Sunday thoughts: Is abandoning collective bargaining the way out of universities’ PR nightmare?

Jonathan Simons
8 min readAug 13, 2023


Universities are in serious public relations trouble.

The front pages this weekend (and the last week or more) are splashed with warnings that there isn’t enough student accommodation for first years starting this Autumn. A record number of top grades might be missed and so university places denied. And universities are happy to go along with this while filling places with higher paying Chinese students.

But perhaps most importantly, I would say I have had no fewer than half a dozen conversations with senior people in politics and in policy this last month, who have mentioned during that conversation that they’ve been to their child’s graduation, and they’ve graduated, or their friends have, without a degree.

You can see how these issues link in people’s minds. Over the last few years, students have been locked down on campuses. Lectures switched to (often poor quality, at least initially) online provision. Most facilities cancelled. Costs of being a student have spiralled and housing is harder to find. International students are being prioritised because they pay more. And after three years of that, with no tuition discount given, large numbers of students are graduating without even the degrees that their fees are meant to have been paying for? Joanna Gosling’s (former BBC presenter) piece summarises the fury well.

Make no mistake, this really matters. Students’ parents are typically in their fifties. A decent number of them — like my counterparts — are now in very senior positions in business, politics, journalism, and policy. And they talk. The word among these opinion formers is overwhelmingly hostile to HE at the moment, and their views have an outsize influence on how the sector is perceived (including by government and opposition).

Look, I get the other side. Some of the last three years has been totally outside of the sector’s control. What were universities meant to do when all education provision closed down and government told them that they had to switch to online lectures? Or when exams were replaced with inflated teacher grades? Some of the issues are more contested. Universities can’t control planning policy, or accommodation availability in the short to medium term. But do students know the true costs of going to that university to study? And some of them, well, they don’t look great. This isn’t summer 2022 or summer 2021. Ofqual could not have been clearer that this year’s results will be roughly analogous to 2019. It doesn’t matter what predicted grades look like from schools if institutions know what the overall pattern of grade distributions is going to end up as. Why has there been so much over offering?

But let’s separate out the temporary from the structural. Of all of these issues, the one that is the most important to me is the absence of degrees for so many students this summer. I can’t believe that my interlocutors the past month or so have been wildly unrepresentative in terms of what senior opinion makers are seeing and hearing from their children, and their children’s friends. And they are fuming.

Universities need to ensure that never again do they get in a situation where industrial relations issues ripple out in a way like this. And that means — among many other things — abandoning the archaic system of collective bargaining which is hamstringing the sector and preventing what needs to happen above all else, which is a total focus on the student.

Collective bargaining was first introduced into large swathes of the UK economy after World War II, with a general consensus that a three way relationship between employers, labour and government was the right way to agree pay and conditions in a big part of the economy. At a time when organised labour covered the vast majority of the workforce, this was indeed an efficient way of determining wages (even leaving aside the social consensus that it was morally correct).

But time has moved on, the economy has moved on, and trade unions’ roles have moved on. Trade union membership peaked in 1979 at 13 million workers, or around 53% of the workforce. But in 2020, it was 6.5 million workers, or around 22%-23% of the workforce.

Trade union membership is now pretty heavily concentrated in the public sector — only 13% of private sector employees are unionised. Education is in fact the most heavily unionised sector.

But even this hides a mixed pattern within the sector. An estimated 97% of all school teachers are union members, but only 30% of university academics are (and about 13% of HE professional services staff are).

Now this wouldn’t matter, if collective bargaining were working. (Strictly speaking, it would be logical for some people to opt out of paying union subs, if they nevertheless benefitted from the spillover benefits of higher negotiated wages). But it’s not working. To quote the Chief Executive of the UCEA, the employers’ body that leads collective bargaining from the universities side; “It is not working for HEIs. It is not working for trade unions. It is not working for staff. It is not working for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA). Most importantly of all, it is not working for our students if the dispute leads to industrial action.”

