Leader: Poor example is a gift to activists

February 20, 2004

The Association of University Teachers has been less than happy with some of the reports on the current round of pay bargaining in The Times Higher.

But the union surely could not have wished for a better recruiting sergeant for next week's industrial action than the annual survey of vice-chancellors' pay, which we publish today. An average increase of more than 6 per cent is embarrassingly close to double what their staff received in the equivalent year.

No one is saying that the vice-chancellors' six-figure packages are excessive, particularly in relation to senior management in other fields, but the coincidence of timing underlines the gulf between what vice-chancellors are willing to accept and what universities feel able to pay everyone else. There is nothing unique about the contrast - the same phenomenon is repeated every time a survey of directors' pay is published - but, as this paper has argued before, that does not excuse the best-paid members of the sector from setting an example.

Even the most optimistic AUT activist cannot believe that next week's action, taken in isolation from other unions and timed to coincide with student protests on an entirely separate issue, will bring the employers to heel. But the unexpectedly high turnout and overwhelming support for action in the AUT's ballot show the level of frustration among academics over pay and conditions. The gulf between their treatment and their bosses' can only fuel further anger.

The irony of next week's action is that the basis of the current offer - job evaluation and local flexibility allied to a national agreement - may provide AUT members' best hope of progress in the short term. What is lacking - and will be for the foreseeable future - is a national increase that will allow academics to make up some of the ground they have lost over two decades. Even Tony Blair acknowledges that academics deserve more, but there is no prospect of universities affording across-the-board increases on the scale awarded to vice-chancellors. The Bett inquiry was a valiant, but vain, attempt to break the log jam. Something similar (crucially, this time with government involvement) may be needed if the prime minister's words are to be seen as more than empty rhetoric designed to get out of a tight political corner.

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