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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 17, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Points of Order, Higher Education Workers Dispute, Portfolio Question Time, Brexit (Impact on Devolution), Decision Time


Contents


Higher Education Workers Dispute

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-06216, in the name of Katy Clark, on the higher education workers dispute. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put. I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the recent industrial action by university staff following the closure of the UNISON higher education pay ballot on 19 August 2022; further notes that staff at the University of Glasgow, Edinburgh Napier University and Robert Gordon University represented by UNISON, which include cleaners, administrators and library, catering and security workers, most recently took strike action on 3 and 4 October; understands that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association’s (UCEA) final offer of 3%, or 7.2% for the lowest paid workers, is sub-inflationary as the current CPI rate is 9.9% and the current RPI rate is 12.3%; considers that UCEA’s offer has been imposed on university staff despite being subject to a live dispute with the trade unions, and that such impositions also occurred in 2021 and 2020; understands that the trade unions, University and College Union, Educational Institute of Scotland-University Lecturers’ Association and Unite, are at varying stages of consulting or balloting their members for action in the same dispute; believes that industrial relations in the sector have deteriorated to an unacceptable level; notes the view that the staff do incredible work and deserve to be recognised fairly and paid properly; further notes the belief that the Scottish Government must urge universities and UCEA to take meaningful steps to negotiate a fair resolution to these disputes, and notes the calls on universities and UCEA to return to the negotiating table in the interests of workers and students.

12:53  

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to speak to this motion on the higher education workers dispute, and I thank all the members who gave the motion cross-party support.

As the motion notes, several universities have already had strike action in recent months, and many more staff across the country are currently being balloted. The most recent Unison strike took place on 4 October, when Unison members—mainly cleaners, administrators and library, catering, security and other support staff—took part in action. Further action is due to take place on dates later this month at Edinburgh Napier University, Glasgow Caledonian University and Robert Gordon University.

Those workers will be joined by members of the Educational Institute of Scotland-University Lecturers Association and of the University and College Union, who all have strike dates in November. The UCU action will be at every single one of the 17 Scottish institutions, on three dates later this month, and will involve up to 8,000 members.

Further ballots are on-going at many other institutions, including the University of the West of Scotland, in the region that I represent. Unite the union, too, is balloting its 2,000 members across 11 institutions. We therefore face disruption at universities across Scotland, with staff—many of whom are on low pay—taking action despite the loss of income that that will involve for them. In addition, of course, students are being impacted.

University of Glasgow members were also on strike but, earlier this month, they accepted a breakthrough pay deal, which will involve overall pay rises of between 6 and 12.9 per cent this year, and a pay increase of £2,332 for the lowest paid.

However, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says that it has made its final offer to staff, of a below-inflation pay award of 3 per cent for most higher education workers, and a 3 to 9 per cent award for some of the lowest paid. Given the rate of inflation, those are pay decreases in real terms.

The strikes are about pay, but they are also about other terms and conditions. The UCU held two ballots: one for strikes on pay and conditions; and the other for strikes on pensions. In the pay and conditions ballot, 81.1 per cent voted yes, on a 57.8 per cent turnout. In the pensions ballot, the yes vote was higher, at 84 per cent, on a 60.2 per cent turnout.

The UCU says that, on average, the cuts to pensions are in the region of 35 per cent, and that those are going ahead despite being based on an outdated valuation of the pension fund. The UCU also estimates that, in the jobs in which it organises in the sector, pay has been cut by about 25 per cent in real terms since 2009. Unison estimates that, for its members, the cut has been about 20 per cent during the same time period.

About one third of university staff in Scotland and across the United Kingdom are on precarious, fixed-term contracts. Some of those workers have been on those contracts for upwards of 30 years.

The average working week in education is now more than 50 hours, and UCU Scotland says that, in a survey that it conducted in June 2021, 76 per cent of respondents reported an increase in workload during the pandemic. A further, more recent UCU survey, from March this year, found that two thirds were considering leaving the sector due to poor pay and conditions.

In response to debates of this nature, Scottish ministers normally say that the institutions are independent and that the terms and conditions of the staff are not the responsibility of the Scottish Government. However, the Scottish Government provided more than £1 billion in funding to Scottish universities last year. Those institutions are substantially funded by the Government.

In addition, the sector generates income. The UK university sector generated income of £14.1 billion last year.

