Industrial action in the University: the last resort of employment relations

Members of the biggest union in the Higher Education sector, UCU, are about to enter the biggest strike in the history of Higher Education in the UK. The Union called for a 14 days strike in order to fight drasyourpensionaxed1tic changes to the employees’ pensions. The employers’ association UKK wants to cut pensions by 40% and make them entirely stock market based. The UCU is resisting these cuts, fighting for better pensions. Pensions are earned and deferred wages, so cuts in pension are essentially wage cuts. Academics in the sector have already seen their pay decrease in real terms by 16% over the last five years. The union also sees the employers attempt as a wider attack on the education system becoming increasingly marketised and predicated on overwork by staff and drastic indebtedness amongst students.

Industrial actions are a last resort, when negotiations between employers and employees fail. They are not in the interest of staff who lose out their wages for each and every day they take industrial action. Nevertheless, employees are ready to take up this sacrifice in order to protect their interests and more broadly their beliefs of how employment should be organized, particularly in universities who have purported commitments to equality and inclusion and fair conditions.

In the current case, many employers are being extremely aggressive, threatening to dock between 25% to 100% of staff salaries indefinitely, if individual staff does not make up with the loss of labour due to the strike. In particular, they want employees to reschedule lectures that have been missed due to industrial action, some vice chancellors are even threatening to sue staff if students claim fees back.

As a research centre committed to examining contemporary employment relations, CERIC has received a number of comments from international scholars and trade unionists that show that an industrial action is never alone about a single issue but always also a civic act with broader social impact. Amongst others, these have included support from: The University of Aarhus, Denmark; KU Leuven, Belgium; University of Padova, Italy; and Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico.

Solidarity notes

Before ending this seminar I would like to say that I support your strike and I hope that this can also give greater power to a strike that some colleagues are organizing in Italy. Obviously nothing similar to your radical position, but just a one day strike that in any case has provoked panic in many colleagues. And this is very paradoxical in particular for people that study labour, sociology, employment relations, power and so on. In fact a strike is a very well-known situation even if we are usually studying it rather than doing it.

I think your strike is for the future, because pensions for many of us are the future. A pension is a crucial part of the wage, we call it deferred wage, but it is our wage. It is not a gift from anyone. I think it is a shame that people speculate about pensioners, because older people are in a particular situation: they are becoming weaker, sometimes they have health problems and maybe are not sure about the value of their pension. So in a sociological language we can say that pensioners are becoming precarious, but differently from the young, a pensioner has no longer the power to move in the labour market or to emigrate abroad.

Someone could describe academic lecturers as insiders, and someone could also say that we are privileged in the labour market. We may consider this to be true. But I think that our precarity will not solve the problems of others’. Quite the contrary: the worsening of our working conditions can only deteriorate the condition of precarious colleagues.

So I hope you can win your struggle and hoping that also in Italy this one-day strike can be successful. Remembering that the strike is important not only for the moment at which it happens, but it also has repercussions in the social relations that we are able to build after it. Inside and outside our workplace.

Associate Professor Devi Sachetto, University of Padova

I was a part of the British university system between 2008 and 2014. During this period I saw how working conditions – the conditions for good teaching and research – rapidly deteriorated. Not only due to government defunding, but also due to university managements attempting to transform institutions of learning and critique into corporations, rewarding themselves handsomely in the process.

So I consider it both just and important to resist the attack on pensions. Your students and non-academic colleagues at the university must know that your fight is a part of a broader fight. The pension cuts are a part of the construction of the defunded university, in which a precarious workforce is asked to serve heavily indebted “customers”, in order that the state can save money for noble causes such as bank bail outs and tax cuts for the wealthy.

In many ways, the British university system serves as a model for university development in Denmark. For this reason, your struggle is our struggle. Never forget that. When you are fighting to stop the downward spiral of British universities, you are helping your colleagues internationally too. And know that you can win: concerted resistance based on solidarity between lecturers and students has managed to stop some of the worst reforms of the Danish University system, including the introduction of student fees. In solidarity and friendship.

Dr Bue Rübner Hansen, University of Aarhus

Having done my PhD in the UK, I follow the debates about higher education there with great interest. I have been distressed to hear about the experiences of my friends and colleagues at UK universities who are facing declining pay and increasing precarity. The marketization and casualization of the university labour force is a trend we are seeing in North America as well, and it is one that we must resist. The proposed changes to the pensions scheme are unacceptable. I strongly support the strike action by UCU and from Ottawa, I teach and write in solidarity with my comrades in the UK.

Dr Megan Rivers-Moore, Carleton University, Canada

I send my full solidarity to the UCU strike, we have the same problem here in Mexico with the AFORE stock market-related privatised pensions introduced here in 2008, which our union opposes.

Dr Patrick Cuninghame, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM), Mexico City & member of the Sindicato Independiente de los Trabajadores de la UAM (SITUAM)

The Rutgers Executive Council of AAUP-AFT Chapters voted unanimously to stand in solidarity with University and College Union members in the United Kingdom on February 20, 2018

Whereas, Members of the largest union of university teaching staff in the UK, the
University and College Union (UCU), are fighting to stop an outrageous attack on retirement benefits;

Whereas, University administrators propose to end the current guaranteed pension plan, replacing it with individual investment accounts, on the pretext of a fictional deficit “crisis;”

Whereas, Workers in the United States, including New Jersey educators, are very familiar with the use of manufactured “crises” to undermine retirement plans, which attack workers’ long-term security by stealing their own deferred wages; Be it resolved that the AAUP-AFT chapters at Rutgers University call on Universities UK to give up their shameful attack on defined-benefit pensions and negotiate with UCU in good faith;

And be it resolved that we stand in solidarity with the members of the UCU, saluting their commitment to security, equity, and dignity in the workplace and in retirement.

Rutgers Executive Council of AAUP-AFT Chapters, USA

Working conditions and social rights of people are under growing attack all over the world nowadays. This strongly contradicts not only with a rationale of social democracy and social justice but also with the basic principle of decent working life within workplaces and society overall. In solidarity.

Professor Valeria Pulignano, CESO – KU Leuven 

I would like to express my full support for the strike launched by the University and College Union in the UK Higher Education in response to the pension cuts related to the changes in the Universities Superannuation Scheme. I consider the lack of proper and good-will based negotiation around this issue with employers associated in the Universities UK unacceptable.

Decent pensions are essential for the quality of working live and retirement. In the context of ongoing, Europe-wide reforms of higher education institutions, the predictable situation of workers after retirement is crucial for their well-being.

Therefore, I would like to share my support and solidarity with striking University employees in the UK and Leeds Business School in particular.

I also support the call for immediate return to negotiations between unions and UUK.

I will share my support and information about the strike in my networks.

In solidarity !

