Tomorrow (26 May) UCU branch delegates from Higher Education will come together online at two advisory Branch Delegates Meetings (BDMs) to discuss, debate, and decide advisory positions to put to the HEC with regards to the Four Fights dispute, and that over USS. These advisory positions will be put to the Higher Education Committee which meets on Tuesday 27 May to decide next steps in both disputes. 

A lot of the recent debate online has focused particularly on whether the offer in the Four Fights dispute should be accepted, rejected, or ‘noted’ (i.e. not accepted or rejected). The USS dispute is in a slightly different position because there is technically no offer on the table from Universities UK (UUK) and therefore nothing to accept, reject, or note. Rather, for USS, UCU will need to decide whether to settle the dispute at this time, or not. 

There is also an overarching question that needs to be answered in order to decide these matters of dispute: who is it who will decide what happens next? And, based on the decisions of who decides and what that body then decides, how do we build a strong strategy to keep pursuing our member-led policy objectives on pay and pay-related conditions (e.g. casualisation, pay equality, workload), and pensions?

Under rule, HEC is the ‘legally competent’ body that can make decisions about what happens at each stage of a dispute.

The question of ‘who decides’ what to do with the status of each dispute will come down to whether HEC decides to:

a) consult members electronically, with advice issued from HEC about whether to accept, reject, or ‘note’ the offer 

b) reject or note the offer and move to decisions about next steps to pursue the dispute (e.g. re-balloting, and when and how to do this in the current context of coronavirus and extensive home-working)

c) call a special Higher Education Sector Conference (sHESC) so that delegates from branches can come together in a formal policy-making space to decide next steps including whether to accept/reject/note the UCEA offer and/or whether to settle the USS dispute.

A note on special Higher Education Sector Conferences

Note that any of the above options could be pursued in conjunction with the calling of one or more special HESCs, whether that is for the purpose of deciding what to do with the offer itself, or subsequent to such a decision in order to determine the next strategic steps (e.g. planning re-ballots and/or fresh ballots, planning regarding the implementation phase were the UCEA offer to be accepted, etc.) 1

[See Note 1 below article]

What have we done before?

Confused over how many possible options there are, not only for what to do with the disputes at this stage, but over which body should make those decisions? I had to crack out the big paper to draw a big decision-tree to work out what all the conceivable options open to us might be, along with their subsequent sets of decisions. (This perhaps flags some scope for looking at clearer guidance and standing orders to govern how the decision-making phases of disputes should be approached.) 

Custom and practice prior to 2018 has tended to involve a dispute reaching a point where members are asked to make a decision through consultation, usually on an offer. In March 2018, debate raged over whether the decision over the USS offers made by UUK were put to members too early. Following a BDM representing significant dissatisfaction with the ‘ACAS’ offer, clear outrage among members (exemplified by a mass demo outside head office), a paper proposing HEC put that first offer to members was withdrawn. The dispute continued. Debate also raged about whether the second offer was ‘ready’ to be put to members, and there was some not insignificant controversy over whether this could be boiled down to a question of ‘accept or reject’: a third option, of ‘revise and resubmit’ was spoken about widely at the Branch Delegate Meeting, but ultimately no decisive advisory vote was taken there. 

Throughout the two sector wide disputes in 2019/20, negotiators, HEC members, and staff alike have reassured members that when the time comes they will have their say. An important question for the Branch Delegate Meeting tomorrow, and HEC on Wednesday is: are we at that point? If not, when will members in the widest sense have their say? 

Where are we now?

During the period covered by a live mandate for industrial action, UCU received a previous iteration of UCEA’s ‘full and final’ offer on Four Fights. HEC rejected this on the advice of the negotiators and the General Secretary, on the grounds that it did not come close enough to meeting our demands. While there was some disagreement in early 2020 about whether the best way to prosecute the dispute was to continue with aligned periods of action across both the Four Fights and USS disputes, it was possible for HEC to reject this offer in favour of threatening (and calling) further industrial action to increase our leverage in the negotiation room. In the time since that rejection, further progress was made in negotiations, and the negotiating team all felt more was possible. To say the coronavirus pandemic came at what was already a crunch moment, is an understatement. 

In the planning of the Branch Delegate Meetings and the next HEC, it was assumed by many that we had self-evidently reached a point where members should be invited to make a decision or set of decisions about each dispute. For any strategy to be successful we will need members on board and to be well-informed. Each possible decision about what to do with the UCEA offer on Four Fights, and whether to settle the USS dispute at this time, sparks a new set of decisions to make. 

