Could you afford to lose £8,000 a year?

August 18, 2006

A new pay framework is supposed to bring equity to all staff but some say that, as usual, academics have done better than anyone, reports Harriet Swain.

Porters could earn more than dons" warned early academic union scare stories about the impact of the new pay framework in higher education, due to be in place this month.

If anyone has discovered such instances, they are keeping quiet. In fact, lecturers have on the whole done rather well from the framework, which is linked to a new system of job evaluation.

So have many other groups of workers, which makes it doubly difficult for those who have not. For the people who have been "red circled" or told that the job they do is not equivalent to the grade they are on - and often the money - the experience is humiliating and worrying.

As Dave Whiteley, a senior computer officer who has worked at Leeds University for 25 years and who faces losing £8,000 from his annual salary, says: "I'm in my early fifties. I'm in a specialised field and the chances of finding anything comparable would be fairly low. I'm somewhat demoralised."

Linda Mortimer Pine, deputy director of human resources at Leeds, says no one will face a pay cut for at least three years, and during that time the institution will work with the individuals affected to develop their roles or to deploy them in other areas so they can maintain their salaries. But Whiteley says that to get any chance of promotion under the new grading he will need to move into a managerial role. "In other words, I have to stop doing what I'm doing, which is what I'm good at, and start doing something I'm probably not as good at."

Leeds epitomises the complex reactions to the new system. On the one hand, it is held up as an example of how the system should be implemented by the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association and the Educational Competencies Consortium, which designed Higher Education Role Analysis. On the other hand, it has been condemned by the local University and College Union branch for its treatment of administrative staff. The union claims that about 100 people have had their jobs downgraded and are facing pay cuts of between £8,000 and £16,000 a year. It is now in discussions with the university, conducted through arbitration service Acas.

Gavin Reid, UCU branch president, says that problems came to light because Leeds, where much of the groundwork on the new system was done, is further on in the process than many institutions. He claims that other universities could face similar difficulties, especially if they try to push the system through without full agreement from the unions.

One advantage of the system is that it is designed to be flexible enough to respond to the diversity of institutions. But the emphasis on the way managers implement the system has created distrust. Rumours that heads of department are able to challenge job evaluation outcomes has made people fearful of rocking the boat lest it be reflected in their future grade.

While the new pay framework was supposed to be in operation from August 1, many institutions are still finalising the details. Ucea is in the process of assessing how many have completed the process but has not yet received final answers. It estimates that about two thirds of universities have finished.

Jocelyn Prudence, Ucea chief executive, says: "It is totally unsurprising that a greater number of institutions haven't fully completed given the complexity of the task and the fact that the pay dispute came at a critical time." She acknowledges that some believe there are a few cases where support staff have not done as well out of the system as academics, but says that, on the whole, people have benefited from the changes.

Reid argues that some people in academic-related positions are particularly badly affected because their roles are hard to pin down. "People are trying to measure the weight and content of roles in an abstract sense without looking at what skill and experience brings to that job," he says.

Skilled tradespeople and secretarial staff also face problems as their generalised roles are difficult to evaluate. And IT staff, whose pay traditionally tended to reflect their market worth outside the sector, are also affected.

The Bett report on pay and conditions warned that job evaluation could cause problems for particular groups of staff in senior non-academic roles but all parties eventually signed up to the system because it has many positive aspects. The principle of equal pay for work of equal value is something few would dispute. And plenty of universities report that, give or take a few minor problems, it is working out.

A survey carried out in April by trade union Amicus, showed a large percentage of the people it represents in manual, technical, clerical and academic-related grades had gained pay increases or had stayed in the same grade, although in many places the results are still unknown.

The difficulty is that even if many are put up a grade, others are necessarily moved down and their pay lowered. Behind each downgrade lies a human story of dipping morale, as well as more practical problems. People are left wondering what to tell their mortgage company and how it will affect their retirement.

Take one building and laboratory manager, who has worked at Leeds for 29 years. He was promoted in 2004, but was told this year that, under the new system, he should be on a lower grade. Not only is he concerned about the possible salary cut of about £12,000 as he approaches his sixties, but he is also worried about the effect on his pension.

"I have been at the university for all these years and I have never seen as many demoralised people," he says. "I didn't want to tell anyone what had happened. I felt ashamed." He says he always gave more to the job than it demanded, which is why he was regularly promoted. But where he was once on call 24/7 he has now switched off his phone.

And, despite all the hopes to the contrary, the old us-and-them divisions between academics and non-academics seem to be proving remarkably resilient, says Jon Appleton, a member of Unison's national higher education committee. Unison is particularly concerned that, in some institutions, academics are being transferred to points further up their new grades than equivalent non-academic staff.

"A lot of old-style thinking has gone into the way job evaluation has been applied," he says. Union representatives suggest that support staff tend to be less comfortable with making appeals and form-filling than those in academic roles. They also suggest that some - particularly women - tend not to make the most of their skills on evaluation forms.

Christina McAnea, national secretary for education at Unison, says: "It's endemic across the higher education sector that academics will always do better than everyone else."

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