It is estimated that vice-chancellors took pay packets of an estimated £45 million. For example, the principal of the University of Edinburgh is reported to have a salary of an estimated £363,000 a year, and the principal of the University of Glasgow is reported to have an estimated salary of £368,000 a year.

Education is fully devolved and the Scottish Government is responsible for the model in our higher education system in Scotland, which is one of endemic low pay, poor conditions, excessive executive remuneration, casualised contracts and the marketisation of the sector.

I urge the Scottish Government, as a major funder of the sector in Scotland, to get directly involved in these disputes; to urge universities and the University and Colleges Employers Association to take meaningful steps to negotiate a fair resolution to the disputes; to ensure that the fair work convention is the minimum standard for accessing funding from the Scottish Funding Council; and to look at how that convention can be strengthened and, as a priority, investigate and report to this Parliament on employment conditions in the education sector, particularly in higher education.

We have a system in which students are treated as consumers and in which many workers are on temporary contracts and paid a pittance while vice-chancellors award themselves record pay packets. It is unsurprising that workers across the country are demanding improved pay and conditions. The Scottish Government cannot claim to be a bystander in the disputes. The Government funds Scottish universities by more than £1 billion each year. It has a responsibility to ensure that staff are paid well and have proper conditions of employment and that the universities, which are provided with funds, act as good employers.

13:02  

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

As we are all too well aware, industrial disputes are invariably messy, and often unpleasant, affairs. Overambitious, ill-judged and seemingly entrenched positions are taken at the outset, when everyone knows that ground must be, and ultimately will be, ceded by the protagonists.

Right now, with workers in so many employment sectors understandably pressing for pay increases to address spiralling inflation, the landscape for attracting support and sympathy from the public for pay claims is pretty congested. A number of public sector disputes are rumbling away across the United Kingdom and the brutal truth is that sympathy for the likes of nurses and firefighters may be greater than that for university staff. That is absolutely not to say that that group does not deserve a fair but affordable increase that takes account of the cost of living—far from it. It is simply an observation.

Universities do not function and students do not secure an education without cleaners, administrators and library, catering and security workers, never mind the teaching staff. That it is why I am certain that the Scottish Government will actively encourage Scotland’s universities to engage with the unions and to apply fair work principles. However, as Katy Clark acknowledged, universities are autonomous bodies.

Universities must be alive to the public relations damage done to them by protracted disputes with staff, especially where there are parallel issues, such as the pensions issue that is having an impact on non-teaching staff at the University of Dundee.

There is no aspect of industrial relations in which fairness is so much to the fore of the public mind as that of pensions. Because of the background that I came from, I am instinctively inclined towards the cause of employees who oppose threats to their pension expectations. In another life, I worked for 30 years in journalism. It was not just the Maxwell scandal that left its mark: long-serving and far from well-paid journalists saw their non-contributory pension schemes removed while the legitimate terms and conditions of others were labelled as “pension liabilities” as if those were unreasonable burdens and not entitlements after many years of sterling service.

There is not the slightest doubt that the initial approach taken by the University of Dundee to its superannuation scheme was cack-handed, to say the least. It does not look good to attack the pension rights of staff who are far from being the best remunerated in an institution, especially when those staff are predominantly women, the gender worst served by pension provision.

In fairness, I get the university court’s concerns over the growth in pension responsibilities—let us call them that—and the increase in employer contributions. However, that was the kind of ill-judged starting position that I referred to earlier.

We have seen some progress—not as much as staff might want or be content with, but some progress. We now need to see that being built on, with similar momentum taking hold on the salaries front both at Dundee and across the sector and, as I said, both sides recognising that ground will have to be ceded.

13:05  

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I declare an interest as a member of the Universities Superannuation Scheme from my 15 years working in the Scottish higher education sector.

I thank Katy Clark for bringing the motion to the chamber for debate today. As she knows, I am happy to give the full backing of Scottish Labour’s education policy, particularly for the sound recommendation that funding that is delivered from the Scottish taxpayer through the Scottish Funding Council should be guaranteed on the baseline of the fair work convention. The universities should adhere to that. It is a sound suggestion and the minister should address it in his remarks.

It is absolutely right to say that employers should get back round the table on all the disputes that Katy Clark highlighted, and also on the dispute that Mr Graeme Dey highlighted. However, we know that pay disputes across the public sector are being driven by a global economic climate that has, to be frank, only been worsened by the grotesque incompetence of the Conservative Government, which is in Parliament today asking citizens across the UK to pay the cost of its right-wing ideological economic fantasies.