With best wises

Adam Mrozowicki, Associate Professor, Institute of Sociology, University of Wrocław


Dear academic friends in Britain,

I was astounded to hear a few days ago about what is happening in British higher education. The employers association had proposed making pension payouts less generous by an average of ten thousand pounds a year and making them dependent on the stock market. You had voted overwhelmingly to respond with a 14-day national strike, the largest academic strike in UK history. Various universities had responded not only by docking pay for strike days, but also by threatening to reduce pay on non-strike days and taking legal action against strikers if students claim their fees back. Wow.

You need to win this strike, and the employers need to back down. You have already suffered more than enough. The squeeze on pay worsens your standard of living slowly but perceptibly. While attacks on pensions are not new in UK higher education, the current offensive by the employers really is astounding. It fills me personally with pride to see how you’re fighting back.

It is understandable that universities shift financial risk. But this attempt to shift financial risks onto academics has poisoned the workplace atmosphere in which research and teaching take place. Provoking this strike has already undermined the excellence of those institutions that the Vice Chancellors are supposed to be leading.

How do I know attacks on pay and pension are damaging to British universities? Occasionally, PhD students in the US ask me about the job market in Britain, because I worked there for ten years. Ten years ago I would have said that it’s a mixed bag. Pay is lower than the US, but for junior academics job security is higher, making it possible to pursue interesting and risky research agendas. Over the years, the situation has become less rosy. And now this conflict. International academics thinking of moving to Britain should know that it is a place where pay, pensions, and job security are under attack, and colleagues are angry and fearful.  This is not an atmosphere in which the work of academics is apparently valued.

Britain’s universities are still among the best in the world, and Vice-Chancellors should be working to keep it that way. Instead, they have provoked a massive nation-wide strike. The employers need to bargain with the union, find a solution, and end the strike.

In solidarity,

Prof Ian Greer, Cornell University, USA


Hi Mark

You have my full support. The actions being taken in the UK by university employers are yet another example of the appalling  corporate management style and values taking over universities. What happens to you will also ultimately affect us.
In solidarity,
Professor Marian Baird, The University of Sydney Business School
Dear Colleagues at CERIC,
I want to express my solidarity with the strike of the University and
College Union in the United Kingdom. I am deeply concerned about the
changes to the pension scheme proposed by Universities UK. We are
observing steps in the direction of increasing precarity of academic
work in many countries – steps which could worsen not only the working
and living conditions of academics, but also the quality of teaching and
research as well as the quality of international research cooperation. I
can only hope that the Universities UK and the universities and
colleges withdraw the proposed changes to the academic pension
system and recognize the importance of good working conditions for the
quality of teaching and research.
Martin Krzywdzinski, Head of the Research Group “Globalization, Work and
Production” at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center

University teachers in UK on strike over pensions

SULF, The Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers, supports our colleagues in the UK in their fight over university pensions. UCU (University and College Union) are taking strike action to defend university teachers right to a fair pension. University employers want to end guaranteed pensions and reduce retirement income for all.

– I want to express my solidarity with our colleagues in the UK. University teachers in general have always accepted pay levels that are lower than other groups with similar levels of education. A decent pension is a small compensation for that. The attractiveness of the academic profession has to increase, not decrease, if we want to build a sustainable high quality higher education and research. Poor working conditions is a serious threat to the attractiveness of the profession all over Europe, and therefore we stand beside our colleagues in this strike.

Professor Mats Ericson, president of SULF


To our collegues in Great Britain,

for ver.di department of science and higher education I send you our full support in your struggle against the changes and prospective cuts regarding your pension plans.

We know fully well the gap that lies between the countless political speeches about the importance of higher education and the utter disregard universities show for the employees, who are their backbone. Right now, the student employees here in Berlin are as well forced to take industrial action against their universities, which have not given them a pay raise in 17 years. The way they are treating us echoes your own experiences. But we will not let up and it strenghtens us to know, that you wont either.

Science is international. So is solidarity and our common struggle for fair working conditions. Keep up the fight!


Matthias Neis, Ver.di Resort Higher Education and Research


I want to express my support for the UCU action over proposed pension reforms and solidarity with colleagues who have taken a stand against yet another attack on the academic profession and Higher Education more broadly. Having spent most of my academic career working in a British institution (and dutifully paying into the UCS pension scheme) I maintain a keen eye on developments in UK HE. Working in the Swedish HE sector has given me a new perspective from which to consider the changes I witnessed over the course of my career in the UK: the increases in student numbers; the introduction and hiking up of tuition fees; class sizes increasing and the pressure put on academics to deal with the consequences; the increased demand for research publications, driven by the REF rather than scholarly contribution; VC’s salaries skyrocketing while average academic salaries stagnated. The British university system has maintained its reputation despite all of this because of the quality of academics working within it. The view of the UK higher education from abroad is of a system characterised by students being over-burdened with debt and VCs awarding themselves astronomical salaries. Something is very wrong. Taking a stand over this attack on academic pensions – part of the long-term bargain made with the employer – could not have come at a more important time.

In solidarity from Sweden.

Professor Robert MacKenzie, Karlstad University, Sweden


To University and College Union – UCU

Dear Colleagues

We learned that Universities UK wants to cut your pensions by 40% and make them entirely stock market based.

This is not acceptable and we fully support that those colleagues under threat respond to these plans with industrial action.

We want to express our solidarity with your strike and hope you will be successful.

Best wishes

 Dr. Wolfram Brehmer

Dr. Heiner Dribbusch

Birgit Kraemer M.A.

Prof. Dr. Thorsten Schulten

Dr. habil. Karin Schulze Buschoff 

Institute of Economic and Social Research, WSI





We, members of RENAPEDTS, the National Network of Research and Extension Groups in Labour Law and Social Security (Brazil), give full support to the strike action promoted by University Lecturers’ Union, feeling greatly concerned about how education professionals are treated, at the global level, and in universities in particular.

Adib Salim – Univesidade Federal do Espírito Santo

Aldacy Rachid Coutinho – Universidade Federal do Paraná

Cláudio Janotti da Rocha – Universidade do Distrito Federal

Clovis Renato Costa Farias – Universidade Federal do Ceará

Daniele Gabrich Gueiros – Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Elsa C. Bevian – Universidade Regional de Blumenau

Everaldo Gaspar Lopes de Andrade – Universidade Federal de Pernambuco

Gustavo Seferian Machado – Universidade Federal de Lavras

Hugo Cavalcanti Melo Filho – Universidade Federal de Pernambuco

Jorge Luiz Souto Maior – Universidade de São Paulo

Juliana Teixeira Esteves – Universidade Federal de Pernambuco

Leonardo Vieira Vandelli – Centro Universitário Autônomo do Brasil

Lorena Vasconelos Porto – Universidade do Distrito Federal

Magda Barros Biavaschi – Universidade de Campinas

Maria Cecíllia Máximo Teodoro – Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais

Maria Rosa Barbato – Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais

Murilo Oliveira – Universidade Federal da Bahia

Pedro Augusto Gravatá Nicoli – Faculdade de Direito de Minas Gerais

Rodrigo de Lacerda Carelli – Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro


We, Professors of Labor Law of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, give our support for strike action organized by University Lecturers’ Union, understand that there is a global attack on university professors and on all workers in general, which we are very concerned about. Only the struggle can prevent the destruction of the social achievements of the twentieth century.

