National pay bargaining is “in danger of disintegrating” if employers seek to push through a sixth successive below-inflation pay rise next month, an industrial relations expert has warned.
Pay negotiations for 2014-15 are due to start next month amid continuing industrial unrest over this year’s 1 per cent pay offer, with University and College Union members threatening to boycott marking from 28 April if employers do not improve the deal.
But staff at cash-rich institutions might look to break away from the UK-wide negotiations to agree better local deals if universities do not substantially improve on this year’s offer, according to Roger Seifert, professor of industrial relations at the University of Wolverhampton.
“We are in a period where the desire to preserve the system is only just in the balance,” said Professor Seifert.
“The system is threatened and is in danger of disintegrating,” he added.
Most universities want to keep the current set-up because it stops institutions competing against each other on wages; as unions also wish to preserve national bargaining, this might prompt an improved offer for next year, Professor Seifert predicted.
No university has left national pay bargaining since £9,000 tuition fees were introduced in 2012, despite predictions that institutions able to expand their student numbers might seek to offer higher locally agreed pay.
Last year, union members at the University of Exeter rejected an offer to increase pay by 1 per cent above any nationally agreed deal if they left national pay bargaining.
However, some universities have sought to pay their staff more by altering salary packages while remaining within the UK-wide framework for pay negotiations.
The London School of Economics has agreed to pay higher minimum salaries to its full-time academic staff as part of a new academic career structure introduced this year, although they will no longer receive automatic annual increments.
A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said that collective bargaining had adapted to major sector changes but had been “remarkably successful in delivering the stability and sustainability in higher education pay for more than two decades”.
“There have always been countervailing pressures for and against collective pay negotiations; these are bound to intensify in an environment of austerity and pay restraint,” he added.