Leader: The price of harmony

February 9, 2007

It is hard to quibble with the £125,000 that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has invested in mediation awareness when one considers that universities are each spending upwards of £100,000 a year on legal fees fighting claims from disgruntled students and, especially, staff. Doubtless, with goodwill on both sides, mediation will prove as efficacious in universities as it has elsewhere.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that universities are full of litigious staff who would rather reach for their lawyers than talk to their managers. The evidence is to the contrary. According to research conducted by The Times Higher 18 months ago, from figures supplied by the Tribunals Service, staff in universities are ten times less likely than employees nationally to resort to a tribunal.

Some might wish to claim that this shows how well-run universities are. That may be the case, but it is equally to the credit of staff, who show remarkable loyalty to institutions, responsibility to their students and an acceptance that debate, however sharp, is central to the purpose of a university.

Work, whatever the organisation, is an emotional activity. It cannot function without motivation, inspiration, co-operation and contribution. As the American social commentator Studs Terkel put it: "Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying." If work is that epic, the universities are fortunate indeed that disputes surrounding it have to date cost them relatively little.

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