The Government has now made good its promise to include Higher Education within the scope of its consultation on minimum service levels in the education sector during industrial action. This follows an announcement made by Education Secretary Gillian Keegan at the Conservative Party Conference on 2 October.
In the press release accompanying that announcement she said it would focus on “stronger protections for final year students, key cohorts or those studying specialist subjects”. However, the main focus of the consultation, published on 28 November, is on schools and FE colleges. The section on Higher Education does not contain any concrete proposals, and could better be described as a call for evidence.
The Government is keen to understand the impact of the recent industrial action in the HE sector, particularly on teaching and exams, with particular focus on the impact of the marking boycott. However, it seems likely that further consultation would be required before any minimum service levels could be introduced.
The launch of the consultation comes a few days after the launch of a new enquiry by the UK Parliament’s education committee. The Committee’s chair Robin Walker explained:
“The purpose of this inquiry will not be to litigate the reasons for the industrial action, but to examine ways in which the damage could be limited through effective planning and mitigation by university leaders, working with the Government and the unions.”
The Government is also asking for evidence on what it calls “mitigation measures” in its consultation. It is going to consider whether a standardised method of mitigation could be used across the sector. It remains to be seen how this could work in such a diverse sector with a broad range of academic regulations, courses, assessment types, student and staff populations and with different levels of industrial action taken. If workable mitigation standards are implemented despite this challenge, then the Government may not need to use its powers in the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 to impose minimum service levels on HE institutions during industrial action at all.
Although UCU did not get a mandate for action in its last ballot, Unison is currently balloting locally in some universities and the next round of national pay bargaining is fast approaching. Irrespective of the Government enquiry and minimum service levels, it is clear that universities will continue to develop and implement mitigation plans to minimise the impact on their students. This effort will ensure that they are in the strongest position not only to respond to the current enquiry regarding the impact on their institution, but to respond to a change in government and any resulting changes in trade union law.
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