Ana Luisa de Souza Correira de Melo Palmisciano, Carolina Pereira Lins Mesquita, Daniele Gabrich Gueiros, Fábio de Souza Silva, Ivan Simões Garcia, Patricia Garcia dos Santos, Rodrigo de Lacerda Carelli, Sayonara Grillo Coutinho Leonardo da Silva


In Solidarity with the UCU, Academic Strike in the UK

I would like to express my solidarity with our colleagues on strike at the University of Leeds – and other universities across the country – in defense of their pension system. I fully support your demand for a fair pension system. Save your pensions, which would be put on the stock market, is a legitimate struggle to face the attack against university staff but also against public sector workers.

This struggle has to be expanded as this kind of attack against workers is also in the works in several European countries.

Professor Christian Azaïs, Conservatoire national des arts et métiers – Paris

I express my full support for the strike undertaken by UCU members in the United Kingdom. Appropriate salaries and pensions are fundamental to keep a high quality of research and teaching. Our work, carried out with a strong but often invisible commitment, far beyond the expected workload, requires serenity and protection in relation to pensions. I hope that the competent bodies can stop these attacks on the fundamental rights of those workers who invest their lives in improving the life quality of all citizens.

Professor Barbara Peccei Szaniecki, Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro


I send my solidarity and support the strike action by UCU at UK Universities. To protect pensions is fundamental, and a collective mobilization can produce a better social protection system, more oriented to a Universal Basic Income. I also think that the UCU teachers on strike will stand in solidarity with students about the increase of tuition fees.

Professor Giuseppe Cocco, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

I express my solidarity with academics on strike to protect their pensions. To end guaranteed pension benefits is clearly part of a more general process of commodification in higher education. Moreover, this will have a strong impact on the youngest generation of researchers.

Then I fully support the UCU members and my CERIC colleagues in particular.

In solidarity,

Dr. Barbara Poggio, Vice-Rector for Equality and Diversity Policies at the University of Trento


In Solidarity with the UCU, Academic Strike in the UK

We wish to express our solidarity with our colleagues on strike at the University of Leeds – and other universities across the country – in defense of their pension system. We fully support your strike. It is an unprecedented attack not only against university staff but also against public sector workers.

As you may have heard, here in France the Macron government is now trying to destroy the terms and conditions of rail workers in order to hand over the rail system to the private sector.

A major attack against the pension system for all workers in France is also in the works.

In both countries – and all over Europe –  we are faced with the application of the EU diktats imposing privatisation and marketisation of the public sector in the name of free and undistorted competition enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty and all the EU institutions.

Dear Colleagues, please do not hesitate to send us a report on your strike. We will translate and circulate it.

Your struggle is ours.
Professor Donna KESSELMAN, Université Paris-Est Créteil

Dr. Corinne NATIVEL, Université Paris-Est Créteil

Professor Patrick Cingolani, directeur du LCSP (Laboratoire de Changement Social et Politique), Université Paris Diderot

Solidarity statement to my striking colleagues at Leeds University Business School

Dear colleagues,

Herewith, I want to declare my solidarity to your strike against the planned pension reform and the financialisation of your pensions. I noticed with great pleasure the wide support of your students and your united fight against the commodification of academic institutions. There is intensive press coverage in German newspapers and the tenor is very positive and supportive regardless of the newspapers’ political orientation.

Together with my colleagues from the Sociology Department at the University of Jena, I ask your University Management to return to the negotiating table.

With my warmest solidarity greetings,

Prof. Dr. Silke van Dyk, Friedrich-Schiller University Jena


We fully support the strike action organised by University Lecturers’ Union to protect the right to a fair pension. We hope that the UK strike is resulting in some changes and action.

Solidarity from your colleagues in Iceland!

Professor Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir

Dr. Thamar M. Heijstra

Dr. Gyda Margrét Pétursdóttir

Finnborg Salome Steinþórsdóttir

Thomas Brorsen Smidt

Faculty of Political Science, University of Iceland


Education, and mainly higher education, has been under attack for many years around the world, also in Italy. We hope to arrange the same in Italy but it’s difficult to build a sense of community and horizontal solidarity. Your strike is the right thing to do and the only thing I have to say is: Continue and Stay Strong.

Dr. Davide Arcidiacono, Catholic University of Milan


Dear colleagues at the University of Leeds, I stand in support of your struggle for fair, stable pensions. Cutting pensions by 40% and making them entirely stock market based may appear to some as a minor issue, unrelated to purely academic issues, but it’s not given the growing precariousness in higher-education employment all over the industrialized world. This precariousness affects scholars’ ability to do long-term, fundamental, fruitful research and it deters promising young scholars from entering an unstable profession. So the defense of fair, stable pensions is really an important part of a broader set of issues that truly impact research in more ways than immediately meet the eye.

Guillaume Marche, Professor of American studies, University of Paris-Est Créteil, France


I would like to express my total support to my colleagues at the University of Leeds and all other UK universities, struggling to defend their and our pensions. A pension is meant to (at least partially) secure one own’s future. It’s absolutely absurd to ask anyone to make pensions dependent on the stock market.

Thank you, because your struggle is part of a wider battle that we cannot loose, the one for a university which is public and of quality.

Dr. Roberta Ferrario, CNR (Italian National Research Council)


I express my warm solidarity to this – and to any other – struggle through which citizens and workers oppose direct and indirect policies of commodification of education.

Professor Vando Borghi, University of Bologna


Dear Annalisa,

we at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice want to express our full support for this strike. The reduction of pension rights is only the last step of a wider process of precarisation of the university which is taking place in UK and in Europe in general and is damaging teachers, researchers and students. We are with you in this struggle!

Sabrina Marchetti, Giulia Garofalo Geymonat, Antonio Montefusco, Daniela Cherubini, Anna Di Bartolomeo, Enrico Gargiulo, Gilda Zazzera, Francesca Coin, Duccio Basosi


Dear Colleagues at Leeds, all over the U.K.

We, trade unions at Université Paris-Est Créteil- UPEC (Paris University, Créteil Campus) representing the personnel of all categories – CGT, SNASUB-FSU, SNESup-FSU, SNPREES-FO, SupAutonome- FO and also the students – l’UNEF, we send our full and whole-hearted support to the strike of UK Lecturers and instructors called by the UCU (university lecturers’ union) in defense of your retirement system and rights.

The reduction, marketization, individualisation and floating on the stock market of retirement are blows against the public service, yet another stop towards privatisation.

Similar plans are being proposed by the French government, aimed particularly at public workers like ourselves, just as in your case.

The rampant precariousness in academic careers is an attack on our working conditions, on the quality of degrees of higher education and a fact that discourages young potential academics from entering the career.

In the name of “University Autonomy” since the 2007 LRU law, governments one after another have advanced the agenda of privatisation and undermined the national public statuses of the University and its personnel, while this status is indispensable for ensuring academic and research independence against outside pressures from the private sector.

