.... or vicious gamesmanship?

October 10, 2003

Geoffrey Copland says employers have moved towards a fair pay deal for staff, but Sally Hunt thinks they have done just the opposite and have engaged in mudslinging to obscure the real issues

In last week's THES , the Universities and Colleges Employers Association accused the Association of University Teachers of walking away from pay and grading negotiations at a crucial moment. The UCEA needs to get its facts straight.

The AUT and the other unions spent two long years negotiating with the employers and if  - after all that work  - they really expected an acceptable formula to be drawn up in the small hours of July 19, perhaps they should have tabled concrete proposals for how AUT members would be graded and what they would be paid in the future. After two years of discussions, our members have the right to expect that, at least. Yet even now, at this late stage, the employers prefer to smear employees' representatives, through the pages of this newspaper, rather than to talk seriously to resolve our very real differences.

So let's deal with the truth. The AUT is in disagreement with the UCEA because we believe the offer it has made would be bad for our members as it stands. And mud is being slung at us to obscure the real issues. It is a matter of regret to me that this is the way it is being played out. My union prefers to look for solutions than to play that personalised game.

The underlying problem is that the UCEA, on behalf of the employers, insists that its proposals be agreed to in their entirety, otherwise staff get no pay rise. It will "clarify" misunderstandings but not negotiate. And it seems determined to blame unions that have the temerity not to fall into line, where there is a failure to agree outstanding issues. Well, what else would you expect the UCEA to say? That it misjudged how serious we were about improving pay scales and pay for academic and related staff? That we don't commit our members to unacceptable agreements? That we have been raising the same points of difference from the outset of these negotiations 24 months ago?

I take no pleasure in this situation, and in my view it's time to move on.

The employers have an opportunity to get back to the table and resolve our differences, to build an agreement that improves the terms and conditions for all staff and brings harmony after years of disquiet and dissension.

Let me be plain. We want to move forward and to build new pay structures, transparency, equality and - most of all - decent pay into the system.

The employers must move away from proposals that would weaken national pay structures, introduce personal pay, lengthen already ridiculously long pay scales and reduce the value of increments.

I applaud the efforts the employers have made to address the scandalously low pay of Transport and General Workers' Union, GMB and Unison members, and I endorse the approach of harmonisation of their working hours. But is it unreasonable to ask for the same respect for the academic and related staff members that the AUT represents?

Our members have asked consistently for real improvement to their pay. The employers' proposals give them nothing they can yet rely on. Our members have asked for a pay scale that encourages a higher education career. These current proposals actually make matters worse. Our members have asked for a recognition of their professionalism across the board, not a separation of academic roles from academic-related ones, as is proposed here.

So we are at the crunch point. Further talks have achieved very little to date, and the key unacceptable proposals remain unchanged. The AUT will hold a special council next week to consider its options. If there are to be no meaningful negotiations, the sector may be plunged into a wholly avoidable conflict. That would be tragic. I believe many vice-chancellors share the AUT's aspirations for improvements to pay within a regulated national framework, not least because this is the best way to ensure the recruitment and retention of skilled staff. Let's hope they speak out before it is too late.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

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