National negotiating over pay and conditions looked close to collapse this week, as the Association of University Teachers again expressed no confidence in the employers' association and pulled out of an agreement endorsed by all nine of the other higher education trade unions.
The AUT was accused by rival lecturers' union Natfhe of negotiating in bad faith and seeking to wreck the national process. It refused to ratify a unique agreement with employers on reducing casualisation, struck after months of delicate discussion. The AUT's increasing hostility towards the Universities and Colleges Employers Association has increased fears that privately, the AUT supports local bargaining.
The AUT said it rejected the joint UCEA/unions code of practice on reducing the use of fixed-term contracts because it was largely toothless and could even be counter-productive. Natfhe said the AUT was not acting in good faith and had "no sensible reason for rejecting it".
Malcolm Keight, AUT assistant general secretary, responsible for employment, said: "We do not believe the document will effectively address the question of the proliferation of fixed-term contracts. The document has failed."
The AUT said the document included "get-out clauses" that could be used to justify casualisation. It listed "necessary and objective reasons for placing a post on a fixed-term or casual contract". These included cases where "the funding is short-term and longer-term funding is unlikely" and "to meet variable and uncertain student or other business demand". But the AUT said these could be used across the sector in almost all cases to defend casualisation.
Tom Wilson, head of universities at Natfhe, said the AUT had ignored the many positive elements in the document. He said: "It is by no means a perfect agreement, but it is a significant step forward." The agreement, Natfhe said, discouraged the use of waiver clauses and would improve procedures significantly.
UCEA said the agreement struck a balance between fairness for employees and efficiency for universities and colleges. "We hope the AUT will join us in the future," an association spokesman said.
The AUT's growing hostility towards UCEA has prompted concerns that the union would happily see its collapse and a move to local pay determination, although this is not AUT policy.
AUT president Alan Carr has publicly supported local pay negotiations.