A dangerous 1970s fashion

September 10, 1999

Larry Bunt says a national pay structure is a backwards step

After an elephantine gestation, the report of the Bett committee into terms and conditions of employment in higher education was published earlier this year - to a deafening silence.

Its proposals were aimed not only at universities as employers but also at the government, which is expected to pick up the tab for the reforms -Jabout Pounds 450 million. There is a lot of pressure for all parties in universities - vice-chancellors, trade unions and personnel officers - to sing from the same hymn sheet in the hope that the Treasury can be persuaded to stump up some new money as part of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.

The difficulty is that we are not a coherent group, but a diverse collection of autonomous universities and colleges whose dependence on state funding can run from 28 per cent to 98 per cent (the average is about 60 per cent).

Some of the report's proposals have not pleased all of these universities. I myself am alarmed at the report's principal demand - for sweeping reforms that will result in a single pay structure for all academics and nationally determined terms and conditions.

To many of us, the idea of a national joint council that will thrash out all details of pay, pay progression and terms of employment at national level seems like a throwback to the nationalised industries of the 1970s. It contrasts starkly with a view of universities as a group of independent employers that are seeking to differentiate themselves in the global market and will need divergent pay and reward systems to do so.

But then, the constitution of the Bett committee was flawed from the outset. Although some of the most influential officers of higher education trade unions were members of the committee, no university personnel officers were included for balance. The whole thing has come to resemble a cargo cult. To join you only have to believe that the government will produce new money to solve all of universities' staffing problems. This is seductive, but given the many pressures on public spending, it is unlikely to happen. There are real dangers for universities, as employers, in talking up the need to implement expensive reforms at national level.

The greatest danger is that universities will back Bett but shoot themselves in the foot by having to implement its proposals out of their existing budgets. No doubt the trade unions will be happy in the short term if they succeed in putting a greater slice of higher education funding into the pockets of staff - but so will British universities' international competitors as our costs and fees rise.

Of course, if the reforms deliver the benefits Bett envisages they will be proved worthwhile - but the history of nationally led pay reform in higher education does not make me optimistic.

In two or three years, we personnel officers could find ourselves blamed by colleagues for committing our universities to a massive and time-consuming exercise to evaluate and grade every job we have, massively increasing employment costs for no tangible benefit.

Larry Bunt is chair of the Universities Personnel Association, which holds its annual conference this week in York.

* Is the proposal to establish a single pay structure for all academics a damaging throwback to the nationalised industries of the 1970s? Email us on soapbox@thesis.co.uk

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