The privatization of Universities is a policy being promoted by governments all around Europe under the aegis of the European Union.

Your struggle is our struggle.

To the UCU: in response to our Leeds Colleagues’ request, please resume negotiations!

In Solidarity,





The ‘Made Smarter’ review: a road to utopia or dystopia in negotiating the future of skills, apprenticeships and work?

By Maisie Roberts, CERIC Postgraduate Researcher

pandora's box

Junge, A. 2005. Pandora’s Box #1: Found Toolbox with Neon

The future of work: dystopia or utopia?

The recent industry-led independent Made Smarter review chaired by Professor Jurgen Maier, CEO of Siemens, provides a future vision of the UK’s industrial landscape in terms of advancing the remit of digital technology. Training and upskilling are central components of achieving a utopian future vision. However, the future of work seems to hinge on Maier’s warning (2017: 11):

“Get it wrong, and we risk further de-industrialising our economy, and becoming ever more reliant on imports. Get it right, and we will have found the key to rebalancing and strengthening our economy, creating many new, exciting, and well-paid jobs, and leading a renaissance for the UK as a true nation of creators and makers.”

From this perspective, the future of work remains a highly contested point of discussion, centred on two extremes, which either seem to epitomise a utopian land of promise or a scaremongering nightmarish dystopia. Indeed, when we think of the future of work we conjure up rather dystopian images of the superiority of artificial intelligence-driven robots who have the power and skill to take over the whole spectrum of work, leaving us without any hope of meaningful work. Precarious employment contracts, disposable workforces, intensified working hours and minimal employment rights are already a sad reality. Beyond this the underworld of Silicon Valley casts an unsettling shadow over society where our digital footprints are tracked, extradited and sold to feed a dystopian-like machine. Has Pandora’s box been opened with no return? And what’s the alternative?

 Trouble in utopia?  Skills and the fourth industrial revolution

 Currently, technology, innovation and digitalisation are key incentives for national economies and skills and training are viewed as essential in achieving aptitude in this area. Economies are revising their technologies and capabilities in line with this so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’.

The first revolution used water and steam to power production whilst the second relied on electric power for mass production. The third drew on information technology to create automated production lines. The fourth builds on the foundations of the third, but merges physical, digital and biological realms to create new technologies. Amongst other emerging phenomena this includes the rise of big data and the Internet of Things, where cyber-physical systems communicate and exchange data with each other and with humans in real-time.

The process of creating a commodity has therefore changed from one where manual work would physically create a product from raw materials to one where technological and information-led networks shape new “modes of development” in an increasingly globalised context (Castells, 1996). This presents the question whether the nature of skill is changing under this new guise of capitalism underpinned by the “information age”.

This might mean that new skills are needed to navigate between raw materials and new technology, data and software, changing existing job structures as well as creating new jobs altogether. Here, skill is therefore essential to facilitate technological advancement. Indeed the World Economic Forum (2016) calls for complex problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking and teamwork amongst other skills, which are viewed as essential in navigating us into a utopian future of the fourth industrial revolution.

Conversely, there could be a move to the growing but rather dystopian phenomena of a so-called ‘lights out’ methodology. Under this approach, human labour becomes obsolete as factories become solely operated via automation with the ‘lights out’ to save on production costs, increase profit margins and respond to increased customer demand. Frey and Osbourne’s (2013) infamous paper, which estimates that 47% of all US employment is susceptible to computerisation certainly plays to this analogy.

Uncertainty ahead: The case of Germany and England

The fourth industrial revolution still remains very much a future vision, and one, which is not yet fully realised. How skills strategy integrates into the future vision of work remains uncertain as demonstrated by Germany and England.


The ‘dual’ German apprenticeship system adopts a corporatist and coordinated approach, in which both firms and vocational schools provide highly structured training (Bosch, 2010). Apprenticeships are protected from market forces in an almost utopian enclave where unions, chambers, employers and the state work collectively and pro-actively together to regulate the future path of the system.

Although Germany seems to epitomise a perfect apprenticeship system, it, too, is facing significant challenges. Previously up to 75% of young people would typically undertake an apprenticeship (Grugulis, 2007) but since 2013 university starts has overtaken apprenticeship starts and this number is rising (BMBF, 2016). Higher education is becoming a more popular option, much like the UK, with the promise of a free university education and higher graduate wages a key incentive for this choice.

Equally, the entire context and character of Germany’s labour market has changed too with the implementation of the Hartz reforms over 10 years ago, which brought in temporary, agency or so-called ‘mini’ jobs as well as cuts in unemployment welfare assistance. The traditional purpose of an apprenticeship was to provide comprehensive training to catapult an individual into a secure and permanent occupation for life. Yet the evolving fragmentation of Germany’s labour market could undermine the stability, time and effort required to develop well- defined routes to employment.

Germany’s pro-active strategy of “re-imagining work” through its “Work 4.0” concept highlighted in its initial green paper (2015), followed up by its white paper (2017) aims to tackle some of these issues. The reports highlight the need for occupational profiles to be adapted to meet changing skill demands, increasing continuing vocational training, more support for SMEs to develop training and a monitoring system to forecast future demand of skilled labour. The decreasing labour supply of young people is mentioned and as such the report calls for the opening up of skilled labour to more migrants, low-skilled workers, women, older people and disabled people. However, the reports do not seem to directly address the growing prevalence of higher education, which many have argued is leading to growing inequality and a reduction of firms participating (Thelen and Busemeyer, 2012). The future of apprenticeships therefore remains somewhat ambiguous in the Work 4.0 agenda.


England’s system is voluntarist and employer-led, with employers solely designing, regulating and managing the system. England lacks the collective ethos and stability of the German system. The English system is also prone to continuous political upheaval, particularly since the Thatcher years where participation in apprenticeships drastically declined (Gospel, 1995).

An apprenticeship levy was introduced in April this year with the aim to increase apprenticeship participation to 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. The levy targets employers with a pay bill over £3million, affecting 2% of firms. However, recent reports highlight that since the levy apprenticeship starts have decreased by 59% (BBC, 2017). Equally, only half of the eligible levy firms have actually registered to reclaim levy funds (CIPD, 2017). This suggests that many firms are disregarding the levy as a tax instead of a social responsibility to invest in apprenticeships. Hence, although the levy has good intentions, perhaps the inherently market-led nature of England’s economy deters employers from investing in the costs and time needed to create high quality apprenticeships.

The recent industrial strategy aims to reform the UK’s technical education system to make it more internationally competitive, invest £406m in STEM skills and create a new National Retraining Scheme to allow people reskill in the labour market. Much like the recent Made Smarter review, training and skills exemplify the road to utopia in the policy discourse. However, UK’s intermediate skills ranking is projected to stand at only 28th of 33 OECD countries by 2020 (UKCES, 2015) and its productivity figures were recently downgraded from the predicted 2% growth for this year down to 1.5%, soon to be followed by 1.3% in 2019 (OBR, 2017), the same rate as during financial crisis.

