New pay negotiating machinery is lumbering into action. The Dearing report recommended a review of academic pay in 1997. The Bett committee, when eventually established, did not report until 1999, and it has taken until now for employers and unions to agree on the scope and structure of the new machinery and to get it set up. And somewhat odd it is too: apparently bankrolled by the education department but with the government taking no responsibility for honouring any agreements reached.
All concerned seem to have been so engrossed with the arrangements for central pay negotiations that they have failed to notice that out in the real world, things have not stood still. Peter Knight at the University of Central England long ago opted out of national pay bargaining. Richer universities have for years ensured that centrally agreed increases were at the lower end of what they could afford, leaving them scope for discretionary deals. But now nationally agreed arrangements seem to be unravelling at increasing speed.
The government is leading the subversion, giving the Royal Society money to pay salary premiums designed to attract and keep top scientists in Britain and hinting on every available occasion that some performance-related element will be demanded in return for more public money. Peter Knight is gaining heavyweight friends, as Imperial College, led by Sir Richard Sykes, who has plenty of experience of market forces and restructuring, sets about simplifying grades to pay lecturers better. The pressure to find premiums for the best can only increase with competition for talent hotting up worldwide as the 1960s generation of academics retires.
So far, union manoeuvring to ensure that extra public money for pay is evenly distributed seems to have resulted in its being spent on confecting human resources strategies to satisfy funding councils. If the new negotiating machinery is to do better and a national pay system is to survive, uncharacteristic speed, unity and determination are now required.