AUT rivals reveal priorities

January 11, 2002

The three contenders to be general secretary of the Association of University Teachers have revealed their policy priorities.

The executive's official candidate for the £70,000 job, current assistant general secretary Sally Hunt, is united with challenger John Duffy of Birmingham University on the union's main priority: the campaign for better pay, increased job security and a reduction of lecturers' workloads. Ms Hunt's other challenger in an election to begin next month, Durham University's Martin Hughes, makes academic freedom his top concern.

Mr Hughes has been a vociferous critic of the election process. He has attacked the executive's decision to appoint an official candidate supported by the AUT's infrastructure and helped by in-built hurdles for non-official candidates nominated by the membership.

Ms Hunt's supporters are keen to stress her experience in trade union management. The 37-year-old has been an AUT staff member for seven years. She came from the building society trade union, Nationwide Group Staff Union, first as a regional official for London, and more recently as assistant general secretary responsible for equal opportunities. But her detractors say she has no firm commitment to higher education and will have higher ambitions.

Mr Duffy, a 52-year-old statistician and former research manager for the Scottish Office department of health, stresses his credentials as an academic happy to end his career as AUT general secretary.

Mr Hughes, a philosopher, points out he is the only former president of the union in the race. He said he "was fighting tribunals for the rights of fixed-term and ethnic minority staff in the mid-1980s, before these things were fashionable".

The ballot papers go out on February 19. The election closes on March 22.

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR TOP PRIORITY AS GENERAL SECRETARY?

Martin Hughes: Preservation and extension of academic freedom, with particular reference to fixed-term staff. Pay and AUT internal democracy are also very important.

John Duffy: Members' jobs, workloads and careers.

Sally Hunt: Declining pay levels, job insecurity, excessive workloads and inequities in the workplace. And the cornerstone for higher education is the principle of academic freedom.

HOW EFFECTIVE HAS THE AUT BEEN IN MAKING THE CASE FOR HIGHER EDUCATION?

Martin Hughes: Moderately. Our pressure helped to create the Dearing committee, which brought higher education centre stage.

John Duffy: Very. But we also have responsibilities towards our members that we have been less successful in meeting.

Sally Hunt: The AUT remains a powerful body when it fully utilises the collective strength of its members. We could do better at putting pressure on university management and politicians.

WHAT PROGRESS CAN BE MADE TOWARDS ACHIEVING THE BETT RECOMMENDATIONS?

Martin Hughes: We can make progress on job evaluation, which will reveal how much responsibility our members have and which will make the case for higher pay stronger than ever. We must press for equal opportunities relentlessly. John Duffy: The bottom line is to persuade managements to devote the required resources to achieving the recommendations we prioritise.

Sally Hunt: Unless the issue of low starting salaries is addressed, there will soon be a real crisis in recruitment and retention. There should be a transparent pay scale. I would ensure that unprecedented pressure is brought to tackle pay inequality.

WHAT PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE ON ENSURING ACADEMICS' JOB SECURITY?

Martin Hughes: We should protect and extend the principle that dismissal of academics requires external arbitration, and we should resist the riot of discrimination against fixed-term staff.

John Duffy: Plenty. There is still a lot to do to get universities to sort out the career problems faced by contract research staff.

Sally Hunt: Step one is forcing university employers to take responsibility for the bad working practices in their own institutions.

DO YOU SUPPORT PAY REVIEW?

Martin Hughes: Yes, but without unrealistic expectations of rapid progress. The first step is to open an unprejudiced discussion with Natfhe.

John Duffy: No, I haven't supported pay review for several years. The AUT must take responsibility for negotiating pay levels.

Sally Hunt: There is now some doubt that pay review bodies can serve public-sector workers well. I want to concentrate on making the new negotiating mechanisms work.

DO YOU WANT TO WORK PRIMARILY WITH OR AGAINST UNIVERSITIES UK?

Martin Hughes: With, whenever possible; against, whenever necessary.

John Duffy: There is no point in working against UUK. It's our job to ensure that it acknowledges the contributions made by staff.

Sally Hunt: I am content to work on joint areas of concern. But the AUT exists to defend members' interests, and I am not afraid to speak out against vice-chancellors.

SHOULD STUDENT NUMBERS EXPAND? IF SO, WHO SHOULD PAY?

Martin Hughes: Yes, in line with demand. Expansion has to mean more public spending, subject to a continuing element of student contribution, adjusted for ability to pay. In particular, the public purse must support mature students generously.

John Duffy: Student numbers should continue to expand as long as there is unmet qualified demand. This expansion should be paid for from general taxation - that is not to say it will be.

Sally Hunt: Unless the government is willing to back up its 50 per cent target with more money, there will soon be a conflict between continued expansion and maintaining quality. Access has to be based on ability to learn rather than on income. I support the return of the maintenance grant for those on low incomes.

SHOULD THERE BE ANOTHER RESEARCH ASSESSMENT EXERCISE?

Martin Hughes: No. The current RAE is an arcane, misleading game, oppressive to many individuals.

John Duffy: Not in its present form - which is bureaucratic and increases workloads. The undue emphasis on research engendered by the RAE impacts negatively on teaching, scholarship and other professional activities. Contract research staff, who are the lifeblood of research, are still denied a career structure.

Sally Hunt: There certainly should not be another review unless there is proper funding and a more transparent system in place.

WHAT LEVEL OF EXTERNAL SCRUTINY SHOULD UNIVERSITIES FACE?

Martin Hughes: On teaching, we should move to audit rather than to inquisition, with an external body validating/correcting internal systems. On governance and fair dealing, it is urgent and vital to create a modern ombudsman-style system with powers over dismissals, defending academic freedom.

John Duffy: In terms of teaching and research, we are already scrutinised to the point of pain. But there should be more external scrutiny of strategic planning, budgeting, budgetary control and decision-making. The problem is who should do the scrutinising.

Sally Hunt: Academic freedom and the defence of university autonomy are non-negotiable as far as I am concerned. Universities, however, should have nothing to fear from being transparent and accountable organisations.

DO YOU SUPPORT A MERGER WITH NATFHE?

Martin Hughes: Merger, no; renewed confederation, with a line drawn under past differences, yes. I am sceptical about our nascent alliance with the schools-based Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

John Duffy: Not in the present circumstances. At the moment, the priority must be to achieve a united front with Natfhe and EIS-ULA (which represents the post-92 higher education institutions in Scotland) in the new bargaining machinery. I would ultimately support a single higher education union covering the whole of the United Kingdom.

Sally Hunt: The AUT has always been the prime advocate for higher education staff, but now it would benefit from building alliances across the sector. I am willing to work with Natfhe, but I also want to extend this to other unions such as the ATL, the NASUWT and the NUT. Merger could be an option, but trust and consensus need to happen first.

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