The Made Smarter review focuses in on these challenges. Firstly, it argues that lack of effective national leadership and cross-sector collaboration has failed to achieve a coherent strategy of industrial digitalisation. Secondly, poor productivity, limited business support, cybersecurity threats and significant skills shortages due to the fragmented apprenticeship system leads to poor levels of adoption of the digitalisation agenda, particularly among SMEs. Finally, the UK’s infrastructure does not support the scaling-up of technology to support companies, meaning that innovation is under-leveraged. As such, the need for training is paramount in the report, which calls for the upskilling of a million industrial workers. Yet the current employer-led approach to apprenticeships in England, where the nature of the market dictates its future, contrasts to this utopian image.

Summing up

 Utopia, true to its definition as both a no-place and a good place, is a useful framing device, which helps us consider what we might want for ourselves in our future society. The Made Smarter review offers us two very different future outcomes, one with new, exciting and well-paid jobs, creating a society of creators and makers, or, an alternative route towards a de-industrialised, stagnant and import-reliant society. Juergen Maier clearly acknowledges that the UK faces a number of challenges in creating his future vision of industry and employment, including poor productivity and infrastructure. Lack of coordination, leadership and collaboration amongst businesses, academia and other institutions are also listed as central concerns.  Interestingly, Germany’s “re-imagining work” white paper actively engaged in a public dialogue and called upon workers, businesses, unions and other institutions to help contribute to the future vision of work in partnership together. This helped to ease the mystery behind the notion of digitalisation and its implications on work, whilst providing a voice for all in navigating towards a collective vision of the future world of work.

From this perspective, we need to ask what skills and work we really value in society today. Apprenticeships, training and skills development can clearly provide increased national productivity, innovation and meaningful job creation if implemented correctly (Finegold and Soskice, 1989). Yet apprenticeships are too often considered as a magical tool to swiftly solve all of society’s problems, such as youth unemployment, deepening skills gaps and productivity slumps to name a few (Keep and Mayhew, 2010), without much consideration of what is actually needed to secure these essentially utopian benefits. If we truly admire the inherent value of skills and apprenticeships as a means to meaningful and productive employment for society, more weight, investment, regulation and prestige needs to be placed on them.


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Castells, M. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

CIPD. 2017. Half of Eligible businesses register to reclaim apprenticeship levy funds. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from:

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 2017. Made Smarter. Review 2017. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. London: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Available from:

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 2017. Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. London: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Available from:

Federal Institute for Labour and Social Affairs. 2017. Re-Imagining Work, White paper, Work 4.0. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Berlin: Federal Institute for Labour and Social Affairs. Available from:

Federal Institute for Labour and Social Affairs. 2015. Re-Imagining Work, Green paper, Work 4.0. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Berlin: Federal Institute for Labour and Social Affairs. Available from:;jsessionid=FFFC52E6F5D81905E8B5D4EE90F3E69C?__blob=publicationFile&v=2

Finegold, D. and Soskice, D. 1988. The Failure of Training in Britain: Analysis and Prescription, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 4(3), pp. 21-53.

Frey, C, B. and Osbourne, M. 2013. The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, pp. 254-280

Gospel, H. 1995. The Decline of Apprenticeship Training in Britain, Industrial Relations Journal, 26(1), pp. 32-44.

Grugulis, I. 2007. Skills, Training and Human Resource Development: A Critical Text. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Junge, A. 2005. Pandora’s Box #1: Found Toolbox with Neon [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from:

Keep, E, and Mayhew, K. 2010. Moving beyond skills as a social and economic panacea, Work, Employment and Society, 24(3), pp. 565-577.

OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility). 2017. Economic Fiscal Outlook. [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from:

Thelen, K. and Busemeyer, M. 2012. Institutional Change in German Vocational Training: From Collectivism toward Segmentalism. In: Busemeyer, M. and Trampusch, C, eds. The Political Economy of Collective Skill Formation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 68-100.

UKCES. 2015. UK Skills Levels and International Competitiveness 2014. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from:

World Economic Forum, 2016. The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. [Online] [Accessed 1 November 2017]. Available from:




Report launch: how do we engage more employers in employability and skills programmes?

Jo IngoldDr Jo Ingold, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy, CERIC, Leeds University Business School.

3 December 2017, at an event in Westminster for policymakers, practitioners and academics, we’ll be launching our final report from a four-year ESRC-funded research project about employer engagement in employability and skills programmes.

Employers are critical to the success of employment activation and employability programmes, yet there’s been surprisingly little research about employers’ perspectives on them. In the first phase of our research, we surveyed over 1,500 employers in the UK and Denmark. In the second phase, we undertook more than 100 in-depth interviews with employers and providers delivering employability and skills programmes in both countries, to provide a ‘two-sided’ perspective on employer engagement.

Employers’ perspectives on employability programmes

Employers were generally positive about employing unemployed candidates, but less so about employability programmes, particularly in the UK. A critical difference between the countries was that, while every Danish employer we interviewed had taken part in at least one programme (and often more), among UK employers participation was more sporadic. UK employers were most familiar with apprenticeships above other provision. A key reason for not engaging in programmes was that employers thought they were inappropriate to their needs. They were put off by the large number of programmes and providers, lacked knowledge about them and about how to access programmes, and were unsure about their value. The most popular reasons for engaging were to access an alternative recruitment channel, to develop talent and to ‘give people a chance’.

Critically, employers felt that the benefit conditionality system and employability programmes themselves could ‘tarnish’ candidates. Employers were particularly dissatisfied about receiving large numbers of job applications as a result of conditionality and entitlement conditions. The lack of a tailored service from providers could also result in employers being sent candidates who were of ‘poor quality’, unsuitable, or ill-prepared.

Employers were generally positive about employing disabled people, although only a small number of UK employers had done so, and not necessarily through employability programmes. In Denmark the Flexjobs scheme for disabled people (offering subsidized jobs under special conditions, in-work support and reduced working hours) was popular with employers. Importantly, in both countries very few employers had made changes to their recruitment and selection processes to encourage candidates from disadvantaged groups, despite recognising the shortcomings of the standard application and interview method.

Our survey data found two distinct groups of employers in terms of engagement in employability and skills programmes. Firstly, those who were ‘instrumentally engaged’ on an ad hoc basis in specific initiatives but not that ‘committed’ to them. Secondly, those who were ‘relationally engaged’ and were more committed and involved in a broader range of programmes on a repeated and sustained basis. This distinction was supported by the interview data. The survey and interview data showed that relational engagement was higher in Denmark than the UK. Crucially, UK employers did not feel that employability programmes were designed with their needs in mind and, compared with Danish employers, had very low trust in public policies.

Providers’ perspectives

The data from providers in both countries showed striking similarities with the employer data, in terms of barriers to engagement and reasons for engaging, as well as in their perspectives about what relational (or in-depth) employer engagement meant. However, the fact that UK employers had less ‘institutional’ trust in government policy and programmes critically left more ‘gaps’ to be filled by providers. They tended to achieve this through the development of ‘inter-personal’ relationships with employers, based on trust. So these relationships were largely between individuals from provider organisations and from businesses, rather than based on relations between organisations. But, although these relationships were critical to employer engagement, they were also fragile and trust could be easily lost. This wasn’t helped by changes to programmes, regulations and contracts in localities.

