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Striking back: negotation, collaboration, and building priorities together

As in many public services, the ongoing conflict between university lecturers and Universities UK (UUK) is complex, covering issues related to pensions, low pay, and insecure fixed-term contracts. Fifty-eight university staff bodies backed three days of strikes starting today as part of the escalating dispute. Over a million students face suspension of their education because an agreement, it seems, cannot be reached.

-- BBC


On the face of it, UUK’s position seems open to negotiation. A spokesperson explained that “we have repeatedly stated our willingness to consult employers on any viable, affordable and implementable alternative proposal from the UCU and we remain fully committed to continuing talks to develop a joint approach”.


The University and College Union (UCU), however, are less than appreciative of consultation efforts made thus far. They argue that a joint approach to resolving this dispute requires UUK to recognise the far-reaching impacts of the cuts to pensions and give “improved offers” to avoid more disruption to these vital educational services.


This is not the first time university staff and students have been in the headlines this year. Shortly after the pandemic hit, student strikes rippled through the UK in response to the decision not to reduce fees despite all learning being remote, with no access to on-campus facilities or support. As a member of the student body at LSE, I felt somewhat stranded - I’d seen no obvious opportunity offered to students for a collaborative discussion or negotiation, and strikes were presented as the only way to make our voices heard.


This is exactly the kind of stand-off that Telescope works to prevent. Frustration in public services is rarely alleviated by tick-box consultations, and frontline voices like lecturers, hospital workers, and job centre staff go unheard. Strikes, in some cases, can be really useful to assert workers’ rights, especially in organisations that provide a public service (e.g. education, travel) but which are nonetheless private, corporate organisations. At the same time, widespread strike action can sometimes make the problem worse by antagonising and alienating those who hold the power to make meaningful change, through policy or service changes.


Frontline workers and service users unite

Like many frontline workers, university lecturers find themselves at the sharp end of a power imbalance. Contracts are often short and fixed-term, and contain little guarantee of future employment despite the experience gained during the contract. Their expertise is significant and greatly desired by the “users” of their service - the students. And those students stand behind the strike action: a poll of students conducted by the NUS this month found that 73% backed UCU’s action while 9% opposed it.


In this regard, the current dispute echoes some of the silos we have tried to overcome in our work with Telescope. Frontline workers (university lecturers) and their service users (students) are united in their knowledge that a better service is required, and how it could be designed. Nonetheless, they often find themselves on the receiving end of drastic changes to their working conditions, professional outcomes, and quality of service that they have had little chance to co-create.


The complicating factor here is that universities, as well as providing public benefit, also have to make money. Though the goal for both management and staff is to provide educational services, the power hierarchy and commercial incentive system makes collaborative discussion much less feasible than negotiation or, if that fails, strike action. This is not uncommon in public services - tube strikes for improved working conditions at TfL, for example, or increasing privatisation of NHS services leading to similar commercial incentive structures.


Conflicting incentives is something we are familiar with through our work at Telescope. Civil servants, for example, are usually highly motivated to listen to frontline professionals and incorporate their insights into policy. But politicians are driven by different levers, and their shifting priorities can cause a significant trickle down effect for nascent co-design attempts within the civil service.


It might seem hopeless. But we do believe that these driving factors, whether community-oriented, political, or economic, can always be reprioritised, depending on need. What is often needed is a bit of space to try to reconcile these tensions, and find the overlap where it exists. And that’s where we hope to be able to play a role. As we consider the increasing number of “public services” provided by private companies, we need to ask ourselves: how can we still make space for collaboration? How can we help different actors align their economic and societal objectives to create a better outcome for everyone?


Is it all about money?

All too often, the constraints to change are about money. This frustration was echoed on both sides in our recent homelessness programme. Local authority representatives lamented the sudden nature of cuts to budgets, which left them scrambling to manage even the limited housing stock they have to hand out. The whole group acknowledged that while they were fully committed to making things better, there were constraints from above that would limit them.


The same language has been used by universities for years - this time round, UUK insists that the concluded pay round for 2021-22 is “for most of these institutions already at the very limit of what is affordable”. In a country where the unexpected increase in tuition fees still stings for many, this might come across a little callous. Nonetheless, economic incentives combined with the changeable distribution of funding for public services can cause drastic swings which make sustainable societal impact hard to establish.


For us, this raises broader questions about social innovation. Lots of the pain points that are raised in our programmes seem to be caused primarily by insufficient funds to deliver the services needed. We hear stories of frontline staff being asked to deliver more with less, like local authorities managing and providing housing, NHS budget cuts, and so on. Though we work with policymakers from central government who ostensibly could change the flow of funds, the question still remains as to whether they have any agency to change the amounts available. Is that a political decision only? And if it is a political decision, is there still a place for innovation and service design in policy?


We think there is. Most recently, we’ve seen how the unexpected nature of the pandemic did lead to radical action, like the Everyone In policy. We noted how this created a dissonance moment, with potential for drastic change. Could the same happen in the universities dispute? Clearly, university lecturers deserve good pay, stable working conditions, and a reliable pension. How that comes about, whether through stand-offs and strikes or more collaborative negotiation, remains to be seen.

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