Over the past decade, more than half of the tortuously long annual negotiations between employers and unions have nevertheless ended up in a formal dispute. And only once — once — has a settlement been agreed in time for universities to implement it in advance of the new academic year.

And the same is going to happen this year. The deal reached by UCEA and the unions, through the inelegantly titled “New JNCHES” process, calls for a pay rise of between 5% and 8%. The UCU say that isn’t enough to match inflation. And yet some universities are saying they can’t afford even that level of rise, set against the overall picture of flat cash tuition fees and rising costs generally.

And that’s the rub. The fact is that we don’t have a homogenous HE sector, and we don’t have a homogenous level of income and expenditure. So any national collective bargaining needs to negotiate a settlement that simultaneously satisfies unions and their members (who in their defence have indeed had settlements below inflation for a number of years), and that can be afforded by the poorer universities, while not tying the hands of other institutions that want to do things differently.

No wonder the talks always break down.

It doesn’t work, and it can’t work. That’s why, in coded language, we’re hearing increasing references to “listening”, and “talking”, and “rethinking” the current system for pay settlements, and about “national conversations”, and “rebooting and reframing the architecture of JNCHES, for a multi modal and holistic stakeholder led solution” (I made that last one up, but you get my point).

The majority of universities are still — formally — committed to the process. 144 universities are taking part in this year’s pay round, and only a handful have opted out. But even those who are still hanging on aren’t impressed with the process. And you can see cracks emerging. UCL did a settlement for staff outside the process last month. Queens University Belfast formally broke away from the national picture to settle their local dispute in June. Cambridge have issued a joint statement between the university and local UCU that called for a resolution. I would be willing to bet there are a number of other institutions who would quite happily work within a more local system, even if they don’t want to formally break away on their own — and indeed quite a few who would be willing and happy to pay more to their academics as part of that. Why, after all, should we have a system for determining wages for all staff, which is dragged back by the financial situation of the poorest institutions?

I suspect the “listening” will mean we will end up with a fudge, a bunch of new processes, probably some more committees, and a little more flexibility. But that won’t work either. No national system will. It’s unrealistic to now expect a heterogeneous university sector to operate in a post-war national system of wage bargaining. This isn’t like schools, or the NHS, or the Army, where there is still effectively one employer and one funding system (though interestingly, even schools are increasingly going beyond the School Teachers Review Body settlements where they can afford to do so). Depending on how you model ultimate pay back of loans, only around a third to half of all tuition fee income to the university sector now is paid for from the UK government. Increasing diversity of research grants and other funding sources are also part of the make up of a much more nuanced and multi-source university income overall.

What would the effects be of a more liberalised and localised way of setting wages? I would imagine that there would be some widening of academic pay between different institutions (though let’s not pretend that this doesn’t happen at the moment — universities already have flexibility over deciding which pay scale point to advertise different academic roles at, and various other top ups and the like which can be added in to create a more financially advantageous package for some academic roles). But given both the overall funding situation, the culture within higher education, and the fact that increasingly different universities specialise in different elements of curriculum and different academic specialisms, I don’t think we’ll end in a neoliberal market paradise / hell (delete as is your preference).

What we would end up with, is universities who are able to make their own judgements, in consultation with their own staff and UCU and Unison branches, over the university wide award(s) that they could make. Greater flexibility wouldn’t just be good for larger institutions — it would help smaller and more specialised ones as well, and also those who may be in more financial straits. It would help create new pathways for academics and professional staff, and recognise the impact they have in a number of different ways.

And, although it wouldn’t guarantee it (there are still disputes in universities that don’t bargain nationally, like Birmingham City University and Imperial College London), it ought to dramatically lower the impact of any industrial action on students, because it will allow individual settlements to be made.

And in the context of some pretty hostile opinion, that, ultimately, is what should be universities’ priority right now.