The staff in our universities, whose situation we are debating, are victims of that incompetence, too. The impact of inflation is now compounded by the tax hikes and service cuts that the chancellor has announced in the past hour. We have to ask our universities to recognise that climate and they must strain every sinew to find the resources to strike the right pay deal for our lecturers and support staff across Scotland. Their work is crucial not just today, for the students that they work with, but to the future of our country.

As members have highlighted, industrial relations are strained. As a Dundonian and as a former long-term employee of the University of Dundee, it has become a matter of great concern and, to be frank, a shameful sight to see that industrial relations there have deteriorated to the level that they have. The pension cuts for the lowest paid part of the workforce, who are predominantly female, are completely unacceptable. The management must get round the table with all the campus unions immediately.

We must also recognise in this debate what the Scottish Government has done to increase the budget pressures on our universities. The resource spending review slashed funds for tertiary education in the years to come by 8 per cent with, as yet, no indication of the balance of the cuts between colleges and universities. That means that the universities do not yet know the real scale of the cuts that they will face, which makes planning for their future workforces, projects and investments impossible. The minister should provide clarity on that as soon as possible.

This is not just a short-term issue that has arisen in recent months. The Scottish Government has provided no increase to the funding of Scottish student education for 13 years and, as a result, it is fair to say that the balance sheets of most Scottish universities are deeply worrying. That is reflected in the comparative performance of our universities, as I have covered in the chamber on numerous occasions. The recent research excellence framework results show the universities in Scotland not improving at the pace of universities across the UK.

In the Times Higher Education world university rankings that were published just yesterday, there are three outstanding Scottish universities in the world’s top 200. A decade ago, there were five. That is a reflection of the direction of travel in Scotland, which is a very worrying one for the future of our country.

The people who make the universities’ success possible are the very employees whose working conditions we are discussing today. Scottish Labour calls for new negotiations and a deal for all those workers that protects their futures and the future success of Scotland.

13:09  

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I note the contents of the motion, and I find myself broadly in agreement with what is being said, fundamentally, in the debate, which is that the university principals and administrations should get together with the representatives of their workforces and resolve the dispute. At the heart of all these matters are the interests of the generation who depend on the good work that is being done in our universities and colleges, not only for their own individual success but for the future success of our country.

I listened to Michael Marra, for whom I have enormous respect, and I would gently suggest to him that he should perhaps check the detail of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has actually said and, in particular, the commentary of the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Katy Clark is absolutely right when she talks about education being wholly devolved. Therefore, the minister needs to respond to any issues that we address in the debate around the Government’s performance in relation to its lack of public investment over a decade.

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

Would the member recognise that, fundamentally, this is an industrial dispute about industrial relations related to matters around pay and terms and conditions, which are inextricably interlinked with employment law, over which we do not have control and which remains in the hands of the UK Government?

I can give you your time back, Mr Kerr.

Stephen Kerr

It is intrinsically interlinked with the fact that the Scottish Government has been underfunding the further and higher education sector in this country for 10 years. That is the framework in which these issues are being addressed. This is a wholly devolved matter, and the buck stops with the Scottish Government and with the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training in particular.

The further and higher education sector, upon which we all depend for our future prosperity, needs greater levels of sustainable funding. For far too long, the Scottish National Party Government has neglected the further education and higher education sector. Because of that, there have been budget cuts year after year. There have been cuts to the number of college students across Scotland and a cap on the number of Scots permitted to attend universities. The university sector has had to go across the globe, sometimes involving itself in what I can only describe as dubious international schemes to raise money, potentially undermining the independence and integrity of those very institutions, many of which are world class.

That is contributing to the strikes by lecturers and other staff at Scottish universities and colleges, who are concerned about their pay, working conditions and pensions. Since 2010, university funding per student has fallen by 9.4 per cent in real terms, according to the Scottish Government’s own figures. In response to written question S6W-01165, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills told us that, in 2010-11, average university student funding was £6,525 in real terms, whereas the figure now is £5,703.

The effect of those cuts is clear. As Universities Scotland has made clear, the fact that funding from international students’ fees is set to overtake funding that the Scottish Government makes available to Scotland’s universities next year is evidence of those international students’ fees now cross-subsidising Scottish students’ places and the teaching budgets of higher education institutions.

We have also seen the effect of the SNP spending cuts on Scotland’s colleges. The principal of Glasgow Kelvin College has said that 80 per cent of accessible income or revenue is spent on staff costs.

