Employers' Organisation in UK Higher Education

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW2.3.02 (Tower Two)
Geoffrey Keith White, University of Greenwich, London, United Kingdom
The literature on employers’ organisations is limited, compared to the considerable literature on trade unions yet in many countries employer associations play a key role in collective bargaining and in social partnership. As Sheldon and Thornthwaite (1999:1) argue, ‘an understanding of the industrial relations roles of employer associations is crucial to understanding recent history and contemporary trends’. Moreover, ‘as employer associations are the main collective voice of employer interests and attitudes, they warrant close investigation in their own terms’ (Sheldon and Thornthwaite 1999:1). In the UK the decline of multi-employer bargaining over recent decades has been widely noted (Brown, Bryson and Forth 2009) and such arrangements are now largely confined to a few industries, such as construction and construction products, and the public sector . Alongside this decline in multi-employer bargaining has gone a decline in employer associations.  On the other hand, changes in the UK public sector have seen the creation of new employers’ associations in areas such as the NHS, the probation service and sixth-form colleges. In addition, strong employer organisations continue to exist in local government, further education and higher education. 

This paper reviews the development and current form of employer organisation in the Higher Education (HE) sector in the UK (although comparisons are also made with some other countries such as Australia, Canada, Finland and the Netherlands).  The Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) was created in 1994 and this paper is based on historical research covering that twenty-year period. It is based on access to archive material plus interviews with key personnel on the employers’ side over that period. A resulting history of UCEA has already been published (UCEA 2014), documenting the key events, but this paper would take a more analytical approach and seek to draw out some of the key distinguishing features of employer organisation (and collective bargaining) in the HE sector and the reasons for the resilience of such employer organisation in the face of major changes in the sector (Fairfoul et al 2013). Key changes examined include the creation of a single HE sector in 1992 and the attendant need for new bargaining structures, the increasing diversity of HE institutions and their needs, the changing funding environment and its impact on industrial relations, the increasing pressures for more decentralised bargaining and the continuing support for multi-employer bargaining.  The paper will also discuss the role of the national HE trade unions in multi-employer bargaining and their relationships with UCEA and individual employing institutions. Despite frequent threats of industrial action, in general employee relations have remained relatively peaceful within HE and the paper examines how the employers’ association has fostered productive relationships with the national trade unions, especially in the field of joint working and joint research on major areas of contention.