This spine could put backbone into staff

September 21, 2001

The new national pay bargaining deal could well help create the conditions in which workers in higher education come together and press for real change, argues Roger Seifert

Watched, regulated and beset, higher education staff are under closer and more frequent scrutiny than most workers in our modern economy. As our pay throughout the sector continues to fall relative to all known comparators at home and abroad, and as our conditions of service deteriorate, we are left to work harder, work under closer supervision, and work with less reward than others. As safeguards are removed, so hours are extended, support is withdrawn and pressure increased. With job autonomy eroded and job control limited, staff become more alienated and more exploited with each passing year. And at some point we are supposed to reflect and consider, with some clarity, what our subject is about, how to discover more about it, and how to present our findings to students and the wider world.

At this point in the story of the whining academic, we look for the rescue party. Enter (stage left, just) the main campus unions - the Association of University Teachers and lecturers' union Natfhe, on their latter-day Rocinantes, galloping slowly into the fray. The union negotiators, supported by local activists and some recent ballots favouring action of sorts, have delivered us a new negotiating package that forms part of the solution to our spiral of decaying decline.

The deal appears to lock us into national collective bargaining systems (good), but it may also lock us out of any across-the-board catch-up in terms of pay and/or the return to us of some greater job freedom (bad). The nice thing about the dialectic is that it allows real as well as apparent contradictions in the micropolitics of higher education industrial relations to be presented as part and parcel of negotiated outcomes in the context of government policy driven by social market ideals.

Locking us all into national bargaining is a triumph for both the unions, a relief for most employers and a pleasant reminder for the Treasury officials who are bothered by such things as their right to rule the world. The union negotiators' desire for a national system provides strong safeguards against rogue employers and, to some extent, weakens efforts to play us off against each other.

Along with the joint working parties on a single pay spine and job evaluation, the package aims to protect grading definitions, and it allows real progress to be made on equal value and related equality issues. Although it is a national agreement, it allows for variations at the level of employer institutions to accommodate a genuine change in the extent of the sector's internal diversity of provision.

For the AUT, it keeps the integrity of the academic and academic-related link. For Natfhe, it provides clarity on job description and safety on job size. And for both it gives a single negotiating table for all academic staff after nine years and seems to apply some of the more favourable aspects of the Bett report on pay.

The employers have agreed it because it is easier for most to hide behind national agreements, and because they probably think that is what government ministers want, and a few may think it will be better in presenting a united front for more and different funding. Civil servants were concerned at a likely anarchic outcome if national bargaining collapsed, mainly because they have little faith in the national leadership of the employers.

The problem with job evaluation and single spines is that the systems are hard to agree, harder to implement and harder still to maintain. Lessons from the health service and local government indicate that job-evaluated job descriptions may cause more conflict and deadlock than their absence; and that single spines may solve some immediate issues but soon generate their own set of debates over differentials, worth and value.

The local flexibility sought by some employers may resolve their own problems - but often in a beggar-my-neighbour manner that burdens other institutions. The demand for local deals within the national framework may become a dribble rather than a deluge, and we would normally expect a remarkable cluster in the middle ground as most institutions compete for labour recruitment and retention, and students, from the same pool.

While the new deal may produce important safeguards at the outer reaches of the profession, for most there will be little improvement in job control and regulation. On pay, the single spine will encourage the employers with government support to offer a little bit better than inflation (assuming the rate remains on the low side) but do nothing nationally for the me-too claims. This will result in shortages (as with some groups of teachers and nurses) and less flexibility. In turn the remedies will be sought through pay rises targeted at new entrants (golden hellos) and perceived key job holders such as professorial heads of department (golden handcuffs) and, of course, grade (promotion) drift for those in shortage subjects and wherever the next M25 corridor emerges - all dressed up in some fancy performance-related pay package. The pay spine will bend and twist into some grotesque parody of a rational system as actual rates vary from agreed rates and as negotiators get buried in detailed working parties on renewing job definitions and grade descriptions to keep the reality and appearance of a national system.

Within all this limited debate is the question of government policy towards the sector as a whole. Given the weaknesses and inconsistencies in this government's policies and practices in the public sector, it is possible to be optimistic and suggest that the coming together of unions with each other (paving the way at some point for union mergers) and unions with most employers could allow for more concerted pressure on government for more funding and better pay, although not across the board. This might create the conditions in which staff are prepared to act together and act more angrily and robustly against years of neglect.

Mix this equation with student unease, other protest movements about privatisation and global corporate greed, and this one small step for us might just fall into place at a time of wider social and political disillusionment. Then, and only then, might these new systems find a way of exerting pressure to give us what we desperately need: higher pay, less regulated administrative control over our job tasks, and the freedom to contribute to the lives of the whole population and not just an increasingly narrow section.

Roger Seifert is professor of industrial relations at Keele University.

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