UK providers also expressed concern about employers’ fluctuating demands for labour, which were difficult to meet. Additionally, there was a gap between employer demands and the individuals that providers’ held on their caseloads, who were possible candidates for vacancies. Providers felt that this gap could not be filled by programmes in their current form. One way of providing a good ‘offer’ to employers was by being able to provide a ‘spectrum’ of services (ranging from pre-employment training to in-work support and training). But providers could only really do this successfully if they’d won a range of employment and skills contracts (from different government departments), or merged with or acquired organisations that had. Alternatively, providing a range of services to employers required working with other organisations, sometimes competitors (what is often referred to as ‘co-opetition’).

This research reveals the extremely fragmented landscape of employment and skills provision in the UK, as well as the remoteness of employers from them (notably the situation was slightly different in Scotland, where these policies are devolved responsibilities). The current formulation of employment and skills policy assumes that employers will engage and will provide opportunities for unemployed individuals. But this research (and the previous research we conducted about the UK Work Programme) suggest that employers are not beating the door down to take part in these programmes, despite them being a potential avenue for increasing workforce diversity. If the government wants to seriously address labour market disadvantage and in particular to halve the disability employment gap, an urgent re-think is needed about the current direction of policy.

Policy recommendations

  • In their current form, programmes are not working effectively for employers. Employers still lack knowledge about programmes, don’t recognise their potential benefits and consider them inappropriate to their needs.
  • A smaller number of programmes, with more continuity and stability but less complexity and fragmentation would make it easier for employers to engage.
  • Changes need to be urgently made to avoid employers receiving large numbers of job applications from benefit claimants in order to fulfil conditionality requirements, as this is damaging to employers’ views of initiatives. A critical aspect of this is better targeting of applications to employers.
  • Devolution is an important opportunity to improve employer engagement in the design and implementation of initiatives and to devise programmes that are responsive to local needs.
  • Merging different government departmental funding streams for employability and skills provision would be helpful, especially as the government looks to replacement European Social Fund provision.
  • More employers need to be equipped with information about ways to make their recruitment and selection processes more inclusive and effective.
  • To maximise resources and to provide a better service to employers, we need more mechanisms for sharing evidence-based good practice across different providers, programmes, cohorts and areas, which currently the competitive contracting frameworks mitigate against.

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and followed on from ‘Seedcorn’ research funded by CERIC and Leeds University Business School. More information about the research can be found here.


CERIC to host workshop on Universal Basic Income and the Future of Work

JPEG Yellow-BlueKate Hardy, Vera Trappmann and Charles Umney

In the face of widening disparities of wealth, changes in work and employment in which low pay dominates and the ability of work to lift people out of poverty declines, debates about the future of social protection have come to the fore. In contexts from the Global South to the ‘developed’ North wage labour appears decreasingly able to distribute social wealth or protect individuals and households from poverty.

In this context, scholars, activists and policy makers have begun to examine alternatives to existing systems of welfare, including negative income tax, cash transfers and universal basic income and guaranteed minimum income. Basic income has become the most visible and perhaps most contested of these proposals. The notion of a universal basic income – a non-conditional base income for all citizens – has attracted increasing popular purchase within social movements, institutions and governments. Numerous academic pilot experiments from Canada to Namibia and India have been undertaken, while governments are rolling out experiments in Finland, Barcelona and Utrecht. Proponents of basic income have been drawn from across the political spectrum, finding support from Milton Friedman and Bill Gates to Frances Fox Piven and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

On 26th January, CERIC will host a workshop bringing together theorists, practitioners and social movements to this day long workshop will explore these questions, focusing on basic income, wage labour, work and employment, by asking:

• How does basic income relate to changes in the labour market, including the growth of the digital and gig economy?
• How does it impact on work and employment?
• How might it effect women’s rights and gender equality?
• What can we learn from basic income experiments in progress?

This will be is a CERIC event to discuss key contemporary issues in work and employment.

The event is sponsored by the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) and Leeds University Business School (LUBS).


The Race Audit Report: Much A Do About Nothing (by Meenakshi Sarkar)

Meenashi Sarkar

Meenakshi Sarkar, CERIC Postgraduate Researcher

Britain is a country where we despise prejudice, embrace equality and believe in the fundamental right of the individual to make the most of his or her talents in a free society. Yet all too many of us remain trapped by the accident of our births, our destinies far too likely to be determined by our sex or race; … our deeply held religion or belief make us lesser beings in the eyes of others. And far too many of us are still born into families without the material or social capital to give us the right start in life.
(Trevor Philips, Chief of EHRC, Foreword ‘How fair is Britain?’ 2010)


“We believe that how far you go in life should be based on your talent and how hard you work – and nothing else. That was the ambition set out by the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street in July 2016, and it remains this Government’s abiding mission to tackle burning injustices.
(Damian Green – First Secretary of State, Foreword, Race audit Report, 2017)


Race issues are not new to Britain. In the last 50 years, post-colonial Britain has struggled to keep the promise of equality to its ethnic minorities, many of whom came in the early 1950s from the so-called ‘commonwealth’ countries. These, Noah has quipped, are ironically named ‘as there was nothing common and the wealth was accumulated in one place’ (Noah, 2015).

So when on assuming her role as the Prime Minister of UK in 2016, Theresa May commissioned an ‘audit’ to tackle the ‘burning issues of injustice against ethnic minorities’ in the country, aspirations and eyebrows both were raised. The much hyped race audit report was released on the 10th of October 2017 and is disappointing in many ways.  Firstly, contrary to what was claimed to be a ‘first of its kind’, this is a  collection of the many government initiated and independent studies and the sixth such major report focussed on equality issues (or rather the lack of it) in Britain in five decades and unfortunately it does not tell us anything that we didn’t know.  Some people have called the new portal on which all of these reports have been uploaded ‘a large drop box and ironically the government took 411 days to create the same’ (The Guardian, 2017). Various reports have been brought together under one portal which is a slight help but the data is dated and not customised to the purpose of the audit.

List of 6 major reports on ethnic minorities in last 50 years

1966 W W Daniel- Racial Discrimination in England
1974 David J Smith- Racial Disadvantage in Britain
1982 Colin Brown- Black and White Britain
1994 Tariq Modood et al -Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage
2010 EHRC: How fair is Britain?
2017 Cabinet office: Race Audit Report

From the titles of the reports mentioned above alone, it is evident that ethnic minorities in Britain are still at a definite disadvantage in the labour market and that Britain is ‘not fair’ after all. Have these reports made any difference in terms of how British policies and labour markets have responded in the last  five decades and what difference will this new report make as Ms May has ‘vowed to tackle the issues of inequality’? Satisfactorily answering this question calls for a detailed analysis which is beyond the scope of this blog, but some relevant questions need to be raised.

