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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, May 12, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Striking University Staff, Portfolio Question Time, Cladding Remediation, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Appointments to Scottish Fiscal Commission, Business Motion, Decision Time, International Nurses Day


Contents


Striking University Staff

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

I ask the people who are leaving the public gallery to please do so quickly and quietly. Thank you.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-04187, in the name of Maggie Chapman, on supporting striking university staff. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I ask members who wish to speak in the debate to please press their request-to-speak button now.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes reports that staff are taking part in two sets of industrial action in two industrial disputes at a number of universities in the North East Scotland region, and across the country; understands that these are over pension cuts and falling pay, gender and ethnicity pay gaps, precarious employment practices, and unsafe workloads, known as the Four Fights; believes that cuts to pensions of an average of 35% are going ahead on the basis of an outdated valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension fund; understands that this valuation was made during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the economy, and that the health of the fund has recovered significantly since then; appreciates that the trustee that manages the scheme has reportedly confirmed that a new valuation at this point could result in benefits being increased, rather than cut; notes with regret that university management has reportedly rejected proposals made by the Universities and College Union (UCU) that are deemed to be “viable and implementable” by the USS; understands that, in a recent survey of UK higher education staff, two thirds said that they were considering leaving the sector over cuts to pensions and attacks on pay and working conditions; notes the calls on the management of all educational institutions involved in both the pensions and Four Fights disputes to engage constructively with staff and the unions to resolve the disputes, and notes the view that reversals of pension and pay cuts and urgent action against casualisation, gender and ethnicity inequalities in pay and promotions, and against unsafe workloads, are in the best interests of university staff, students, Scottish universities and Scotland as a whole.

12:51  

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

Universities in the north-east of Scotland and across the country have made enormous contributions to Scotland, Europe and the world. Medical science has been transformed by the discovery of insulin and the development of the magnetic resonance imaging—MRI—scanner, both of which have connections with the work of University of Aberdeen academics. Abertay University was the first in the world to offer courses in computer game design and has spawned a whole generation of game designers.

Scotland’s universities attract students and researchers from across the world for their reputation of excellence in research and teaching. However, universities are nothing without their students, their academics and their support staff, and the way in which some universities are treating their staff puts the future of our institutions under serious threat.

Staff are taking a stand by striking, and I am glad that the Parliament has the opportunity today to express support for their fight for fairness. I thank all those staff, University and College Union members and branches, others who have been in touch in advance of today’s debate, and of course colleagues for supporting my motion and enabling the debate.

Pensions are a vital element of any fair society and should allow us to live in dignity after a lifetime of hard work. However, dignity is not what university staff will get now that new arrangements for pensions have been forced through. Staff will see a cut in their pensions of between 35 and 41 per cent. More than a third of someone’s nest egg for their retirement—their deferred wages—will be gone, because university management insists on basing pensions on a largely imaginary deficit.

The universities superannuation scheme—the pension scheme that operates at many universities in Scotland and across the United Kingdom—was last valued in March 2020, when economies across the world were in free fall as a result of Covid lockdowns.

Since then, the health of the scheme has recovered significantly. A recent financial monitoring report, which the scheme’s own trustees provided, confirms that, were a new valuation conducted now, the deficit would be reduced by at least 85 per cent. However, with some honourable exceptions including the University of Glasgow, which has called on the next valuation to be used to increase pension payments, management insist on pushing ahead with the clearly outdated March 2020 valuation. University principals and managers appear content to spend public money—Scottish public money, which has been voted on by this Parliament—to fund a deficit that has massively reduced.

That is where the Scottish Government comes in. Pensions are not regulated by the Scottish Parliament, and universities are autonomous, independent organisations. However, they are funded by public money, so the Scottish Government has a clear role to ensure that university management act responsibly and to encourage management back to the table to negotiate properly with trade unions.

