The contrast between this week's pictures of striking French researchers filling the streets of Paris and the more muted efforts of the Association of University Teachers at the end of last month must leave vice-chancellors breathing a sigh of relief. While the fiery French (up to and including a number of senior administrators) were resigning their posts in droves, their British counterparts were agonising over whether to boycott assessment. But no one should underestimate the impact of the AUT's action if the pay dispute drags on. Before long, exam papers will have to be set and approved, and even now students such as Denise Aghanian are missing out on vital assessments.
Conscientious union members do not want to endanger their students' prospects, but they are sufficiently frustrated to do so. Natfhe may be right to hold onto job evaluation as the best hope of structural change, but there is understandable resentment throughout higher education at the way in which pay levels continue to languish behind those in other professions. Many of those taking action no doubt assume that universities will find a way to make the necessary awards, rendering the union's action more of an inconvenience to students than a source of lasting damage. But any protracted dispute has its casualties.
Trade unions are about much more than confrontation, but occasionally they have to use the weapons at their disposal. If they cannot match the French passion for direct action, for academics this means hitting assessment and/or admissions. But ultimate weapons have to be used sparingly if they are to carry the support of the membership and the wider community. The question for the AUT is whether this is the right moment.
The union stands isolated from its six sister organisations without an obvious exit strategy. Most of its members are fighting over the general issue of low pay rather than the formal sticking points of job evaluation for administrators and the length of the pay spine. But there is no prospect of a substantial improvement on the headline offer of 6.44 per cent over two years. Higher education budgets being as they are, any further increase this year is likely to be paid for in jobs.
The danger from the AUT's point of view (and that of the other unions) is that a long standoff may lead to the disintegration of national pay bargaining. The process has already begun and could become unstoppable.
Sooner or later, the unions may have to take that risk - but when they do, it should be because there is a serious likelihood of breaking the pay mould.