First it was firefighters, now it's academia's turn - a pay rise with strings. But will the army be sent in to take on teaching and research if the deal is rejected, wonders Valerie Atkinson.
Universities are reportedly to be offered a boost to their finances to fund a pay deal for academic staff, linked to modernisation. It is unclear what modernisation means in the context of higher education. No surprise there, given that neither the government nor universities could ever be charged with pushing back the frontiers of clarity, especially in employment matters.
It is in the interests of both parties to preserve equivocation at this stage, but important for the government to imply comparability with other pay settlements in the public sector.
Modernising academics. The words themselves resound with contradiction. Surely as oxymoronic as business ethics, caring Conservatives, fighting for peace or Network Rail. But perhaps we are about to see universities embrace some of the "modern" ideas introduced into the broader education sector. Lecturers could face on-the-spot fines for truancy (being absent for more than two consecutive days in term time), with tagging for persistent offenders; or targets for student numbers (still awake at the end of lectures); or hit squads to counteract continual tardiness in setting and marking exams.
Maybe the government means modern as in the health service. If so, students may soon have to wait long hours in corridors to take their turn in lecture theatres, only to be sent home devoid of information because lecturers are too busy giving private consultation. Or perhaps modern as in the railway system? In which case hapless undergraduates would never be able to find out whether or not their courses were running but would turn up on the off chance a class was going in the direction of their degree programme.
Neither possibility seems all that remote from present trends, and it is hard to see how else academics can modernise, unless they deliver their lectures in rap, wearing clothes bought in this century.
In the language of pay settlements, the word modernising has slipped into the same black hole - almost brim-full with employment euphemisms - as rationalising, restructuring, downsizing and working at home. But in using their own sly terminology, politicians may be unleashing a heap of trouble. If any group can outdo them in terms of obfuscation, university lecturers can.
Take, for example, a definition of modernity found on the internet:
"Modernity focuses systematically on the methodological, archival and theoretical exigencies particular to modernist studies." Oh good. That clears that up. Perhaps academics will retaliate by offering postmodernisation in return for better pay. That way, no one would know what had to be achieved but everyone would feel superior.
What happens if academics resist? Will they be treated, by the government and the media, with the same excoriating contempt as firefighters? Will they, too, be accused of greed and inflexibility because of their arcane, and in academics' case archaic, working practices? Can we expect the army to be sent in to take over teaching and research?
To firefighters, modernising might mean a modern pay formula, improved body protection and state-of-the-art equipment. To their employers, the objective is quite different. When recommendations include innovations such as the "introduction of (other) shift patterns, including part-time work, to boost diversity, flexibility and create a family-friendly environment", you can bet your fireproof life that the underlying motive is to save money by paring pay. But concepts such as flexible and part-time working are already built into the academic world, on full pay. A shift pattern is something on a computer keyboard; a family friendly environment consists of a biddable secretary entertaining offspring during a lecture.
Is it, then, even remotely possible to compare different groups of public-sector workers, either in terms of employment practices, or in the language used to describe them?
It is hard to estimate how far we have moved, in our overdeveloped cultural miasma, towards a counterfeit existence.
The obliteration of reality is everywhere: in our newspapers, on our radios and televisions, and, increasingly, in the language of the workplace. Those who practise public governance have triumphed to such an extent that acquiescence, accompanied only occasionally by a knowing vein of cynicism, has exiled understanding. Voyeurism has replaced first-hand experience, while disconnected individualism has displaced morality.
This is because the battle for hearts and minds (that sickly euphemism for brainwashing) has, to all intents and purposes, been won. Joe Soap - Mr Taxpayer himself - will accept anything, especially if it happens in a soap. Talent-free, self-regarding youths are feted as idols, despite being obvious creations of television marketing. A war-mongering politician is conveniently acclaimed as the Greatest Briton Ever on the eve of a war with Iraq. Footballers are more revered (and thousands of times better paid) than nurses and firefighters, the last being reinvented as greedy villains only 18 months after being universally lauded as heroes. Even that intellectual sitting next to you in the senior common room is likely to be battling a secret addiction to Big Brother .
And a government calling itself Labour collaborates openly with elite elements of big business and high finance while stonewalling trade unions - the body that gave it life.
Mr Taxpayer will shortly be persuaded to believe that university academics are about to be treated in the same way as other public sector workers, and that, to receive a substantial boost in pay, lecturers and research staff can - and will - revolutionise their working practices.
Welcome to 2003, the third year of the millennium of postrealism, where a clock striking 13 would barely raise an eyebrow.
Valerie Atkinson is a department administrator at the University of York.
Cutting costs by amalgamating emergency services
Increasing highly paid consultancy
Training as paramedics and HR managers
Appearing on TV
Driving a taxi after working hours to supplement wages
Increasing highly paid consultancy
Less overtime, ergo reduced pay
Cutting expense accounts
Travelling to conferences standard, not first class
Trade unionist deviousness
Renting out the pad in Malaga