Five trade unions active in the higher education sector came together earlier this year to make a joint pay claim, raising concerns that "downward wage pressures and upward workload pressures" were impacting staff morale.
The claim, which also called for institutions to take action on issues such as the gender pay gap, academics' workloads and the use of "precarious and casual contracts", was the subject of negotiation between the unions and the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA). The UCEA, acting on universities' behalf, made two offers to resolve the claim, but both were rejected by union leaders who instead called a dispute and elected to ballot members on possible industrial action.
The Universities and College Union (UCU), the UK's biggest trade union in the higher education sector, opened its ballot of members on 30 August. Its ballot has potential implications for 147 universities.
University staff are voting now on whether they would be willing to walk out, or take action short of a strike, which could mean not covering each other’s duties, or engaging in a marking boycott, in pursuit of their pay claim. The ballot closes on 19 October.
This is a gamble on the part of the union. For the result of a ballot to be a lawful mandate for industrial action, the UCU must not only achieve a positive vote in favour of its proposals but also ensure that at least 50% of its members eligible to vote do so.
Levels of union activity are patchy. While staff who feel most strongly are likely to have voted already, it is not too late for university employers to influence the outcome of the ballot at their centre.
It is common for employers in this situation to do nothing as they are worried about inflaming the situation. It is a mistake to adopt this approach, though, as to do so would leave a vacuum which union activists are often only too happy to fill. Activists' communications can be persuasive as they employ videos, animations and social media postings to convey their message in favour of the more staid style adopted by the institutions.
UK universities have already suffered major disruption last term due to strikes over the pensions dispute. They must be keen to avoid more of this, particularly at exam time. Employers should be looking to influence the outcome of the ballot at their centre while they still can. This means a direct appeal to affected staff to abstain or vote against.
As this dispute develops, they should get into the good habit of putting out regular, clear and informative communications which must be as direct and compelling as the material put out by the unions.
Employers should also be more proactive in talking to students about how they plan to protect and safeguard their studies and exam timetables. It was an alliance of students with teaching staff which helped pile pressure on university employers during the pensions dispute.
Sarah Ashberry is a specialist in industrial relations at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.