All talk and no pay increases

January 14, 2000

Nick Coleman explains why very few lecturers will be willing to go on strike again.

Readers do not need reminding that academic salaries have fallen, relative to comparable professions, by 2 per cent a year for the past 20 years. We are fast approaching the stage when it will be impossible to recruit well-motivated staff to teach the next generation of professionals, even though the thought of inadequately trained surgeons and aircraft designers is a fearsome one.

So what is being done about this sad state of affairs? Well, my union, the Association of University Teachers, recently pursued a campaign of industrial action in pursuit of a 10 per cent pay claim. According to AUT publicity, this was a huge success. Admittedly no improved pay offer was forthcoming, but the negotiators did manage to secure the promise of talks on sex discrimination and casualisation. That is all that matters - academic salaries can wait until the government next reviews its spending plans.

But when members of my local AUT branch quietly insist on a cold-blooded audit of the results of last year's action, words without connotations of "zero" are difficult to come by. Yes, gender inequality among academics and the burgeoning army of short-term staff are a disgrace - nobody denies this - but most of our members are full-time academic staff. They were led to believe that they were taking action in support of their salaries and were disappointed and annoyed when it all fizzled out to no avail. And even the victims of discrimination and casualisation have achieved what? Talks.

Perhaps such an outcome was inevitable. Both the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and the government said there were no funds to improve on the 3.5 per cent offer. And they meant it. The taxpayers' complaint - "Why should we pay for other people's children to have a jolly good time for three years and then go on to better jobs than we could ever dream of?" - cuts as deep into this government's thinking as it does in most other English-speaking countries.

Without a major change in political priorities - hardly likely outside Scotland - there simply cannot be any more money for academic salaries.

The union's suggestion that lecturers boycott bureaucratic tasks as part of the industrial action was popular, but support for it was sporadic, even before it was pointed out that it could become unlawful. But the disjointed examination boycotts (and the curious suggestion that on one day each week academics should refuse to deal with emails) irritated so many people that these activities never seemed to get off the ground.

It came as no surprise when motions to last month's AUT winter council to restart the action were defeated. Few now expect a satisfactory pay rise to come from public sources and I suspect that even fewer would be prepared to forfeit another day's salary in the hope of it.

So, the future for the academic profession? Year-by-year decline; never-ending negotiations; pie in the sky? Yes - for most academics, though not for all. However unpalatable it might be to those who see themselves as public-sector employees, universities are private corporations, paying what they like and charging whatever they like for their services.

A handful of universities will be prepared to pay the going rate for minds of Nobel prize calibre. To make ends meet, they will charge their students the full economic cost, hopefully with some sort of graduate payback scheme. The government, in response, will withdraw public funding from them and win plaudits from their taxpayers for doing so.

Private higher education, like private secondary education, might not be to everyone's liking. But after last year's industrial action debacle it is closer than most of us have ever seen it.

Nick Coleman is president of the AUT at the University of Newcastle.

Do you think that last year's campaign of industrial action by the Association of University Teachers was a waste of time?

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