As I am now running out of time, I will conclude by reiterating that the Scottish Conservatives believe that the university principals—

Will the member take an intervention?

I would love to, but I do not know if I am allowed.

You are winding up at the moment, Mr Kerr.

Stephen Kerr

I apologise—I like to take interventions, as I think members know.

The Scottish Conservatives believe that the university principals and the representatives of university employees need to get around the table, but the Scottish Government needs to take responsibility for the consequences of the decisions that it has made, based on some form of hierarchy of political priorities. Scotland’s universities should be the envy of the world. Our reputation as a country stands on our higher and further education. It is time that the SNP Scottish Government gave proper funding priority to Scotland’s universities and colleges, so that lecturers and staff will feel and share in the pride of being part of this great national success story.

13:14  

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, and I thank my comrade Katy Clark for securing this important debate.

As a former rep for the University and College Union—the UCU—I know all too well what struggles the staff in higher education are facing. For years, those workers have been undervalued as the UK and Scottish Governments have allowed low pay, casualisation and poor working conditions to become rife across the sector. Therefore, I stand with those workers as they take industrial action and join them in their calls for a real pay rise after years of below-inflation wage rises; for an end to precarious contracts, which lead to poor working conditions and dangerously high workloads; and for pensions that allow them to have dignity in retirement, rather than pensions that have been cut to the bone.

As I mentioned, prior to my election, I was a UCU rep. A particular issue that members faced then, which they still face now, was the increasing casualisation of work in higher education. I would like to share some testimony from a UCU member at the University of Dundee that highlights the human impact of casualisation. I will read out their words:

“I have been teaching at universities in the UK for 5 years, teaching English and academic skills to students who want to come and study in the UK.

In that time, I have been on more than 10 temporary contracts—all of them either part-time or fractional.

Most of my students will pay more for their Masters course than I will make in a year. It is just not possible to plan a life under these conditions.

It’s nearly impossible to get a mortgage because temporary contracts are seen as too risky by the bank.

You cannot afford to pay for further training and qualifications because your pay is so low.

Starting a family seems impossible when you don’t know if you will have a contract this semester, or if you might need to move to another city for work.

When I got my first job at a university I was excited because I thought I had ‘made it’.

Now, I would not recommend the HE sector to anyone who wants to start a family or build a stable life of any kind.

I plan to retrain and leave the sector at the next opportunity, and I know I’m not alone.”

The UCU member whose testimony I have shared is not alone. The issues that they face reflect the systemic challenges that university staff face. As we have heard, at the University of Dundee senior management are pushing through pension cuts without holding meaningful negotiations with the affected workers or their trade union representatives in Unite, Unison and the UCU. The Scottish Government has refused to engage, despite the fact that it has often emphasised the importance of fair work. The First Minister, the education ministers and even their officials all failed to meet a delegation of workers and their Unite representatives in Parliament just two weeks ago.

Jamie Hepburn

I can only respectfully suggest that such an invitation never made its way to me. I have met the unions that represent workers at the University of Dundee, and I have met and spoken to folk from Dundee on the ground. Therefore, I am sorry to say that what Ms Villalba said is news to me. If that delegation wants to write to me, I will be happy to consider meeting it.

Mercedes Villalba

I thank the minister for that intervention and for his commitment to meet the workers. I will pass that on. The invitation was extended to every MSP in Parliament and I raised it at First Minister’s question time. I even gave the time and place. I can only apologise if the minister was not paying attention that day.

Where is the fairness in low pay, in casualised contracts and in the pension cuts that university staff in Dundee and across Scotland now face? How can it be right that universities that receive so much public funding are able to defy the Scottish Government’s fair work principles without being held to account?

The growing marketisation of higher education has involved universities prioritising profit over people. We must think bolder and transform our education system in the way that we transformed public health with the creation of the national health service. That means aspiring to have a national education service that is universally available from cradle to grave, that provides well-paid, secure and unionised jobs for its staff, and that makes lifelong learning a reality for all.

13:19  

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, and I thank Katy Clark for bringing this important question back before Parliament.