Staff are striking not just about pensions but about fairer pay, an end to unsafe workloads, the rolling back of casualisation and action on pay gaps that women, black, Asian and minority ethnic and disabled staff face—the four fights campaign. Average pay in the sector has been cut by around 25 per cent since 2009 and, with inflation set to peak at 10 per cent, at least, the situation will only get worse. The same period has seen ever-rising workloads for staff, with the average higher education staff member working around 50 hours a week.

Like so many other public sector workers during the Covid-19 lockdowns, university staff went above and beyond, and they are still doing so. Underresourced counselling staff had to deal with a huge demand for their support from students. Library staff worked incredibly hard to ensure that students off campus could access learning resources. As well as dealing with the disruptive impact of Covid on their research, academic staff converted entire degree programmes to be taught online. That process would usually take years, but it was done in weeks, facilitated by legions of information technology staff.

Universities might simply have shut down under the pressure of what they needed to do, but they did not, and that was because of their staff. That staff were rewarded for all that work with a pay increase of 0 per cent in 2020-21 is nothing short of sheer contempt.

Staff are striking against increasing casualisation. More than a third of academic university staff are on a fixed-term contract. Talk to any academic and they will tell you of the years that they have to spend shuttling from contract to contract, constantly having to uproot themselves and move to a new university. Many of our students are taught by postgraduate research students, who teach alongside their studies on highly insecure contracts.

Given the falling pay, rising workloads and more precarious contracts, it is no wonder that the gender, black and minority ethnic and disability pay gaps stand at 15.5 per cent, 17 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively.

Faced with all that, staff have voted to strike in huge numbers. Last month, 77 per cent of those who were balloted at the University of Dundee voted to strike again for fairer pensions and, at the University of Aberdeen, 73 per cent voted to strike. Some local unions will not go ahead with further strike action, but that is nothing to do with the resolve of staff and everything to do with Tory trade union laws that have deliberately made it harder to strike.

In a UCU survey, two thirds of staff said that they were likely or very likely to leave the university sector within the next five years because of pensions, pay and working conditions—potentially, two thirds of the workforce lost in five years. Those working conditions are the learning conditions of students, many of whom this Parliament rightly spends hundreds of millions of pounds on so that they receive an outstanding education. However, that level of excellence is under threat because of the pressures on staff. Those pensions are paid to researchers who conduct life-saving medical research. The ever-falling pay and the ever-rising workloads will make it harder to retain expertise on climate change and the other challenges that we face.

In short, this is a problem not just for our university staff or the higher education sector but for us all. If our universities lose our hard-working researchers, lecturers, library staff, learning technologists, postgraduate teaching and research assistants and many more, we will all be worse off. It is time for university management to come to the table and negotiate in good faith. It is imperative for Scotland that they do so. We must take a close look at what is happening with pensions if deficits that do not really exist are allowed to take nearly £80 million out of workers’ pockets.

I pay tribute to university staff. The current disputes have roots that go back years, and staff have struggled against unfair treatment for a long time—too long. I say to them that unions work, strikes work and solidarity works. Their action is not only the way to better pay and conditions for themselves, it is part of a process of rethinking how universities can be: not businesses, but places in which we can imagine a better world and create and develop the tools to build that world. They should be in no doubt that they have the full support of the Scottish Green Party in doing so.

I remind all members who wish to speak in the debate that their card needs to be in and their button needs to be pressed.

13:00  

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I associate myself with Maggie Chapman’s comments and pay tribute to her for securing this important debate, as well as to higher education staff across Scotland. I also declare an interest in that I am a member of the universities superannuation scheme with 15 years of contributions, and I recently received my letter that indicated the significant reductions in my pension. That is nothing in comparison to some of my former colleagues at the University of Dundee, who are some of the lowest-paid staff and who are fighting to retain the benefits of their local pension scheme.

I consider that university management is in the process of breaking a covenant that it has made with staff. When someone takes on a job, pays into a scheme and plans for the life ahead of them, they make decisions on the basis of that money. We have a responsibility to maintain dignity in retirement as best we can, wherever we can, by making sure that schemes continue to be well funded.

