Battle lines are being drawn over the unionization of the academic workforce in Britain's burgeoning private higher education sector, with unions aiming to step up representation and the head of a leading college vowing to block recognition.
The tension follows developments in the school sector, where academy and free schools have been seen by supporters and opponents alike as likely to weaken the position of the teaching unions and lead to greater divergence in pay and conditions.
Aldwyn Cooper, chief executive of Regent’s College, London – who said the private, not-for-profit institution would not recognize the University and College Union – predicted that some universities would leave the state-funded sector to seek more independence. This would lead to greater "polarization" of pay and conditions for staff across traditional and new universities, he said.
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, said the union needed to "look at its representation" of staff in the private sector as the government sought to expand such provision. "Staff at private institutions do get inferior terms and conditions," she added.
She singled out the for-profit sector for criticism, claiming that some staff must consent to possible "personal searches" of lockers and desks, something that "may make staff at traditional universities balk, while summary dismissal for criticism that is seen to harm the company’s reputation may lead others to question the notion of academic freedom." Hunt added: "We believe that staff working in further and higher education benefit from union membership and we believe institutions benefit from a strong branch they work well with."
A Question of Recognition
The UCU does not have any recognition agreements in the private sector. Recognition allows unions to represent employees collectively and gives union officers and members legal rights in the workplace. Mike Robinson, national education officer for Unite, said his union had a recognition agreement with the College of Law, a private for-profit institution, to represent tutors.
But "unless there is a real push from inside, from the staff, it is always difficult for unions to get a toehold," he added.
Jon Richards, Unison’s national secretary for education and children's services, said it has "small numbers of members" in private institutions, but no recognition. "That does not mean we won’t be pursuing that in future – it's a debate we’re having," he said.
Asked if Regent’s College has a recognition agreement with the UCU, Cooper said: "No, we do not – and we have no intention of doing so." The college did not believe that it was in the interests of staff to be represented by trade unions, he added.
He highlighted the 3 percent pay rises awarded at Regent’s College both this year and last, increases that comfortably outstripped the pay awards made in the publicly funded sector. "Where else in the sector is that happening? Nowhere. If we had been in national pay bargaining, our staff would not have been recognized for their exceptional performance," he added.
Cooper said there would remain a difference between pay and conditions in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. Regent’s College, he said, is "more or less on the median compared with the state-funded sector for all jobs" and has an "aspiration" to raise that. The one area where the college could not compete, he said, was pensions. Cooper said that union branches can be "great" where they act for members, but he added that the unions have "become such a political operation, particularly the UCU."
Carl Lygo, chief executive of BPP University College, said for-profit institutions were diverse and comparisons with the publicly funded sector should be treated with caution.
BPP’s academic council "has the final decision on all academic matters" and salary levels are "typically … higher than those of public universities," Lygo said. He added: "The majority of our employees are on permanent contracts and receive a range of other benefits… Currently, we have no policy on company unions, but it is something that we would not rule out in the future, should the need arise."
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