Once again, we are debating higher education at the very point when our trade unions are on the brink of industrial action. Once again, we are debating higher education as we witness a fierce political attack on the democratic freedoms of workers and their organisations. Make no mistake: it is an attack that is so extreme that simply witnessing it is not enough. This is no time for neutrality; this is a time to step up and actively defend those workers, those trade unions and those fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Nor can we be neutral on the fate of our universities. Just last week, I visited the new advanced research centre at the University of Glasgow. I listened: I listened to university teachers, who told me about the rise in precarious employment. I listened: I listened to students, who told me about the difference that access to higher education was making to their lives, but how hard their struggle was. New capital investment in our university buildings is important, but we also need equally bold new human investment in our university staff and students.

That reminds me that, as we contemplate the aftermath of this afternoon’s budget and as the SNP-Green Government contemplates yet more cuts to college and university funding, we should never forget that there are those who will use financial cuts not as a side effect but as an intended consequence to limit the choice that is open to working-class students.

I rise to point out that the chancellor’s announcements today mean that, from next year, the Scottish Government will have £1.5 billion more to spend on education and on other public services.

As people always say about budgets, the devil will be in the detail. We shall see over the next few days what that really means on the ground.

Michael Marra

In the accompanying notes for today’s budget, the OBR has reflected the fact that household income in the UK is expected to fall by 7 per cent this year and 7 per cent next year. Is that not the situation that workers in universities face as a result of the UK Government’s economic policies?

Richard Leonard

Yes, I agree with Michael Marra entirely. As I was saying, that is also the challenge that faces students from working-class backgrounds, who are much less likely to get the opportunity.

In the time that I have left, let me turn to look at the UCU’s demands, which are, in my view, very modest. All that it is looking for is a meaningful pay rise and action to address pay inequality; an agreed framework to eliminate precarious employment practices and to tackle dangerously high workloads; an entirely affordable reversal of the 35 per cent cut to university workers’ pensions; a reinstatement of the universities pension scheme; and a recognition that those are deferred earnings.

We say to the outstanding leaders of the UCU—Jo Grady and Mary Senior—and to other higher education trade unions in dispute that they and their members have our 100 per cent support. We say to the Scottish Government that of course we understand the importance of the autonomous status of our universities, but they are not private businesses—they are public institutions that are subject to public legislation, influence and regulation, and they are funded with public money. I ask the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training: what is it going to take, and when is he going to act?

Finally, in our democracy, trade unions are a line of defence for working people, but I hope that the day will come soon when they will be not just a line of defence but an alternative line of advance. I hope that they will be a vehicle through which people can participate in the running of our universities, our colleges and all our public services and, yes, in the running of our industries as well, so that the people who know what works—those who create the wealth, including the wealth of knowledge in our education system—are no longer all the time defending but have their status transformed. That would herald a new era of mutual aid and mutual respect, a new era of social and economic responsibility, and a new era of progress for working people in this country.

I now invite the minister to respond to the debate.

13:25  

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

I thank Katy Clark for lodging the motion, which raises important issues that it is entirely appropriate for us to debate in the Parliament.

At the outset, I place on record my thanks to those who work in our universities, be they our lecturing staff or support staff. They keep campuses running smoothly and ensure that students are supported and get the education that they require. In that context, I recognise that the past few years have not been easy for many sectors, including the university sector, in working through the Covid-19 pandemic, so it is all credit to those who have worked in the sector not only that they have they sustained it but that it has continued to be the envy of the world.

I was surprised to hear Stephen Kerr say that the sector “should” be the envy of the world; he should know that we have world-class and outstanding excellence in our universities, and I am sure that Mr Kerr’s suggestion that it might be otherwise, in saying that they “should” be the envy of the world, was inadvertent—they are the envy of the world.

In respect of workforce relations right now, my clear view is that workers in our universities should continue to be supported. That is vitally important. We rely on them to help our institutions to continue to rebuild and bounce back in the post-Brexit and post-Covid economy; to help us to move towards net zero; to respond to the imperatives of upskilling and reskilling; and to continue to deliver world-class teaching, research and knowledge exchange.

Stephen Kerr

How on earth are those workers going to do that when the SNP Scottish Government is cutting public funding to universities and colleges? For example, on the financial prospectus that the SNP proposes, the principal of Glasgow Kelvin College, Derek Smeall, has said:

“the impact looks at this early stage to be likely to mean a reduction in my workforce of 25 per cent by ... year 5, which is 2027.”—[Official Report, Education, Children and Young People Committee, 21 September 2022; c 14.]

That is what the SNP has got on offer to the sector, so, although the minister talks about bouncing back, how is the sector supposed to do that when the SNP is not funding it properly?

I can give you the time back for that intervention, minister.