Maggie Chapman makes important and correct points about the valuation of the scheme. When the valuation was made during the previous major dispute about the USS, it took the same form. There was a mis-valuation and—lo and behold!—within months, the value of the scheme rose significantly. This is a long-term issue that has bedevilled the sector and that has resulted in many strike days and affected many students and much research.

The pay uplift that the UCU is fighting for during a cost of living crisis is critical. The issues of casualisation and pay inequality must be addressed, and the figure that two-thirds of staff are considering leaving our precious universities is a stark reminder of that.

I want to talk about the workloads that university staff have taken on in recent years. We must pay tribute to them for that. When I worked at the University of Dundee, one woman put the entirety of teaching for our school online—for thousands of students—within two weeks, when the university had spent £16 million on a scheme to do that and failed utterly. That is the kind of can-do attitude that maintained our universities during the pandemic and in the face of the challenges that were in front of them. I pay tribute to those people.

Our universities are in a really difficult situation and it is getting worse across Scotland. The system is overloaded and the business model is not working. The Government has stewardship of the system, which is vital national infrastructure that could not be more critical to our future, whatever direction it might take—I know that we have regular disagreements on that.

In many regards, the research excellence framework results that came out today are an outstanding set of results, but we should look at the fact that eight of the top 10 research institutions have declined in comparison to those in the rest of the UK. We know why: there has been an 18.2 per cent decline in the research excellence grant under this Government and, as a result, the research funding capture for the sector has declined by 2.5 per cent.

All of that is based on the fact that there has been no increase in the unit of resource that is paid to universities for 13 years. That leaves the universities in a precarious situation, and the issues are flowing down to staff. We know that the business model of ever-increasing reliance on international students that was driven by the decisions that the Government has taken and imposed on our universities is not sustainable socially or environmentally, and neither is the ever-increasing size of universities in our major cities, which is pushing families out of housing and causing a huge crisis.

The system is cracking. Colleagues on the Education, Children and Young People Committee and elsewhere in the Parliament are keen to look at the issue, and the Government must change its attitude before the system breaks.

13:04  

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I am grateful to Maggie Chapman for giving us the opportunity to have a members’ business debate on an important issue that affects universities and colleges around Scotland.

Scotland’s universities are world leading. We can and should be proud of their success and international reputation, both of which are down to the expertise and dedication of lecturers, academics, librarians and other staff, who often go above and beyond to ensure that success.

I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the work that university and college staff have done in supporting students throughout the pandemic and to thank them for it.

Universities play a key role in the Scottish Government’s Covid recovery plan, and we need them to be robust and resilient institutions so that they can fulfil that role effectively. It is clear that the on-going dispute that today’s debate highlights undermines that work, and it is absolutely vital that a resolution can be found as soon as possible.

The dispute focuses primarily on measures to cut the universities superannuation scheme pension. We have been clear in saying that the UK-wide universities superannuation scheme does not fall within the devolved responsibility of the Scottish ministers. Universities are autonomous institutions, and matters relating to pay, working conditions and pensions are for them to determine. Therefore, the Scottish Government has no locus to intervene in the dispute.

Nevertheless, the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training has met university leaders and trade unions on a number of occasions to encourage them to continue negotiations, in an attempt—

I understand that the Scottish Government provides more than £1 billion to universities every year. Does Kaukab Stewart not think that that gives it a locus to intervene on the issue?

Kaukab Stewart

I understand the member’s point, but the dispute resolution process must be conducted between the employer and the trade unions. That is the nature of collective bargaining. We would not want the Government to intervene in that process.

Central to the Scottish Government’s fair work approach is the expectation that employers, workers and trade unions should work together to ensure that workers are treated fairly, and university and college staff should not be an exception to that approach.

The UCU’s briefing for the debate lists some concerning statistics that suggest that resolution of the dispute will be difficult, but that does not remove the responsibility of university leaders and trade unions to reach an agreement as soon as possible, in the interests of staff and students. Many students have written to me to highlight the effects that the dispute is having on their education and learning.

