The occult workings of UUK are the problem.
Universities UK (UUK) exists in a realm that floats high above the firmament of the University. Even the most proactive staff and students, those who labour to understand the workings of the deans, pro-vice-chancellors, beadles, and archangels of their own institutions, could be forgiven for their ignorance of how this strange body sails over the heavens above.
In theory, UUK has a simple mission. It is, according to its own webpage:
the voice of universities, helping to maintain the world-leading strength of the UK university sector and supporting our members to achieve their aims and objectives
So far, so clear.
What this would seem to suggest is that in the ongoing dispute over the USS pension scheme, UUK represents the universities, while the University and College Union (UCU) represents (some)* university staff. But consider the threshold that the UCU had to cross in order to call the industrial action that is currently taking place: every single branch that wanted to strike or carry out action short of a strike had to hold a ballot ‘properly organised according to legal rules‘, have at least 50% turnout, and get a majority in favour of the action they take.
Let’s pause and think about this for a moment. Actually, it’s straightforwardly democratic, and the result of this process in the current dispute was unequivocal: nationally about 88% of members who voted (turnout 58%) were in favour of strike action over the proposed reforms. Since the beginning of the disagreement over the pension scheme last year, UCU have argued that staff should not be forced to switch from a defined benefit pension scheme to a defined contribution scheme. Industrial action was a last resort given the intransigence of UUK.
So what is this intransigence based on?
Given the thresholds UCU has to cross, we might expect that UUK has a similarly robust process to ensure that the actions they undertake reflect the will of their members.
But, as Sam Dolan has pointed out on Twitter, there is no evidence that UUK are acting in accordance with the authorisation of their members.
Consider the rules of game first. UCU held a legal ballot; UUK did a ‘survey’.
What about turnout? Of the 350 odd institutions who could have submitted responses to UUK’s survey, just 116 did, which is neat, because it means that 1/3 of all the possible respondents are now dictating the terms of this dispute.
Oh sorry, did I say 1/3? I meant 42% of 1/3, as this was the figure for how many institutions suggested they were in favour of reducing the burden of risk on employers.
But bear with me here: it gets better.
Who are the 42%?
As Sam’s thread points out, we just don’t know. The 350 employers includes some institutions that are – how can I put this delicately – a little surprising. As well as the recognisable universities, you will also find a range of national organisations – including UUK itself, and the Russell Group – as well as some smaller units within universities on that list. Most notoriously, it includes a range of Oxford and Cambridge colleges who were given their own vote on this issue.
Hold onto your hats, it still gets better.
At least one of those colleges has since released a statement that the original submission by the college bursar ‘was not, and should not have been taken as, the considered view of the College’.
UUK is not subject to freedom of information requests in the way that truly public bodies are, and we may never find out who the 42% actually were, but I think it bears repeating again, and again, that the likelihood that they represent the largest institutions, with the most USS pension contributors is vanishingly small.
So what are UUK playing at?
There are two possible interpretations here: ideology or incompetence. And this is probably the only thing which gives me hope in the current situation. If the UUK position was ideologically entrenched, it would be hard to see much possibility of a speedy resolution to the conflict.
But the fact of the matter is that this opaque, gnomic organisation has not got a clue what it is doing. This is easy to prove: just have a look at their twitter feed from last night (5th March).
Yesterday, UCU wrote to their members to inform them that they had held talks with UUK, but that UUK had not made any changes to their position, and were asking to delay the next talks until Wednesday. Remember: every day they don’t resolve this dispute is another day that thousands of staff go unpaid, and unable to do their jobs, while thousands of students are left uncertain about their studies.
Meanwhile, over on Twitter, the UUK handle has been doing a stirling job of completely ignoring the strikes. And then suddenly, from around 8pm onwards, the UUK twitter handle started telling random university staff that they were willing to reenter talks this morning.
Again, I think this really deserves a pause for thought.
Rather than contacting UCU directly (I assume), UUK offered to reenter negotiations over Twitter. At 8pm in the evening. With someone who does not even formally represent UCU.
Confirmation, if we needed it, that UUK have been taking lessons in management, negotiation, and public relations from Fyre Festival and Donald Trump.
University staff would much rather be at work, doing our jobs. The realisation that this dispute is the result of such a shambolic and undemocratic process on behalf of UUK is an indictment of the management culture of the British universities, and UUK have no credible option but to apologise and reopen negotiations without preconditions.
*Some universities are not part of the USS pension scheme, and therefore their staff are not currently on strike. UCU is not the majority union at all institutions. And even UCU institutions employ a variety of staff, who can join different unions. A very small number of institutions where UCU is the main union for academic-related staff did not reach the threshold.