Broad-minded unions reject local pay talks at Exeter

Staff turn down enhanced offer to stay within national bargaining unit. Jack Grove reports

January 24, 2013

Staff at the University of Exeter have rejected an enhanced pay offer that would have meant them withdrawing from national pay bargaining.

Management at the institution offered to increase the salaries of all staff involved in nationally negotiated pay settlements by 2 per cent this year - double the 1 per cent agreed nationally - if they left the UK-wide process for setting pay in higher education.

The deal would also have meant pay packets at Exeter increasing by 1 per cent above any national pay deal in 2014 and 2015, while a “living wage” of £7.22 an hour would have been introduced for the university’s lowest- paid employees.

The first point on the national pay spine - an annual salary of £13,486 - would have been abolished as well, leading to a £353 pay rise for some staff.

The proposed deal follows calls by David Allen, registrar and deputy chief executive at Exeter, for the university’s staff to support the move to local pay bargaining.

In a talk to staff in July 2011, he argued that successful institutions under the government’s new funding regime for higher education “should not be paying [only] what the poorest university can afford”.

But last month members of Exeter’s three main unions - the University and College Union, Unite and Unison - voted to reject the offer. Of the 395 members taking part in the ballot, 8 voted against.

“(We) did not consider these were generous terms and they introduced a clear restriction on the right of Exeter colleagues to take part in any industrial action to further national wage campaigns for three years,” a joint letter to staff from the unions states.

Local pay bargaining at other institutions led to pay rises below national level, the letter argues, because “pay became attached to more stringent performance criteria … with increases dependent on ‘productivity improvements’”.

But Mr Allen told Times Higher Education that “no other conditions were attached” to the offer.

“This offer was in contrast to the national award of 1 per cent across the board and would have cost the university over £4 million across the three years to implement,” he said.

Mr Allen also pointed out that the university has almost 4,000 employees, of whom “the vast majority are not union members so the result was determined on the votes of 7.1 per cent of staff”.

However, he said the university would “abide by the result of the ballot and remain in national bargaining for the time being”.

Ministers including Michael Gove, the education secretary, have called for more “local flexibility” on pay, although a review by the School Teachers’ Review Body last month rejected regional pay bargaining for teachers.

Tim Leunig, an adviser at the Department for Education and a reader in economic history at the London School of Economics, said that although he supported local pay bargaining, there was already some degree of regional pay in higher education.

“New academics can be appointed at different points on the scale, the criteria for promotion can be university-specific, and professors’ pay scale has no maximum,” he said.

“It means the LSE can already pay differently to London Met or Hull, for example.”

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