Despite the on-going dispute, today, Universities Scotland has released statistics that show that nearly 85 per cent of the research submitted by Scotland’s universities has been judged to be world leading.

Will the member take an intervention?

Kaukab Stewart

I will just crack on.

Most recently, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland was ranked fifth for studying the performing arts in the prestigious Quacquarelli Symonds world university rankings.

I make no apology for repeating that Scotland’s unis and colleges are institutions that we can be proud of. I remind everyone that Glasgow Kelvin is very proud to have eight—the figure increases to nine if we include the Open University—further and higher education institutes within the constituency. I trust that employers and unions will redouble their efforts to find a resolution.

I call Oliver Mundell, who joins us remotely.

13:09  

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I thank Maggie Chapman for bringing this important debate to the chamber and for giving voice to the concerns that are felt by many in the university sector.

As a member of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, and from the contents of my inbox, I am well aware of the strength of feeling on the issue. Although it is hard for the committee to intervene in a dispute between employee and employer, I welcome the fact that the committee has committed to looking at wider issues and challenges in the university sector later this year.

Scottish Conservatives, like others who have spoken today, remain incredibly grateful to lecturers and teaching and support staff at universities, who have worked exceptionally hard in the past two years as Scotland has gone through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. That work builds on years of professionalism and world-leading research and teaching. Without our lecturers and teaching staff, our university sector would not be as vibrant and successful as it is and would have fallen further behind in the face of financial pressures.

Given that clear and unwavering commitment, the fact that we are seeing widespread strike action and discontent speaks of a deep unhappiness in the sector, which is something that Scottish Conservatives are concerned about. Of course, we do not want education to be further disrupted, especially for students, but we recognise that staff face pressures and that changes to pensions and issues with pay and conditions are understandably sources of frustration and threaten the long-term viability of the sector.

Although I do not believe that it is for politicians to tell independent institutions how to employ their staff, I cannot believe that anyone thinks that the casualisation of the university workforce, unsafe workloads or inequalities in pay and promotion are in the best interests of university staff, students, universities or Scotland as a whole. Parliament and Government have a role here: we should be asking difficult questions about funding and the general decline that the current model promotes.

If universities do not feel that fair working practices are affordable under the current funding model and in the context of the courses that they provide, they must speak out to explain the challenges that they face. In the meantime, the priority must be for university bosses to get back round the table with staff and unions to try to find a way forward. It is disingenuous of members of the governing party to suggest that the Government has no role. Although it is not for the Government to tell universities what to do, it has an important role in facilitating that discussion and in making it clear that, where Government funding supports activities, fair work and good relations between employer and employee must be at the heart of all decisions.

The long-standing issues must be resolved, or everyone will suffer. We cannot let the issue drag on: all parties must take responsibility for bringing it to a conclusion and moving the sector forward. I again thank the member for today’s debate, which I hope will nudge the situation a little further forward. As we have heard from other speakers, the issues will not be easy to resolve.

Mr Mundell, I apologise for the fact that your screen froze at certain moments. We could hear you loud and clear, which I hope gives you some comfort.

13:13  

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate Maggie Chapman on lodging the motion and getting cross-party support for it.

We are talking about an element of our community—university and college staff, but also our students—that is so important for the future that we all hear so much about in the chamber and in our newspapers and for what we want Scotland to become. Our university and college staff are entrusted with leading students into adult life. We expect so much of them, but the current dispute and the wording of the motion show that we invest little in them.

There has been mutual support between our students and our university and college staff. Each knows the importance of the other. Students know that success lies in quality support from university and college staff. For those staff, it is an absolute vocation to give the next generation the best start in adult life. Matt Crilly, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, has said that

“college students in Scotland face a perfect storm”.

In a letter to the Scottish Government that was co-signed by student officers from colleges across Scotland, he calls for

“investment to ensure that students, staff or our colleges do not bear the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis we face.”

