Leader: Time for the rank and file to decide

May 19, 2006

Now that the outside world has discovered the higher education pay dispute, Reaction has been divided between moral outrage at the impact on students and an assumption that the impasse is the result of brinkmanship that backfired because neither side took the other seriously.

The first is entirely understandable: many taking part in the action are deeply uncomfortable about using students as bargaining counters. But since the assessment boycott is almost the only industrial muscle that the lecturers' unions possess, it is bound to be their ultimate weapon. They must expect university managements to respond with equal force if they take such a serious step, but to remove the right to use it in extremis implies a no-strike agreement - and they normally come with a high price attached.

At the very least, however, the unfortunate students are entitled to expect any such action to be brought to the swiftest possible conclusion. By refusing to ballot their members on the improved offer of 12.5 per cent over three years, the unions may claim that they are avoiding a three-week hiatus while the inevitable rejection takes place. But the beginnings of a drift towards local agreements might suggest that some in the rank and file, as opposed to the activists, are having second thoughts. If anyone believed, as the commentators suggest, that the assessment boycott was a bluff that would never be called, this was the group. They should have their say before it is too late for thousands of students.

Certainly no one closely involved in the dispute should have been in any doubt of the strong possibility of reaching the current sorry situation.

Both sets of negotiators were aware of the high stakes as the prospect of top-up fee income and union merger coincided. Right from the declaration of future hostilities before a detailed claim had even been lodged, it was hard to see where a settlement was possible. And it still is.

The pressure on the unions to settle will come from the likelihood of many more local deals and a growing sense that any improvement on the current offer will be paid for in jobs. The cost of implementing the Framework Agreement is much higher than most universities seem to have estimated. Once it is factored into university budgeting, the share of top-up fee income now on offer is by no means as measly as it is being painted. Union members should surely have the opportunity to weigh up their options before the system dissolves into local bargaining.

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