Gillian Keegan announces plans for minimum service levels in universities

Minimum service levels could be introduced for university staff, Gillian Keegan has said.

The Education Secretary said the Government would consult on the change, which would ensure that a number of lecturers are required to work during strikes.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) staged a nationwide marking boycott over the summer, but the union has backed away from its plans for a strike over a pay dispute.

Support staff at universities, including IT technicians, administrators and library staff, have also taken part in strike action after rejecting a below-inflation pay deal earlier this year.

At the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Ms Keegan criticised industrial action by teaching staff, claiming it was “outrageous” that students had not received the education they paid for.

The Education Secretary said: “Many will still want to go to university and that will be the right choice for them, and if they do they should get the education that they paid for, that is common sense, right?

“Apparently not, because over recent years we have seen constant strikes, we have students not getting the education they paid for, and some not even having their degrees marked. This is outrageous behaviour.”

She added: “Today, I am announcing that we will consult to introduce minimum service levels in universities, so that they have the tools to make sure that students get the teaching that they deserve.”

The consultation will focus on stronger protections for final year students, key cohorts, and those studying specialist subjects.

Students and universities will be encouraged to share their views on the impact of strike action.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said her union would fight against the introduction of minimum service levels.

She said: “This is a spiteful attack on workers everywhere from a party that has run out of options and will soon be run out of office. We will not stand by while Tory MPs try to force our members to cross their own picket lines.

“The recent strike action on campus is a direct result of the market-driven dogma of successive Tory governments. They have created funding inequalities across the sector and encouraged university leaders to act as intransigent CEOs.

“UCU will use every means at our disposal to fight these threats to our fundamental freedoms alongside the whole union movement.”

The Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA), which represents the sector in negotiations with trade unions, meanwhile said it would provide a “considered response” to the consultation.

Raj Jethwa, the UCEA’s chief executive, said: “UCEA and our members always study such proposals carefully before responding, but our current priority is working constructively with the unions on a number of vital pay-related matters including the review of the pay spine, workload, contract types and further action to reduce the already falling pay gaps in the sector.

“A crucial element of resetting industrial relations in the sector is developing a shared understanding of affordability. For the sake of students and staff alike, it is now vital to work together to end the sector’s recent cycle of industrial disputes.”

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act, which became law earlier this year, empowers ministers to make new regulations that will set a required minimum level of service during strikes in sectors including health, education, transport, fire and rescue, nuclear decommissioning, and border security.