The motion sets out that this country is facing two sets of industrial action in two sets of disputes based on what we have heard described as the four fights and also the on-going dispute on pensions. As we have heard, pensions will see average cuts of 35 per cent based on what we now know to be an outdated valuation of the fund. All of that comes on the back of the Scottish Government’s budget for 2022-23, under which the college sector faces a real-terms cut of £23.9 million to its core budget, with the loss of the £28 million that was provided in 2021 to support it through the pandemic. Of course, our students and colleges have not come out of the pandemic or returned to pre-pandemic teaching, support and conditions.

Does the member recognise that the specific funding that he mentioned came on the back of UK Government consequentials that it has removed? That money does not exist for the Scottish Government any more.

Martin Whitfield

I am grateful for that intervention but, of course, the reality is that the impact is still hitting our college sector and our students. They are not getting their lectures.

Scottish Labour supports the trade unions’ position that the current pay offer is unacceptable. Our dedicated lecturers should not be facing real-terms pay cuts through below-inflation awards, but this is just the latest in a long line of examples of the SNP-Green Government undervaluing education and our teaching professionals. The Scottish Government uses so much rhetoric regarding prioritisation of education, but the action that it takes rarely backs that up.

Our young people have had two years of unprecedented disruption to their education. Our college and university lecturers are key to those young adults’ recovery from Covid and they must be valued as such. Those staff pride themselves on supporting the education of their students and they are right to do so. They would not risk more disruption through industrial action unless they believed that it was absolutely necessary. Colleges Scotland has highlighted that the 2022-23 budget that the SNP-Green Government has just passed means a national reduction in funding for the sector that is equivalent to £51.9 million. All of that is leading to increasing pressures on finances, but the pay offer devalues our education.

I say with some caution that the Government’s attitude in standing to the side and not doing stuff also devalues our education. As Matt Crilly said,

“We need the government to prioritise student welfare, reverse their cuts to our education and ensure staff are supported.”

13:17  

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

I thank Maggie Chapman for securing this important parliamentary debate on this long-running industrial dispute. There is no wonder that the university workers are taking industrial action. These are workers whose employers imposed a freeze on pay two years ago and then imposed a below-inflation pay award on them last September—timed, I have to say, to undermine a lawful ballot for industrial action with the squalid bribery and cajolery of back pay: a trick that did not succeed.

The same employers have now threatened the deduction of wages—and presumably pension contributions as well—when trade union members take part in industrial action short of strike action. That is a draconian step that, I have to say, I never saw taken in all my time as a trade union organiser, even by cut-throat multinational corporations, never mind by public institutions whose very existence depends on billions of pounds of public money.

Then there is the widespread and unforgivable casualisation of the workforce in our universities so that a third of academic staff are on fixed-term contracts. One worker whom I spoke to in Glasgow just this week said that, since 2017, he has been on a procession of fixed-term contracts, sometimes being out of work for six months at a time. He told me:

“There is a generational layer of academics stuck in a hugely disruptive cycle of short-term employment and unemployment; a precarious limbo that denies us dignity and a basic quality of life.”

No wonder these workers are angry—they have every right to be. This is not only an assault on individuals, but a war on hard-won collective basic employment rights—a war without honour.

When I speak to these striking workers on picket lines at University Avenue in Glasgow, at the Riccarton campus of Heriot-Watt University and at Moray house in the Canongate on the way down to this Parliament, they tell me not just how angry they are but how determined they are as well. That is the message for their employers: these people are angry and determined.

It is also the message for this SNP-Green Scottish Government. Last November, the joint trade unions—the UCU, Unite, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the GMB and Unison—wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to highlight

“successive below inflation pay impositions ... unsafe workloads ... pay inequality”

And

“insecure contractual arrangements”.

They concluded:

“While the trade unions believe universities in Scotland can and should be doing more to resolve these issues, there can be no doubt that consistent underfunding is a major contributory factor to the various disputes and unresolved collective issues in the sector.”

