning on 28 February over pay and working conditions.

    Personnel Today reports on this with reaction from Universities UK which represents the universities. In a statement they said the union’s industrial action is ‘not having the desired effect’. They said: ‘In December, only a third of UCU members at institutions eligible for industrial action chose to go on strike, accounting for just 9% of staff.’ They said: ‘Students will struggle to understand why they should bear the brunt of UCU’s refusal to confront the financial challenges facing all pension schemes. The union should focus on working with employers to find a viable and affordable solution to the 2020 valuation, which avoids the unaffordably high costs members and employers are facing from April’.

    The union’s general secretary Jo Grady argued that their latest proposals would allow for a new evidence-based valuation of the pension scheme to be conducted. She said: ‘Employers can stop this dispute at any time and have been offered a route out which protects pensions and averts widespread disruption on university campuses’. She said the 2020 valuation was ‘flawed’ given the latest value of the scheme’s assets. She said: ‘If employers are serious about stopping UK wide strike action in February, they need to agree to seriously consider UCU’s proposals at the next meeting of negotiators.’

    This dispute has been going on for some time and our universities team has been advising a number of clients affected by this, helping them to prepare for industrial action. Central to those preparations is developing a communication strategy and, of course, HR has a key role in that. So let’s hear more about that. Emma Noble is one of the lawyers advising on this and she joined me by phone from Birmingham to discuss the issues. I started by asking Emma why that communication strategy is so important: 

    Emma Noble: “There are two main reasons. The first one is so that universities can counteract any negative publicity that UCU might be putting out there. For those institutions where UCU have met the 50% turnout of the votes, UCU will see their mandate as being quite strong at those institutions so you can guarantee that they’ll be pushing hard in terms of their agenda, so universities will want to make sure that they are well placed to respond to any of the arguments that UCU are putting forward, so they’ve got their own response which can be reflected in the communications the university is putting out. at they're putting out. The second reason is to try and win the hearts and minds of staff on the issues that are going to be subject to the industrial action. So whilst negotiations are occurring nationally on these issues, there's still lots that can be done at a local level, bearing in mind that unions are membership-led organisations, they have to listen to their members, so influencing staff and helping them to see the university’s position is really important. That might mean highlighting the reasons why negotiations haven't succeeded up until up to this point, highlighting the cost to the university of meeting the union’s demands and the negative impact in terms of possible redundancies etcetera. Universities UK have been flagging these points nationally but these are the things that HR can help with at a local level. We know that is happening at some universities already, at staff forums, and that’s helpful because it helps staff feel they are being listened to on these issues.”

    Joe Glavina: “I remember the last time we had the threat of industrial action in the sector we were advising universities to keep a record of the ballots that were taking place. Is that worthwhile and what’s the purpose of it?”

    Emma Noble: “Yes, so it's definitely worthwhile universities keeping a record of ballot notices and the steps taken in relation to industrial action. Although UCU are obviously a large trade union who will be well versed in the conduct of lawful industrial action, and it’s unlikely they will make mistakes, it could happen and we have seen it before. This is a very complex and technical area of the law and time and again we have seen slip-ups by unions which can give the institution the chance to go to court and have the action stopped, or at least delayed. So we always advice universities to track closely the steps the union is taking. The other reason it’s a good idea is because it means you’ll have a record of the steps taken by the unions, and their communications around those steps, which means the university can align their communications accurately, and so respond in the most effective way.”

    Joe Glavina: “I know some universities are actively considering pay deductions. What’s the advice on that Emma?”

    Emma Noble: “Be careful. Take legal advice. This is one of the most complex areas with lots of tricky case law  and we’ve seen many cases of employers getting this wrong, overstepping the mark, and being challenged by members and unions on the basis that the deductions are unlawful, whether they be for taking strike action or action short of a strike. So, the message is tread carefully because what may be lawful for one university may be unlawful for another.” 

    Joe Glavina: “Finally, what about the students who are caught up in this?”

    Emma Noble: “The last 18 months have been really difficult for students anyway and they'll be really alive to the fact that their learning experience has been impacted by the pandemic and I'm sure most students will want to ensure that any further disruption to their learning experience is minimised at all costs. Obviously, the measures that can be put in place to do that will vary from institution but the message needs to be a positive one about the contingency measures the university is taking to minimise the impact on students, whether that be covering staff absences, online lectures, and so on. Some students will be empathetic to the industrial action, others may see it more from the university’s perspective, but all of them will expect universities to do their best to protect their education and learning.”
    The universities team at Pinsent Masons has written in some detail about threat now facing universities and how to respond. That is ‘Preparing for industrial action in the UK universities sector‘ and it is available now from the Outlaw website.


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