A copy of the all staff email sent on 28 June 2023

Dear colleagues

UCU and the University wish to recognise that, over a number of years, we have built strong, open and truly joint ways of working here at York. We value this hard-won way of working and can point to a number of examples of the impact of our joint endeavours (along with Unite and UNISON) to improve working conditions at York.

Progress so far includes:

  • introducing employment contracts for Graduate Teaching Assistants
  • work locally to measure and start to close the unacceptable pay gaps between named groups.
  • implementing the Real Living Wage and additional payments to staff to help manage cost of living pressures.

In sharing these examples, we recognise that we have much more to do to improve working conditions in York. We are committed to working together with all our Trade Unions to start work imminently to further enhance our family friendly policies, and to reduce the number of short-term contracts in use.

UCU and University of York

We are writing today on behalf of the University and UCU York Executive Committee to share our local position on the industrial action dispute. You can also read the co-authored article published by WonkHE.

We have a shared interest in resolving the cycle of disputes, which is having a damaging effect on staff and students, and undermining the reputation of our university, as well as the wider sector. We recognise that there are legitimate interests on both sides and that the two sides have not been able to reach agreement at national level.

We have achieved progress at York through creating a trusting and joint method of working between unions and management, and wish this same spirit to be adopted at UK level, to enable a return to the negotiation table. We are clear that this is what colleagues at York wish to see.

The 'Four Fights' dispute

At the heart of the 'Four Fights' dispute is a clear assertion by UCU members that a combination of pay and working conditions require urgent attention. This includes the need for action by the management at the University of York and at UK-level, through the JNCHES negotiation process involving five trade unions and UCEA.

The dispute is not resolved as yet, due to the failure of the trade unions and employers to agree a deal that is acceptable to all.

We recognise that having so many employers and unions involved makes negotiation complex, and that for such negotiation to be successfully resolved, we need goodwill and evidence-based decision-making at all times.

Negotiations made some progress a few months ago, 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. We want to work to strengthen these Terms of Reference, perhaps marking out baselines that universities would be expected to meet. This would provide a floor, below which universities could not go, in all areas of interest in the Four Fights.

It is clear that UCU members consider the last two pay rounds to be the biggest barrier to progress. Plainly put, 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. We recognise this causes real hardship for staff, as well as risking many leaving our university due to not being able to afford to work in the sector.

The University of York also recognises that this is not a sustainable position, and has a clear wish to offer staff pay rises at a level that will, over time, reverse the decline in real wages.

Fixing the broken system

At the heart of the matter is the precarious financial situation of the sector. The current funding model is broken, systematically underfunding the true costs of both research and home undergraduate teaching. This has led to the last decade of expansion of student numbers in York, principally through larger numbers of international students, to maintain income levels. A combination of inflation and recent UK Government decision making in relation to the status of international students within migration statistics, show that this unstable model of cross-fertilising funding is no longer sustainable.

On the broader sector, many employers feel they are not in a position to afford more than the pay rises of the last two years. While UCU disputes this, we can jointly recognise that there is significant financial stress and risk in higher education, for the reasons outlined above.

We therefore call on the UK-level UCU and UCEA to join us in making the intellectual and moral case for changes to the funding of our sector, and to campaign effectively so that higher education is recognised as being essential to public good and as a key driver of economic prosperity. This would lead to long term stability in wage levels, including a drive to reverse the long-term decline in real wages.

A desire for stability

Both parties at the University of York certainly wish to achieve stability and a level of certainty for employees and the sector.

We have agreed we want to continue with national collective bargaining, which means that pay levels - and any changes to them - are agreed at a national level and not by individual universities.

A national pay agreement ensures that all staff are paid similarly across the sector, enabling a rich and diverse UK Higher Education sector to thrive. However, this means that York must work with the whole sector to try and bring about change.

We believe that if we can find sector-wide agreement on two key points, our staff deserve more, but many employers feel they are not in a position to afford more, then, as we have seen around USS, we can turn to how we can fix the situation in future.

That will require us to think in new ways. One could 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.

We also believe that moving beyond the annual short-term reactive negotiations, to a multi-staged or a multi-year pay deal, would enable employers to plan ahead with greater certainty, and begin to reverse the decline in real wages we have seen since 2008.

Working together

This way of thinking about our future together, along with a commitment to build and make a shared case to government and opposition for fair and sustainable funding for the sector, could form the basis of settling our UK-level dispute.

Unions and employers will continue to challenge each other as they address and resolve different perspectives on pensions, pay and working conditions, but we are taking this combined call to action right to the top, to both UK-level UCU and to UCEA, to show that the University of York wants to move forward and do things differently.

We think many others among employers and union branches across the UK are ready to join this charge. Together, we can find a new path away from adversarial industrial conflict and deliver pay and working conditions that we can all be proud of, and that benefit both staff and students.

Charlie Jeffery, University of York Vice-Chancellor and President
UCU York Executive Committee