My message—and the message of a new generation of outstanding trade union leaders such as Jo Grady and Mary Senior, who joins us in Parliament today—is clear. We are now six months on, and these higher education disputes and collective issues remain unresolved. As we have been reminded this morning by the EIS, whose members are protesting outside this Parliament, they have now been joined by unresolved disputes and collective issues in our further education colleges, too. The situation in our colleges and universities is at crisis point.

The minister for further and higher education needs to step in, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills needs to step up, and the First Minister needs to wield the authority of her office, exercise the leverage of the Scottish exchequer and act decisively to get these disputes and these injustices resolved once and for all.

13:22  

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I congratulate Maggie Chapman on securing this important debate and on her opening contribution, which set the issues out very clearly. There is no question but that colleges and universities in this country are in crisis, and I speak today in support of the UCU and, indeed, the EIS-Further Education Lecturers Association college lecturers, who are also on strike in the face of a real-terms pay cut and have been demonstrating outside the Parliament.

As I said earlier, the Scottish Government provides over £1 billion a year to universities, so it cannot wash its hands of these issues and simply expect the institutions to behave autonomously and in a fair and benevolent way. The Scottish Government has the ability and the responsibility to intervene. There must be a clear expectation that universities in receipt of public money—taxpayers’ money—will treat their staff fairly and act as good employer. As it stands, that is not happening.

Since 2009, staff pay in the university sector has fallen by an astonishing 25.5 per cent in real terms, and employers continue to offer insulting real-terms pay cuts to staff. Around a third of all university staff in Scotland and across the United Kingdom are on precarious fixed-term contracts. I have been told that staff in some institutions in Scotland have been on such contracts for decades; indeed, I have been advised that, for some, it has been more than 30 years. The average working week in higher education is now more than 50 hours, with 29 per cent of academics averaging more than 55 hours, and in a UCU Scotland survey in July 2021, 76 per cent of respondents reported an increased workload during the pandemic.

There are several issues that the Government has a responsibility to address. The level of casualisation in the sector is alarming. It is not good enough simply to say that Governments cannot intervene. The Scottish Government needs to ensure that the Scottish Funding Council sets out guidance stating that temporary or fixed-term contracts should not be used. It needs to intervene in the current dispute, to bring the parties together and set out very clearly what the Government expects to happen. The Scottish Government needs to be at the forefront of demanding and pushing for change in the sector. That means that fair work should be the minimum standard for universities accessing Scottish Funding Council funding. The minister needs to intervene to make sure that that happens.

The Scottish Government needs to ensure that all staff in the sector are part of national collective agreements and bargaining with trade unions. Those are vital steps that the Scottish Government needs to take in a leadership capacity to ensure that we have dignity, that the workers are treated fairly and that our money is appropriately spent.

13:26  

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

I, too, thank Maggie Chapman for lodging the motion for today’s debate. I recognise the significant interest in the issue; it is entirely appropriate that Parliament is debating the matter. I echo the points about the importance of the contribution of our universities and the people who work in them, which Maggie Chapman set out.

Michael Marra mentioned the research excellence framework results that were published today, which are, by anybody’s estimation, a further demonstration of the world-leading research that is conducted in Scotland. To respond to Mr Marra’s point, I say that the research excellence grant allocations will be made clear in due course.

Michael Marra

Does the minister recognise that there are worrying trends in the figures? For example, of the 10 top universities in Scotland, the positions of eight have declined relative to universities in the rest of the UK. Is not the causal reality of that the significant cuts in real terms to the unit of resource for higher education and the research excellence grant over recent years?

Jamie Hepburn

Various factors contribute to movement in the rankings. My point—I am sure that Mr Marra will agree with it—is that, across the piece and across the country, we have seen significant improvements for most of our institutions, which is something that we should celebrate.

I am conscious of the context of the past couple of years, which have been very challenging for people who work and study in our higher education sector, as they have been for all sectors. I am enormously grateful for the resilience that has been demonstrated by the higher education sector throughout the period.

