Leader: Work together or keep on failing

July 21, 2006

Both employers and union officials will be relieved that this week's ballot result shows a convincing majority in favour of ending the higher education pay dispute. The 55 per cent turnout represents a reliable sample of opinion, if less than might have been expected given the strength of feeling apparent in the weeks running up to the final negotiations. And more than 70 per cent backing for the deal leaves little room for discontented activists to carry on the argument within the University and College Union.

Neither side should delude itself, however, that the margin demonstrates strong satisfaction with the three-year settlement, or with the way the dispute was conducted. Nearly a third voted "no" even though most will surely have recognised that rejection of the deal was a futile gesture. The unions handed in their weapons the moment the assessment boycott was suspended, and it would have been impossible to apply any similar pressure to the employers once final-year students had graduated. For many, a "yes" vote was an acknowledgment of reality rather than a statement of support.

That there is a legacy of bitterness (however justified) is obvious to anyone in regular contact with the academic community. The employers singularly failed to convince their staff that they would receive a fair share of top-up fee income, while the unions' approach raised expectations to wholly unrealistic levels. The employers tended to make their calculations as if there would have been no pay rise without top-up fee income, while the unions disregarded other public sector deals and real levels of university pay. The degree of spin on both sides was such that it was difficult for even the well-informed participant to be certain of the merits of any offer.

The establishment of the UCU and new leadership of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association should provide an opportunity for a fresh start in industrial relations, especially given the time scale of the deal approved this week. But talk already of a dispute in the third year of the agreement is hardly an encouraging sign. Academics will look enviously at their counterparts in New Zealand, who have been awarded an extra 3 per cent on top of their regular pay increase after their union and employers jointly convinced the Government that they were underpaid. The Bett committee did not achieve the same result in the UK, but the collaborative route is surely the only hope of success in the foreseeable future.

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