In the 1994 PSI report by Modood et al, it was argued that Britain no longer had a Black and White divide, but rather a three way split which cannot be simply explained by racial discrimination:

With Chinese, African Asian and sometimes Indian people in a similar position to whites, Caribbeans some way behind, and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis a long way behind them. Whatever the explanation for that layering of socio-economic positions, it is not simply racial discrimination. A more complex analysis is required (PSI ,1997:10)

The authors of the report further argue that many of the disadvantages and other experiences associated with minority status continue long after ‘naturalisation’ has been completed; and besides, the nationality laws associated with Britain’s former empire are far too complex for this to be a useful criterion. Thus skin colour is considered another option: after all, the majority group is defined as ‘white’, and some (or even all) minorities are often referred to as ‘black’. Colour would also reflect the fact that minority status is likely to follow from generation to generation, whatever changes occur in the cultural behaviour of the people concerned. On the other hand, colour cannot be used to distinguish between minority groups (for example between Caribbeans and Africans, or between Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis). So, colour as a criterion on its own fails to explain the differences within groups of same color and indicates a differential degree of discrimination. So is religion then leading to a double penalty for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis? There are enough studies to indicate the presence of a ‘Muslim penalty’ which affects labour market prospects of followers of Islam or even people with Muslim sounding names (Lindley, 2002; Khattab et al, 2011).

So what has changed in these twenty plus years?

It has been alleged that the groups which do not do well in the labour market must have human capital issues, such as poor English language ability and low qualifications. Thus, many ethnic minority groups including Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Black Caribbean respond to this by putting their children in Higher Education. As evident from Tables 1 and 2 (below), the proportion of ethnic minorities with low qualifications has gone down considerably and the English language proficiency of all minorities have gone up. However, has that resulted in concomitant progress in the labour market? While the Chinese and Indians have definitely done well (even better than the white British population) and are more likely to be in professional managerial roles, the same cannot be said of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Black Caribbean people (Table 3). This questions the assumption of proponents of ‘human capital theory’ that the British labour market is meritocratic and also of politicians who think equal opportunity will ensure equal outcomes.



In fact, the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean men’s position in terms of being in professional managerial positions has deteriorated even further since 1994 (Table 3)

Table 3. Job levels of men in professional managerial and employers roles
  1994 2017
White English 30 34
Indian 25 45
Chinese 46 47
Pakistani 19 15
Bangladeshi 18 14
Black Caribbean 14 10

The persistence of gap in the labour market performance of these groups shows that there are factors beyond the control of people which affect the type of jobs and kind of roles they would ‘end up in’ and investment in human capital does not guarantee them the ‘good’ jobs.

Much has been said and debated about white privilege, but I would like to argue that like the ethnic penalty, white privilege does not come with the skin colour alone, but class and gender play a vital role too. Thus white working class men are less likely to be in university, or have adequate numeracy or literacy skills than those from white middle class and are worse off than Indian and Chinese middle class men in terms of being in professional managerial jobs. As far as religion is concerned, while there might not be any direct privilege accorded to Christians, there is definitely a penalty for Muslims which might put non-Muslims at a relative advantage. Additionally, while women in general have improved their human capital status across most ethnic minority groups, they are still less likely to be in senior positions and are still largely limited within elementary professions in care and services. Thus class, affiliations (Religious), gender, and ethnicity form what I call a ‘cage’, factors which one is born into and keep people’s potential imprisoned.

People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge. This audit means that for society as a whole – for government, for our public services – there is nowhere to hide.”

(Theresa May, Prime Minister, 2017)

Yet another report, more data, much a do about nothing? Theresa May says ‘UK must act against race inequality’. This much is obvious, but when and how is the question that I am afraid no one seems to be having answers to at the moment, including Ms. May.

Alexandra Seehaus (Visiting Fellow, CERIC) reviews Oliver Nachtwey’s book, currently only available in German.

Alex Seehaus

Alex Seehaus, Visiting Fellow, CERIC

Oliver Nachtwey’s “The descent society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age”

Running up a downwards escalator

The election results to the German Parliament on Sunday 24th made a far right nationalist party (Alternative für Deutschland “Alternative for Germany” ) the third biggest party in the Lower House of Parliament. While among the electorate there are nationalist, racists, and neo-nazis, a huge number of people declared they voted for them out of protest against the existing government. Many of those engaging in a protest vote were members of the middle classes with middle incomes, who are afraid to lose their status and class position, due to the increase of migrants and refugees and an increased insecurity. To place this in context and understand some of this background to this turn of events, it is worthwhile to read Oliver Nachtwey’s book which explores changed mobility patterns in German society.

Oliver Nachtwey has offered a staggering account of this phenomenon in Germany, which has made it into the top selling lists of the online bookshop Amazon Germany and was recently awarded with the Hans-Matthöfer-prize for heterodox economic and sociological writing.

Nachtwey sees the social promise that has kept the German society together over the last seventy years as lost. There is no longer an ‘ascent society’ in Germany, but it has instead been replaced by one of descent. The divide between rich and poor has increased and the dynamics of social mobility have changed, to the detriment of those at the bottom. Instead of climbing up the ladder to the top, people are now making a constant effort in order not to descend, simply to hold their position. Given the fact that a majority of the public still seems persuaded by the idea of meritocracy and the belief in collective upward mobility, such developments contradict common expectations. As hard work and ongoing growth were supposed to guarantee constant status improvement, it’s mere absence causes disappointment for employees and is perceived as social descent.
Descent is a problem for society as a whole. It affects not only those whose situation is getting worse, but also causes stagnation and widespread fear. According to Nachtwey such situation is characterised by polarisation and precarity, resulting in an erosion of social integration. What he sees arising in its place is a new social question about the emergence of ‘working poor’ and unequal distribution of wealth and chances for social mobility, which threatens democracy and provokes protest.

The book not only offers a precise analysis of social inequality and struggles within democratic capitalism. Its intellectual strength lies in the way in which aspects – which often remain separate – are brought together. This includes observations on post-democracy, findings on underclasses and precarious working conditions, pressure on middle classes, as well as thesis on stagnating capitalism and low growth expectations.
Nachtwey’s analysis builds on the work of sociologist Ulrich Beck, who depicts the upward mobility in the prospering welfare state of post-war Germany as collective elevator effect. According to Nachtwey, this metaphor has become obsolete, as people no longer move up together. The ‘steady ascent’ has ended with the deterioration of standard employment, flexibilisation, and the dismantling of social security, which went hand-in-hand with former life structures, careers and vocational paths. Instead, the collective and individual dimensions of ascent and descent have come apart. In Nachtwey’s metaphor everyone stands by oneself on the escalator stairs. Those on the top are still moving up, but for a big number of people in the middle and the bottom the direction has changed. They instead attempt to run up a descending escalator. While such an image might be considered somewhat bold, since empirical data shows that individual descent has not become a mass phenomenon and ascent is still possible, it captures the increasing distance between top and bottom as well as the important trend of precarisation collectively faced by a growing number of employees in Germany.