Jamie Hepburn

What the member fails to mention—it is important that we place this in its proper context—is that today, as things stand, the Scottish Government’s budget is worth £1.7 billion less than when it was published in December 2021. The framework that we laid out through the spending review is predicated on what we expect to be available to spend through the public purse as a consequence of decisions that have been taken by Mr Kerr’s party in government. That is the reality of what we have to deal with, and we will seek to rise to the occasion and do what we can to continue to support the sector, both universities and colleges, right now.

I heard Katy Clark say—I think that she was saying this positively—that we invest £1 billion in our university sector. To be precise, it is £1.1 billion. That is a substantial investment.

Michael Marra

We all sympathise about the current financial situation, and I addressed some of that in my speech. The minister has to recognise that the amount of money that the Scottish Government has provided for Scottish students has not increased for 13 years. Is that not part of the root cause of the issue of terms and conditions for Scottish workers in universities, which is what we are talking about?

Jamie Hepburn

Actually, this year, we have seen an uplift in the teaching grant to universities being delivered through decisions taken by the Scottish Funding Council, so we continue to invest. We will also continue to invest in the substantial package of student support that we have in place, which, of course, enables Scottish students to attend university without having to pay the excessive and exorbitant fees that students in the rest of the United Kingdom have to pay.

Let me return to the industrial dispute, which is, after all, the primary focus of today’s debate. I am sorry if this disappoints Ms Clark, but I will be consistent with what I have said before. It is fundamentally the case that the Scottish Government is not a direct party to the negotiation process. We do not have the ability to intervene directly, or to determine, dictate or participate in how the negotiations will be taken forward.

Will the minister give way?

Jamie Hepburn

I will give way in a wee second.

This point is important and has not been looked at or set out by any member thus far. Of course, some disputes are local, such as the Dundee one or the issues at Glasgow. However, for lecturers, the framework for negotiations is not Scotland specific; it is UK wide. That is the context and the reality that we are dealing with. We will seek to continue to influence matters and to engage, but against that reality.

Katy Clark

Does the minister accept that the model for the higher education sector in Scotland is, as I outlined, one of endemic low pay, poor conditions, excessive executive remuneration, casualised contracts and marketisation? Does he accept that it is the Scottish Government’s responsibility to ensure that the model is acceptable to the people of Scotland? Will he look at fair work and at how employment practices can be improved in the sector?

Jamie Hepburn

Of course, I accept the responsibility that we have to bring our influence to bear to improve on those matters. I recognise that there are issues not only in this sector but right across the labour market in terms of how it is structured. I remind Ms Clark that, fundamentally, many of those things come back to employment law and how the labour market is regulated more widely, which is not directly in our gift.

Will the minister give way?

I have given way a number of times.

The minister has taken a number of interventions. It is only reasonable to listen to his responses and not provide a running commentary on them.

Jamie Hepburn

I assure you that the running commentary has not put me off my stride, Presiding Officer, but I appreciate the sentiment.

Let me come back to the process of negotiation. I accept that there is a role; I am not trying to abdicate that responsibility. I have sought to engage at every turn with the institutions, through Universities Scotland, and with the unions representing the workforce to urge them to come together to negotiate and come to a settlement that is fair and that supports the workforce. In that regard, Mr Dey is correct in his estimation of our involvement. We are involved and we are seeking to bring our influence to bear.

Since I became the minister with responsibility for higher education, I have undertaken and discharged that responsibility on a regular basis, engaging with all parties. Just last week, I spoke with the UCU. On 27 October, I spoke with Unite and Unison. This week, I have written to the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and copied the letter to Universities Scotland, continuing to urge them to engage with each other to ensure that the matter is resolved in a satisfactory fashion. On the Dundee situation specifically, again, I have regularly engaged with unions and management. If Ms Villalba wants to contact me about another chance to engage with workforce representatives, I will be happy to do so.

Let me conclude, Presiding Officer, as you probably want me to do now. I take our responsibilities to all workers in Scotland seriously, including those who work in our academic institutions. We are serious about advancing a fair work agenda and seeing the fair work framework put into place. Through the Scottish Funding Council and our efforts, we will strain every sinew and pull every lever in our hands to make sure that we further that agenda. However, fundamentally, this situation requires further engagement and dialogue between management and the workforce to be successfully resolved. I assure members that I will continue to play my part in engaging with both parties to try to bring it to a successful resolution.

13:34 Meeting suspended.