An impasse over the status of academic-related staff could lead to a strike and scupper the agreement on pay. Phil Baty reports
The Association of University Teachers could call all of its 47,000 membership out on strike after failing to reach agreement with employers over the status of its academic-related staff members.
At a meeting this week, all four non-academic trade unions officially accepted the pay deal. Both the AUT and sister academics' union Natfhe agreed on a programme of work to resolve several outstanding issues surrounding the 7.7 per cent, two-year offer by mid-December.
But the deal is threatened by the AUT's impasse with employers over the status of academic-related staff such as librarians, senior administrators and computing staff - about 11,000 of whom are AUT members.
"We left the talks feeling deeply disappointed and now have grave concerns about any progress that might be possible," said AUT general secretary Sally Hunt.
The deal offers a 3.44 per cent pay rise this year and 3 per cent next year in return for the biggest shake-up of career structures for 40 years.
The offer depends on the unions signing up to a framework agreement to modernise pay structures. Under this, all staff would be moved to a single pay spine from next year. Formal job evaluations will establish where each staff member should be placed on the spine.
The agreement also includes controversial elements such as a form of performance-related pay rises, called contribution points, and market-based pay supplements in shortage areas.
The unions want to be allowed to reopen pay talks if inflation rises above 3 per cent, the amount of the pay rise offered for next year. They also want details of how job evaluation will be carried out and how the contribution points will be implemented.
A joint statement from Natfhe, the AUT and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association this week said: "All parties agreed that satisfactory progress on this by mid-December would be essential to secure a successful outcome to these negotiations for academic staff."
But the statement also revealed a fundamental split between the UCEA and the AUT over academic-related staff. The framework commits the parties to the creation of a national library of academic "role profiles" - in essence an agreed record of key job descriptions - that would recognise the national comparability of academic roles and limit the threat of a total collapse into local pay bargaining.
The AUT insists that similar national profiles be developed for its academic-related members to protect their jobs and to prevent the break-up of the "academic team" of lecturers and their academic-related colleagues such as librarians and registrars. It will not budge on the issue.
But this demand is vehemently opposed by employers and Unison,Jthe biggest higher education union, which represents academic-related staff in new universities.
The AUT claimed this week that plans for job evaluation could result in one in six academic-related staff - 35,000 staff nationally - being downgraded to lower job grades.
Ms Hunt said: "Frankly, this was a golden opportunity for the UCEA to give academic and related staff reassurance over certain issues, and it was wasted."
- The results of a ballot by Natfhe asking members to choose between its executive's advice to keep pressing for concessions or its sector conference demand to move straight to a ballot for industrial action has been delayed because of recent postal strikes.
Offer is a 'chance to progress'
Kevin Power is stuck at the top of his pay grade and believes the current deal offers a unique chance to get his experience recognised through a higher salary.
As a 45-year-old senior lecturer in nursing and midwifery at De Montfort University, he earns the maximum available for his grade, £34,191 a year. But with a young child and an older son to support through college and a mortgage, he thinks the pay deal offers new opportunities to develop his career.
Employers say that under the two-year deal, staff in his position could see their pay rise by up to 16.8 per cent to just under £40,000, without promotion, by August 2004.
Mr Power said: "I've voted to conditionally accept the offer as it may well be a step to ensure my progress and to get my experience and extra responsibilities rewarded."
It's an 'insult and just wrong'
Jim Guild said the pay offer was an "insult", but he was as angry at the fundamental changes to staff terms and conditions as he was about low pay.
The 35-year-old assistant registrar at Sussex University cannot afford a house near the Brighton campus on his £,000 salary. He said: "The pay offer amounts to 3.44 per cent this year and 3 per cent next year. It's an insult."
Even worse, he believes, the deal will mark the end of national pay bargaining. "The proposed pay framework offers so much flexibility, even the new pay spine is only 'commanded'," he said.
He also worries that academic-related staff will have to negotiate with non-academic staff, such as cleaners, and that his pay will not be set alongside that of his academic colleagues in the Association of University Teachers.