I share the concerns that have been expressed regarding the on-going disputes in the higher education sector over a range of issues. As several members have mentioned, the Scottish Government has a responsibility to intervene. I do not shirk that responsibility; we are not standing idly by on the sidelines.

Maggie Chapman suggested that the Scottish Government should be urging universities to remain at the negotiating table and continue to contribute to the process. I have made that point every time the matter has been raised in Parliament and I have put the point directly to university management. I meet unions and university management regularly and my clear call to all parties is to continue to negotiate to resolve the dispute.

Incidentally, I note that the situation is not specific to Scotland. The subject of negotiation and dispute is a UK-wide scheme, so it cannot be resolved in Scotland alone.

Will the minister take an intervention?

Jamie Hepburn

Kaukab Stewart made the point that the Scottish Government has a locus in relation to intervening, and we should offer clarity in that regard. The fundamental point—one that everyone surely agrees with—is that the Scottish Government is not directly a party in the negotiations, and I do not think that anyone is seeking for us to become one. That is where the difficulty exists; we are not directly involved in the negotiations, because universities are autonomous institutions. I am not aware that anyone is suggesting that they should be anything other than that so, on that basis, it is for the universities and their workforce representatives to come together to resolve matters. However, I will, of course, meet and work with those parties to assist them and urge them to resolve the process.

Will the minister take an intervention?

I do not think that the minister is taking an intervention.

I was about to give way. I just wanted to finish the point that I was making.

Okay. I just did not want Mr Marra to stand about endlessly waiting.

He need wait no longer.

Michael Marra

I greatly appreciate being put out of my misery. I thank the minister for giving way.

Does the minister recognise that, although we might not be calling for the Government to be at the table in the negotiations, there is a causal link in relation to the Government’s funding decisions?

Does he also recognise that, as my colleagues have laid out, the Government could make direct interventions through the Scottish Funding Council, which sets the terms against which public money is spent in the institutions? Requirements can be included through outcome agreements and on-going discussions with universities on a contractual basis in relation to what is required to be delivered using taxpayers’ money. The minister has a direct role in mandating the Scottish Funding Council to act.

Jamie Hepburn

The fundamental point comes down to the process and our ambitions for fair work. I used to be the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, so I take the fair work agenda very seriously. I recognise that enabling workers having their voices heard—in this instance, through trade union recognition—is central to fair work.

Members rose.

Jamie Hepburn

If members will allow me to finish my point, I will gladly give way.

There should be an appropriate and effective avenue by which parties can come together. In that sense, the Scottish Funding Council, in line with the Scottish Government, has a role to play in furthering the fair work agenda, which we take seriously. We engage regularly with our institutions to ensure that our fair work first criteria are embedded in our workplaces. I say, with respect, that having a fair work framework and fair work practices provides no guarantee that we will not sometimes end up with disputes between workers and management. They might still happen, even in a fair work context. It is about ensuring that the platform exists for fair negotiations to take place.

I am not sure which members wanted to intervene, but I am happy to give way.

Maggie Chapman

I thank the minister for his comments about fair work. Does he think that it is acceptable that women and younger staff are most affected by the pension cuts? The plans bake in discrimination. Deficit recovery payments to repay a deficit that does not really exist any more will require cuts to pensions, which will most likely affect younger workers and women.

Jamie Hepburn

I would be concerned about any disproportionate impact. Those legitimate issues should be viewed through the prism of the negotiations. I am able to discuss such matters directly with Universities Scotland and trade unions, and I will do so. Ultimately, the inescapable point is that universities and their workforce representatives require to come together to resolve the issues. I think that we all agree that long-term industrial action is in no one’s interests, although I agree that workers have a fundamental right to undertake industrial action, if they feel that it is necessary.

What we want to, and must, see is a coming together, because there is a continued need to negotiate. That is my message, and it should be the Parliament’s message. We want the dispute to be resolved.

That concludes the debate. I suspend the meeting until 2 pm, which is very soon.

13:34 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—