Leader: Time to let go of sinking national pay schemes?

April 19, 2002

Unions are clinging to national pay bargaining while all around tides of differential pay are rising. Professors have flown the coop, their pay negotiated individually. This route, together with appointments to higher-scale points for less senior staff, is being used, as the Roberts report shows, to pay promising academics in shortage subjects better in the hope of keeping them in academe. Numbers of professors in physics, maths, biology and chemistry increased by a quarter in five years to 2000. But such stratagems have not averted the crisis in hard sciences identified by Roberts. And dissent has now broken out among unions as to the basis on which national scales should be preserved. Responsibility for staff and budgets should not, in the Association of University Teachers' view, be more a important criterion for higher pay than academic merit.

Meanwhile it is becoming clear that extra government money for university pay will be available only for differential schemes. Ministers may pay extra for the best. They will not agree to big rises for the rest. This leaves unions in a bind. National pay scales protect those least likely to be promoted on merit, but they have also operated in recent decades to hold down academic pay by pegging overall rises to what the poorer institutions could afford. Insisting on protecting national bargaining could be contrary to many members' interests.

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