Harriet Swain meets the man who will determine how much you should get paid
Behind a large desk in offices near Whitehall is the man charged with deciding how all university staff, from professors to porters, should be paid in future. It is a politically sensitive problem. Since 1982 lecturers have seen their pay fall dramatically behind that of MPs, teachers and hospital doctors, whose salaries have climbed steadily in real terms.
Senior lecturers used to earn as much as civil service principals. Now they earn much less. But getting the go-ahead to pay them more is not going to be easy - academics hardly command the same public sympathy as, say, nurses.
Sir Michael Bett has offset the dryness of his title - first civil service commissioner - with a slightly wacky tie. Today he is at pains to stress that he is no grey bureaucrat. As chairman of Save the Children, he is the first non-civil servant to be charged with policing appointments to Whitehall posts. He brings to the committee now discussing pay and conditions for academics a lifetime's experience handling hiring, firing, strikes and pay for big businesses. "I was a sort of hired gun," he says. "Have gun, will travel. It was a very interesting career."
The Bett committee was set up last March following a recommendation from the inquiry into universities' future chaired by Lord Dearing. Dearing found it too overwhelming to deal with academic pay claims on top of trying to tackle the problem of dwindling university resources. So he kicked the first problem into touch. Dearing's recommendation 50 stated: "We recommend to the higher education employers that they appoint, after consultation with staff representatives, an independent review committee to report by April 1998 on the framework for determining pay and conditions of service. The chairman should be appointed on the nomination of the government."
The deadline proved impossible, as did persuading the government to nominate a chairman to head up a body likely to make some pretty embarrassing recommendations. Sir Michael, whose appointment ministers finally "facilitated", says his committee is now likely to make its conclusions known next spring, with early details possible later this year. Ministers have, he adds, deliberately kept well clear of the committee's discussions, leaving members anxious that, without government backing, they could raise expectations that will never be fully satisfied.
Liz Allen, Natfhe representative on the committee, says: "All trade union members have sat quietly this year. If the Bett committee produces a good report and no one listens to it, I think the steam is going to blow."
One problem, which Sir Michael freely admits, is that the higher education sector is so diverse, making the imposition of single pay scales for all grades of staff difficult. "We have the better part of 200 universities and higher education institutions, selling different products to different markets," he says. "Some are doing mainly research, some teaching, some are trying to move from one to another, all are funded in different ways with different degrees of sponsorship. I don't ever see total uniformity as something we can recommend. They are just so different."
Certainly, the brief of his committee is broad. It is to look at pay levels, the pay structure and conditions of service in all higher education institutions for all staff. Under current arrangements, which have grown up haphazardly over the years, different pay scales operate in old and new universities and even between different groups of workers. In old universities senior administrators and librarians are paid on scales related to academics, while clinical and technical staff have their own scales. In new universities, staff are paid according to a single set of scales.
Pay levels are now negotiated annually between employers and the separate trade unions, although a handful of universities decide their own levels of pay, particularly in subjects such as economics, where they are finding it hard to recruit or are looking for special skills. The University of Central England cuts its own pay deals, as do the colleges of the University of Oxford.
A few people, taking their cue from America, have argued that all pay should be decided individually, while, at the other end of the scale, the Association of University Teachers is pushing hard for an independent pay review body that would recommend an annual national pay rise to government.
Sir Michael harbours no illusions about how much he can achieve. "What we are trying to do is ensure that the purpose for which universities exist is furthered," he says. There is no ideal pay and conditions situation. These things are always changing."
But he says he is confident of "improving the ambience". It is a technique he has perfected over the years in personnel roles at the Engineering Employers' Federation, General Electric Company and British Telecom and later as an executive at British Telecom - where he later became deputy chairman - Compel Group, KMG Financial Services and Eyretel. He has also been a regular member of committees and quangos.
The force driving him to involve himself in all these? "I know I sound like Miss World but I do enjoy meeting people," he says. "Even when I stopped being something direct in personnel, I was mostly concerned with people issues." What fascinates him, he says, is the interaction of people, "the reaching of a viable compromise and the interplay of personalities".
These interests were well served in the 1970s when life in general, and industrial relations in particular, were more political. "The Thatcher era forced on this country changed relations between labour and employer," he says. "All sorts of circumstances combined to the point where now relations between employers and the workforce are certainly not perfect but they are a lot better than they were and less time is wasted on the sort of things I was good at. I don't think my career would exist today - trying to prevent strikes happening, trying to get agreement and order into a situation."
"Everything now is on a completely different scale. Nowadays, trades union leadership has become more thoughtful, less confrontational in its approach and I hope I can say the same of employers."
His own career has passed without a blip. Now 63, he has never been unemployed. It never occurred to him when he was at university that he might not go straight into a job, although he was disappointed not to get a job in the BBC immediately on graduation. It was gratifying, he says, when he eventually joined the Beeb in 1977, as personnel director.
Unhampered by worries about job prospects, unlike today's students, he made use of his time at university to enjoy himself. The fact that he eventually achieved a second in history he attributes partly to the support of economic historian David Joslin.
He is proud of what has been done in recent years at Aston, which he says became a very overblown university at one time. "One of the things that Fred Crawford (vice-chancellor of Aston) did was reduce the scope to those things Aston did well. His quest was for excellence in what we did rather than a broad coverage of mediocrity." So far, the Bett committee has collected evidence from as many organisations as it can. Sir Michael is impressed by the number of submissions from professional bodies, which could lead to suggestions that academics in disciplines like law and accountancy be paid more. But what comes through time and again is how conscious the committee is of the fragmented nature of higher education in this country.
Whether this should lead to a similarly fragmented framework for deciding the pay and conditions of staff who work therein remains to be seen. Sir Michael is used to the lack of easy answers. "You don't get wins, you prevent losses," he says.