So, is this situation like 2018? In many respects it clearly is not. Aside from the obvious point that we are dealing with a pandemic crisis, and with two disputes (where some branches are active in one, both, or neither) the picture of progress is complex. For USS, while there has been significant progress, it is outside the scope of the formal dispute letter. For Four Fights, the offer is at once both significant progress and a damning indictment of how long our employers have failed to invest in staff or to recognise that staff’s working conditions are students’ learning conditions. 

Discussions at the branch briefings last week revealed a degree of consensus may be emerging around whether or not to settle the USS dispute at this time, and around the timing of any subsequent ballots required, noting that the results of the 2020 valuation will be highly relevant to whether UCU decides a newly framed dispute is required to take on any specific proposals we might find concerning. The question of ballot timing will be affected by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and associated challenges, which is in turn relevant to the uncertain timetable for the expected completion of the valuation. 

The debate with respect to Four Fights and the UCEA offer is framed by different [bargaining machinery] in which UCU participates in annual rounds of [collective sectoral bargaining] with four other unions and UCEA. For BDM delegates and HEC members, there are important questions of whether or not the offer could be the foundation of iterative progress, and whether any decision to accept or reject it would strengthen or weaken our leverage as a union. There are also key questions for the General Secretary regarding what resources will be on offer to assist and support branches during the implementation phase should the offer be accepted. Concerns about capacity and training among branch officers indicate that further information about the shape of the proposed support at the BDM, HEC, and any subsequent meetings (e.g. if the decision(s) are postponed to a sector conference) would be warmly welcomed. 

Why does it matter who decides?

As the Chair of tomorrow’s BDM and Wednesday’s HEC, I am nervous, and not simply about the horrors of chairing a large meeting online using imperfect systems. I am nervous about the question of when members will ultimately get their say. 

The original, pre-coronavirus plan was to re-ballot and threaten further action across both disputes if required with those results. I was behind this plan, and supportive of the amendment moved at a subsequent HEC to hold the timing of re-ballots under review, with a provisional date of late June until we had more information about how the pandemic and associated measures would unfold. But, since then, negotiations have ended in both disputes and most of our branches’ ballots have expired. The pandemic has radically shifted how we work and the challenges of how we must organise.

I believe that, unless the BDMs vote on something which is found to be impossible (e.g. due to legal issues), the HEC should strive to act in line with the majority view. Any disconnect between BDM recommendations and HEC decisions (whichever the direction of the disconnect) would require HEC to account for it. There are clearly concerns over each possible outcome of the next two days. If the HEC itself makes the decision(s) regarding the offers on Wednesday without consultation, many members may feel they have been left out of the process. If the HEC does put the decisions to members, in light of experiences in 2018 it would seem wise to do so with recommendations on how to vote informed by the positions taken at the Branch Delegates Meetings (whichever views prevail) alongside full information about the pros and cons of each course of action. Consultations risk becoming controversial when members are not in receipt of enough information about what underpins each position, or when that information is confusing. 

If, alternatively, the decisions over the status of each dispute are put to  sector conferences, there are also issues to be addressed. In particular, members will need to have it made clear what democratic pathways are open to them to participate in debates that will  influence the mandate for their branch’s conference delegates. Some branches struggling with access to platforms for organising online meetings will need additional support. Every effort will also need to be made at branch level and from HQ, that clear information is provided in accessible form to facilitate debate at such meetings. 

Whatever is decided in the next few days, we must move forward together and we must act to maximise the likelihood of success in any further re-ballots or ballots. Accept or reject, settle or not, this is not the end point of UCU’s policy objectives on pay and pay-related conditions, or for a fair and affordable USS pension scheme based on sound, evidence-based valuation methodology. 

Whatever we do next, our strategy on the disputes must be fundamentally integrated with a robust plan to defend jobs and conditions for all in the context of swingeing cuts already underway and on the horizon in the pandemic context. We are in our biggest ever battle for the sector, fighting against redundancies and pay cuts, and for the extension of fixed term and other forms of casualised contracts due to expire. All our members deserve security and respect. Our plan must be member-led and well-communicated; it must provide for more rep and activist training, and it will need to break new ground in terms of how organise and how we prosecute our cause.


  1. Any HESC in the current circumstances would need to be held online. The option of calling a sector conference is covered in two UCU Rules: 16.11 and 16.12. The Rulebook is [here] (you know you want to!) If a HESC is called by another HESC (not possible in these circumstances) or the sectoral committee (HEC) it requires three weeks’ notice. The other mechanism to call a sector conference is via at least 20 branches passing a motion to requisition one at quorate branch meetings; this mechanism requires five weeks’ notice. At this point it is worth noting that we do not know whether UCEA intends for there to be an ‘expiry’ date on the offer it has put to UCU formally, though one might hope UCU would be given the space to pursue our own internal processes of consideration, particularly in the current context and the challenges of holding large meetings online.