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Vice-Chancellor's response to strikes open letter encourages "constructive engagement"

Nouse interviews Dr Liam Clegg after Vice-Chancellor responds to open letter

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An open letter written to University of York’s Vice-Chancellor Charlie Jeffery, on the topic of potential measures to end industrial action, has received a response. The letter, which was circulated amongst staff, students and on social media, asks for three things from the Vice-Chancellor on the disputed issue of pay and pensions for University staff:

"1)    Withdraw your support for the Universities UK pension reduction plan, and push other Russell Group Vice Chancellors to follow suit.

2)    Make public your support for a fair pay settlement for all higher education staff, and a sector-wide approach to address casualisation of employment.

3)    Make public your support for a sector-wide framework for addressing gender, ethnicity, and disability pay gaps."

Industrial action, which includes action short of strike, is currently taking place in favour of an end to the ongoing pensions dispute which saw a 35 percent decrease in the guaranteed retirement income for members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), as well as disputes over casualisation of contracts, unequal pay based on gender, disability, and race. According to the University and Colleges Union (UCU), the current gender pay gap sits at 16 percent within UK universities, with a race pay gap of 17 percent and the disability pay gap sitting at 9 percent- with the average gender pay gap at the University of York sitting at 19.1 percent in 2020.

Action short of a strike, in which staff work their contracted hours and no more, can continue until 3 May 2022, with further industrial action on the table as new ballots on further action open between 16 March 2022, concluding on Friday 8 April 2022.

Following the circulation of the open letter, the Vice-Chancellor issued a response on 16 March 2022. Addressing the key issues raised by signatories of the open letter, the Vice-Chancellor advised that he is “in favour of including the other three ‘fights’ - on casualisation, pay gaps and workload - in national negotiations, with a view to establishing a framework of principles which would draw on the good practice that exists in the sector.” He also noted that disputes over pay are under even further consideration due to the rise in the cost of living, advising that it has “to be part of the discussion on the pay settlement this year” but that he is also “in favour of negotiating a carefully designed, multi-year settlement, which would give us much-needed stability.”

Speaking exclusively to Nouse, Dr Liam Clegg — a lecturer in the Department of Politics and co-ordinator of the letter — explained that he decided to pen the open letter “out of frustration at the lack of national-level progress, and because there seems obvious room for agreement to be reached” after industrial action impacted three weeks of teaching on campuses across the country, including in York. After speaking directly to the Vice-Chancellor regarding the open letter, Clegg said that he would not discuss details of the conversation, but acknowledged that “the response provides the foundations for constructive engagement between University workers and their representatives, and university management and their representatives, both here at York and nationally.”

Speaking about a recent interview in February 2022 between the Vice-Chancellor and Nouse, in which the Vice-Chancellor claimed that he had “stuck [his] neck out as Vice-Chancellor” regarding issues connected to strike action, Clegg commented that his view is that “the dispute over pensions involves quite a high level of complexity and it doesn’t seem to be amenable to a kind of simple solution.” However, Clegg noted that the Vice-Chancellor “has articulated a desire to lead towards a solution and I appreciate that aim and hope that his response to the open letter provides an important stage in that process of leadership in relation to pay and pay related issues.”

In some respects, the Vice-Chancellor’s response points to a positive future engagement with University workers and representatives aiming to achieve a positive solution, however also notes the upcoming challenges the sector will face following the decision to not increase tuition fees in line with inflation. When asked if he thinks that this will create further complexities in factors contributing to industrial action, Clegg replied that “the short answer is yes.” Elaborating, he continued that “each year that student fees don’t rise with inflation equates to a year where the resources flowing into higher education sector decline" adding that "this unending industrial relation dispute is inextricably linked from these questions of how we fund, value, regulate and govern higher education.”

Industrial action has an impact on University management, staff and students. Following a ballot in Term 1, YUSU decided to support December strike action being taken by University lectures, following a ballot in which 51.5 percent of student respondents expressed a desire for YUSU to support strike action. On the matter of YUSU support, Clegg stated he “would like to thank the YUSU President and officers for the support that they provided”, expressing that student support and constructive discussions with YUSU representatives eased “feelings of stress, anxiety and concern” amongst University staff which come from the wider impact of strike action, notably the impact on students.

The response from the Vice-Chancellor is a new development in the sphere of industrial action negotiation, however Clegg suspects the impact could be much wider, with “equivalent actions” being taken across the country, with the open letter and its response being seen as an “opportunity for focused and constructive dialogue”,  however it should be remembered that “there aren’t any easy fixes here for a range of reasons, but solutions need to be found very quickly.”

The York branch of the UCU has been approached for comment, but Nouse has not yet received a reply.

Editor’s note: the interviews with Dr Liam Clegg were conducted on the 11th and 19th March 2022. You can read Dr Liam Clegg’s official response to the Vice-Chancellor’s statement online, here.

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