According to Nachtwey, people in Germany have lost trust in the notion of stability. Despite the fact that lower classes, those with less education, older as well as young people, and those with migrant status, struggle in the current labour market situation, middle class people also feel threatened by the potential and actual loss of jobs and social status. The erosion of social integration is therefore not only caused by actual descent, but also collective fear of it, which impedes solidarity. Whether concerning the conflict between employees and unemployed, permanent and temporary staff; residents and migrants; or discrimination between age groups, society has become polarised. And unfortunately this is what we see coming true with the recent elections.

Nachtwey is aware of the potential resentments and reactionary tendencies within the politics and movements addressing the deteriorating situation of the working population, such as those supporting the far right out of ‘protest’. While he points out the dangers of right wing populism, he also has some hope. In identifying the current tendencies as a tension between capitalism and democracy, there is potential for this not only to fuel regressive forms of critique and protest, but also to offer potential to progress towards a more solidaric modern age. It will, however, require progressive forces to engage energetically in efforts to turn the hostile public and political atmosphere around and to channel such tendencies away from right wing populism and towards a more distributory, fair and equitable political landscape.

Building a Better Case for Women on Boards (by Cheryl Hurst, Postgraduate Researcher)

Over the last decade the concern for the underrepresentation of women in corporate boardrooms has steadily increased. The low number of women at the top of organisations has pushed the agenda for determining the circumstances and factors that both promote and impede women’s access to these top levels. In an effort to advocate for increasing the numbers of women on boards, research has tended to focus on the benefits women will bring to the company.

Often referred to as ‘The Business Case’, research in this area focuses on the importance of hiring from the complete talent pool; on the relationship between women and firm value; as well on the unique experiences and talents women characteristically can bring to organisational settings. Yet this ostensibly pragmatic emphasis, on connecting equality with the achievement of value related to organisational goals, is not as straightforward as researchers and policy makers make it seem.

Below, the challenges and concerns for the business case are addressed in the hopes of shifting dialogue to focus on the ideas of justice and fairness.

Changing Traditional Views of ‘Strengths and Experiences’

One of the main arguments delivered to companies is that by expanding their recruitment to include more women (and other minorities), organisations will benefit from the use of the untapped talent pool, bringing in different strengths and experiences (Seierstad, 2016). By pushing this argument it cannot be forgotten that women’s attributes may not fit within traditional ideas of what makes a successful board member.

This gives organisations the ability to argue against hiring from underrepresented groups, making the claim that they do not fit the requirements of the positions that need to be filled. Organisations have yet to widely adopt a view of ‘strengths and experiences’ that does not stem from the traditional model that values traits typically associated with men. This means that even as women accumulate varied experiences they may still not be viewed as appropriately qualified for the upper echelons of corporate leadership.

Previous and Existing Barriers

The focus on recruiting women solely as part of an effort to bring in new talent also ignores previous and existing barriers, including the discriminating tendencies of employers that women have faced throughout their academic and organisational careers.

Barriers may have resulted in women taking different avenues and approaches to the accumulation of ‘experiences.’  These different avenues, once again, do not reflect traditional perceptions of appropriate qualifications.  Without the qualifications traditionally thought of as necessary, there is a decreased chance of women being recruited, even if they have other relevant qualifications.

Those in top positions (predominantly men) who are responsible for a substantial amount of organisational rewards are still not offering equal promotions, pay rises, training, and networking opportunities to women as they are to men, again shaping the ‘strengths and experiences’ women are likely to have.

Performance Rationales

The focus on firm value has gone further, leading to performance related economic rationales for increasing women on boards. Since the early 2000’s research on board diversity and firm value has increased, showing positive relationships between the number of women and minorities on boards and an organisation’s value (Carter, Simkins, and Simpson, 2003).

The performance argument has been increasingly picked up in the media. In January of this year, the New York Times published an article asking: A Trillion-Dollar Question: Why Don’t More Women Run Mutual Funds? Again, the article conveys to readers that a mixed-gender team produces better returns. Similar articles have been published in The Guardian and Forbes, all using the ‘Business Case.’

Empirically, the argument that women increase performance is highly contested. Boards with higher numbers of women are shown to have been better performing boards overall, prior to and after hiring a more diverse range of members. This stresses the possible bias that better performing boards are able to focus more generally on diversity improvement from the start (Seierstad, 2016). While links have been found between increasing women on boards and company performance, the causality is disputed. This in itself demonstrates a need to move towards more concrete justice arguments.

Critics of the business case for increasing women on boards have also demonstrated that diversity management as a whole can actually be financially detrimental to organisations. There is a high cost to ‘diversity management’ techniques that are implemented unsuccessfully or without proper consideration (Noon, 2007). These costs are often related to high-turnover and absenteeism among women who do not feel welcome within the organisation or where proposed options for flexible working hours are not properly executed.

The business case also ignores how organisations benefit from the discrimination of women and minorities by exploiting their skillset and paying them lower wages than their white male counterparts (Noon, 2007). In even further divergence from the business case, research has highlighted that some countries and organisations have actually experienced negative consequences both in organisational performance and within capital markets after changing their existing board to include a more diverse range of people, with the potential of other attributing factors being overlooked (Bohren and Staubo, 2014).

Ideas of Justice and Fairness

While business case arguments have the overall goal of increasing women on boards, the presentation and ultimate message often becomes somewhat distorted when put into practice.  Instead, a focus on notions of justice and fairness in the advancement of diversity management will offer organisations and policy makers fewer avenues to refute the implementation of diversity strategies. The social justice rationale for increasing the representation of women is based on the principle that women represent half of the population and should therefore represent half of the boards in power (Seierstad, 2016; Dahlerup, 2005).

The social justice rationale does not disregard the potential economic benefits completely, but promotes/advocates a genuine commitment to equality and justice. Changing the argument is not positioned here as a complete solution, but reflects a necessary step in the pursuit of gender parity on corporate boards.  It is argued here that a sole (and contingent) focus on diversity for economic benefits negates the importance of changing views towards women in organisations because it is ethically just.


Bøhren, Ø. and Staubo, S., 2014. Does mandatory gender balance work? Changing organizational form to avoid board upheaval. Journal of Corporate Finance28, pp.152-168.

Carter, D.A., Simkins, B.J. and Simpson, W.G., 2003. Corporate governance, board diversity, and firm value. Financial review38(1), pp.33-53.

Dahlerup*, D. and Freidenvall*, L., 2005. Quotas as a ‘fast track’to equal representation for women: Why Scandinavia is no longer the model. International Feminist Journal of Politics7(1), pp.26-48.

Noon, M., 2007. The fatal flaws of diversity and the business case for ethnic minorities. Work, employment and society21(4), pp.773-784.

Seierstad, C., 2015. Beyond the business case: The need for both utility and justice
rationales for increasing the share of women on boards. Corporate Governance: An International Review.

AuthorCheryl Hurst, University of Leeds