AUT needs to rethink

November 28, 2003

Don't scupper the pay offer, says Unison's Christina McAnea. Support staff deserve recognition

From official government publications to newspaper reports, universities are portrayed as run by hard-pressed dedicated academics and students. But who keeps the buildings clean and in order, organises the food, runs the library and information technology sections, deals with invoices, purchases and so on?

Fairies from the bottom of the university garden perhaps or a little army of elves who come out at night while dons and students are asleep? No, it's actually an army of support and professional staff doing a wide range of jobs in universities and higher education institutions, many of whom are on very low pay.

Unison has just accepted the pay and grading framework agreement negotiated in the summer with the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association.

Our claim, submitted before the negotiations, highlighted the fact that universities were the lowest payers in the public sector. The offer this year, while not entirely meeting our claim, includes additional elements for low-paid staff. Although the offer is worth 3.44 per cent, the flat-rate elements mean everyone earning up to £15,700 will get more than that, and for the lowest paid the offer is worth 8.1 per cent. All support-staff unions have accepted the offer, and lecturers' union Natfhe voted to "conditionally" accept it; the Association of University Teachers is yet to ballot its members.

One of the AUT's main objections to accepting the offer is the use of job evaluation to determine gradings, which is a recognised tool to help deliver fair and equitable pay systems. Unison wanted a nationally agreed scheme for all jobs in higher education institutions. Instead, we got an agreement on a commitment to institution-wide job evaluation based on equal-pay principles. We now want negotiations on implementing the national agreement as soon as possible in line with the principles underpinning the agreement: fairness, equity and partnership.

We do not believe this will be easy. As part of the process, academic jobs will be assessed using role profiles designed specifically to cover the jobs of lecturers and researchers, which will run alongside the job evaluation scheme for other groups of staff. The AUT wants academic-related staff such as senior librarians to be covered by role profiles. It argues that otherwise this group will be assessed alongside "manual, support and technical staff". Well, in post-92 universities they already are, and Unison represents both these groups. We believe their interests are best served by a job evaluation scheme. Job evaluation is not perfect and it's not a science, but most trade unions agree that it is the best tool available to help create non-discriminatory pay and grading systems. Of course, this can still be manipulated by employers, as can any method for grading staff, but we are providing practical negotiating advice and training for our activists to help them get the best deal possible.

There are always risks with new pay structures, but we believe the old structures are one of the reasons so many staff, at all levels in universities, are underpaid and undervalued. Getting rid of the divide between manual workers, administrative and clerical staff and professional and technical groups, for example, can stop people being put in a grade because of their job title rather than job content. It would also be nonsensical to have a "national" pay and grading structure that still divided staff into "old" and "new" university groups.

We want a job evaluation scheme that can deliver fair and equitable pay, not a continuation of the status quo. The AUT says that a refusal to accept role profiles for certain categories of senior staff in pre-92 universities will adversely affect the "academic team".

Perhaps now is the time to change our thinking and language and accept the need, not necessarily for an academic team, but for a university, departmental or faculty team involving all contributors. Fairies and elves may be happy to remain invisible. Unison members, however, are not.

Christina McAnea is Unison national secretary for education.

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