A public promise on pay that must be honoured

January 13, 2006

No more excuses - employers have to fulfil the pledges they made on university salaries, says Sally Hunt

The UK higher education sector looks increasingly likely to face widespread disruption as the unions reluctantly prepare to ballot their members over industrial action. This follows the failure of talks this week between university employers and the Association of University Teachers, the lecturers' union Natfhe and the Educational Institute of Scotland over staff pay.

A "yes" vote in the ballots would have far-reaching consequences for everyone on campus this term. It would include a boycott of student assessment that would leave students' work unmarked and not returned to them. Coursework would not be set and exam preparation would be stopped. A protracted dispute could see students fail to graduate in the summer.

Widespread disruption can be avoided if the employers agree to fresh talks.

We were disappointed and somewhat baffled to learn that they still have not consulted their subscribers despite having had nearly four months to prepare for this meeting. They will need to come back to the negotiating table with a genuine interest in addressing pay and honouring their commitments. If they do not, highly disruptive industrial action will follow, which can only further damage an already fragile sector.

Staff being underpaid may not be startling news, but that does not make it acceptable. There has been plenty of strong rhetoric about addressing the problem from a host of sources including the Prime Minister, MPs on all sides and the employers themselves. That rhetoric was never stronger than when vice-chancellors were pushing the case for top-up fees. Alan Johnson, who was Higher Education Minister at the time, even went before the House of Commons to say that vice-chancellors had told him that at least a third of the new income would go to sort out staff pay and conditions.

Now, with top-up fees on the statute, vice-chancellors need to match those words with deeds. They cannot turn round and tell us that poorly paid staff no longer deserve the money they promised. The cynical among us may think employers were using the shockingly low levels of lecturers' pay to solicit extra cash, and many MPs who took the employers' pledge at face value feel hoodwinked.

Vice-chancellors are now distancing themselves from the comments made during the top-up fees debate. Admittedly they stopped short of saying that Mr Johnson misled the House, but it has become clear that they have been trying to wriggle out of their commitment.

We have been told that the very nature of differential fees means individual institutions do not know how much money they will receive from the new regime. Yet this did not stop them submitting estimates of the extra income to the Office for Fair Access.

We have also been told that they need the money to implement the 2004 pay agreement. Not true. They have already been given £650 million of taxpayers' money to deliver pay modernisation. But that cash largely disappeared into university bureaucracy. We are determined that the same thing will not happen again.

We know the money is there. Thirty years ago, universities spent 70 per cent of their income on their staff. That figure has now dropped to less than 60 per cent. At the same time the staff to student ratio has rocketed up from 1:9 to 1:21.

Employers have no excuses left on staff pay. Their refusal to honour their promise on the extra money has left us with no choice but to ask our members to take industrial action. We do not contemplate this lightly. But after years of empty promises to "act on pay when we get extra funding", the employers have now walked away from their pledge.

Students are always the first priority for our members. Many academics who could command much higher salaries in other professions stay in higher education because they are committed to the benefits it provides to society. It is that commitment that makes industrial action such a desperate last resort.

The National Union of Students backs our claim. Its members do not want to be taught by underpaid and demotivated lecturers. But it is not too late to stop industrial action happening. I am asking employers to listen to their students, listen to their staff and honour the public promise they made on spending extra money on pay.

The unions are willing to negotiate on the practicalities of using the extra income to raise basic salaries. But without more negotiation and the recognition that the time to improve pay has arrived, I fear industrial action may be inevitable.

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

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