Dispute is dead, but pain lives on

June 16, 2006

Resentment still lingers among staff whose vice-chancellors took a hard line on pay docking, says Anna Fazackerley

It was a terrifying letter to read over the breakfast table. "I have arranged with payroll that your pay will be stopped with effect from Friday, May 8," it said. "Your pay will not be reinstated until you have returned to the above (marking)."

Northumbria University had decided to take the ultimate hard line with academics who were involved in the national pay dispute and to dock 100 per cent of their wages if they refused to mark exam papers before their examination board's deadline.

Academics in the Law School were hit hardest. Twelve faced an almost immediate cessation of pay. This was going to be a rough fight.

"The personal impact of those letters was terrible," says an academic in the school. "People had mortgages to pay and children to support. It is a big department, and there were some husband-and-wife pairs who faced both their salaries being threatened."

And it wasn't just the "usual suspects". Some of those who received letters were not very active politically. This was a new and very frightening world for them.

"Looking back on it, it was remarkable that we all stayed together and that people did not back out of the dispute," the law academic says. "We have seen internal e-mails that show that the university management were certain that when we saw those letters we would crumble."

Instead of crumbling, the Law School staff got angry. They raised a Pounds 14,000 "fighting fund" with donations from colleagues and threatened to go on strike. "The anger was bonding. What came out of it was a much stronger sense of unity - we weren't going to tolerate any more," the academic says.

These personal experiences are what will linger with staff and determine the tone of the relationship between academics and managers as the pay dispute passes into history. Vice-chancellors and deans who took the gentler approach may indeed find that university life returns to something approaching normality relatively quickly. But those who chose to wield the stick may discover that embittered academics have long memories.

Ann Heilmann, a professor of English at Hull University, observes that the gloves-off approach taken by some vice-chancellors bridged the conventional gulf between old and new institutions. "There was a very heavy-handed response across the sector - even in some Russell Group institutions that you wouldn't expect to take a hard line," she says.

Heilmann feels that management shock tactics might have succeeded in underlining that the vice-chancellor was not to be trifled with but were ultimately short-sighted. "My own university responded in a collegiate way, with goodwill and without threats," she says. "That will be important.

People will be prepared to work harder if they feel there is collegiality."

One could argue that in this ruthless commercial world, where universities have become businesses, vice-chancellors have to behave like company chief executives. Perhaps the softly-softly approach that many academics have come to expect in their workplace is anachronistic.

But Heilmann insists: "Even in business terms this doesn't make sense.

Employees in companies respond better to encouragement than to threats."

From speaking to university heads who did not take severe measures against employees involved in the action, it is clear that they had their eye on the long term. This was not just about cash or authority. It was an internal - as well as external - public relations exercise.

Shirley Pearce, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University, explains:

"Locally we have been working extremely hard to ensure there is no lasting damage to the institution. It has been a real priority for us to deal with this dispute in a way that doesn't disadvantage the sector."

She adds: "Across the sector, I know there are institutions where tensions are running very high. That can't be good."

Natalie Fenton, a union representative and senior lecturer in media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, argues that what matters most to academics now is not so much the national picture but how the issue was managed locally. "The warden here was quite sensitive. He held off pay docking for a long time. He handled it well, and people understood his position."

She argues that much of academic life depends on goodwill and on people toeing the line. "Some people have realised just how little they matter to their institution," she says. "There is a sense that some vice-chancellors were more keen to protect the interests of students than the interests of staff. That leaves a bitter taste in the mouth."

Getting these staff to step quietly into line now, she argues, will be a near impossible task. This does not bode well for negotiations over other issues. The morning after the national settlement had been hammered out last week, angry union members at Leeds University threatened to go on strike over changes to administrative staff contracts. Other unions look likely to follow suit on their own local issues.

But the hardline vice-chancellors face an even greater problem than such rebellion. With morale at rock bottom, how do they stop staff leaving?

A lecturer at Leeds says: "Of course people want to leave. And there is big competition. Manchester (University) is just up the road, and its president has acted very differently - he hasn't made threats of docking pay."

Some staff at the Law School at Northumbria say they are so disillusioned that they not only want to escape the university, they want to escape higher education. "It is the old idea of raising consciousness," one academic in the school says. "Many people are questioning for the first time how universities work. They are asking: is higher education really going in a direction I want to go in? People are definitely considering leaving the sector completely."

After months of battling, both sides of the dispute seem more bruised than triumphant.

Graham Upton, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, one of the institutions that threatened 100 per cent pay docking, said after last week's settlement: "I don't think employers see this as a victory. It has been a painful process for staff and management. We can manage the impact, but in all universities we will have to start repairing the damage that has been done and rebuilding relationships. It will take time."

Some academics who clashed with department heads or their vice-chancellor during the dispute are frightened that they will face subtle forms of punishment for their troublemaking.

"We are expecting a rough ride," admits a union representative at a new university. "There are all sorts of things that would seem unfair but would be difficult to pin down. We are expecting a reallocation of roles, making sure we have extra administration tasks and no time to do the things we like doing, refusal of permission to go to conferences, that sort of thing."

It is clear that anyone who claims that the pay dispute ended last week underestimates both the personal impact of months of conflict and the deep-seated nature of the issues at stake.

Derek Clements-Croome, a professor of construction engineering at Reading University, explains: "The pay problem has been going on for so long - since the Thatcher years, when the unit cost per head first fell steeply.

It seems unlikely that this settlement is enough for academic staff to feel they are really valued. In two years, the whole issue of salaries will come up again."

Although both sides have shaken hands, it seems that no one should put down their cudgels.

As one academic concludes: "The lesson of the dispute has to be that we only got so far because we were prepared to take action. People have accepted that we might have to go through all this again. We would certainly be prepared to."

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