Phil Baty looks at how AUT action over the offer on salaries is affecting union members and their students
The Association of University Teachers will make a solitary stand in its bid for a better pay deal after leaders of lecturers' union Natfhe and the Educational Institute of Scotland accepted the employers' final offer this week.
Natfhe's executive committee is urging members to vote in favour of the pay deal, which offers 6.44 per cent alongside the biggest shake-up of career structures for 40 years, in a ballot that will begin this weekend.
The executive of the EIS was expected to ratify its negotiators' decision to accept the deal as The Times Higher went to press.
The moves mean that the AUT, which is engaged in indefinite industrial action including a boycott of marking, is the only one of the seven campus trade unions, which includes those representing academic-related and manual employees, to reject the offer.
"The deal is by no means the best thing since sliced bread and the pay increase is derisory," said Roger Kline, higher education chief at Natfhe, which has 20,000 members in new universities. "But it is much better than the package first offered last July and is far better than the alternative - the collapse of national pay bargaining."
Under the deal, staff will be given 3.44 per cent backdated to August 2003 and a further 3 per cent from August 2004. Employers say staff will see their pay rise by an additional 1.2 per cent on average when their universities move to the new pay system.
Under the new pay framework, all staff, from porters to professors in old and new universities, will be placed on a single pay spine. Staff will undergo formal job evaluation exercises that set out their roles and responsibilities, which will determine where they will be placed on the spine.
Natfhe said this week that it had secured concessions on a number of key issues. It had agreed a set of national academic job profiles, linked to the pay spine, to ensure academic pay continued to be set nationally, in broad terms. It also secured a "re-opener" clause to renegotiate the pay rise if inflation rises above the 3 per cent offered for the second year of the deal.
Natfhe sources also said that employers "blinked first" on the potential deal-breaking issue of pay for hourly paid lecturing staff. For the first time they will get annual increments and will be paid for the time they spend working outside the lecture or tutorial room, such as the time spent on student assessment.
The AUT wants the national job profiles for academics to be extended to its academic-related members, such as librarians and technicians, to preserve national pay levels for them.
And the union is angry that the single pay spine will increase the number of pay increments for lecturers in old universities, increasing the time taken to reach pay maxima and so reducing career earnings.
The AUT said that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association was "effectively seeking to tear up national bargaining" by reaching deals with unions in the post-92 sector and in Scotland that would lead to a "free-for-all", where the richest universities could offer the most.
Malcolm Keight, assistant general secretary of the AUT, said: "It is regrettable that the employers have abandoned the attempt to harmonise pay arrangements across the sector but, for the time being, it might provide for more flexibility to resolve the AUT dispute."
While the AUT reported that its boycott of students' assessments was "starting to bite", with PhD vivas already postponed in a number of institutions, employers seemed to be in no mood to make any significant concessions after reaching agreement with every other union.
A meeting of the members of Ucea last week was said to have been bullish about the effects of the AUT's action, and vice-chancellors were reportedly reluctant to give in to the industrial action. But "talks about talks" are ongoing between the AUT and Ucea in an attempt to break the deadlock.
Employers also claim this week that the AUT's boycott of job evaluation exercises was damaging moves to ensure equal pay for AUT members.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England also warned universities that they would be vulnerable to legal action over unequal pay if they did not implement job evaluation.
Denise Aghanian, an unemployed single mother of four, has spent the past four years working on her PhD, eager to "put something back into society" and secure a job in higher education.
But industrial action by the Association of University Teachers has kicked her dreams into touch.
"I rushed to finish my PhD so I could get my viva by February, get my PhD and start applying for jobs," Ms Aghanian said.
She was devastated to get a call from Rob Aitken, her internal examiner, explaining that the viva had been postponed indefinitely as a result of the AUT's exams and assessment boycott.
"I feel let down, we have become pawns. I understand the union's position.
But we are being used as a weapon and it hits hard."
The PhD has been a "long hard struggle", she said.
Ms Aghanian started her undergraduate degree, at Leeds University seven years ago, as a mature student. She went on to win a place at York University's politics department to study for her PhD.
After a year combining motherhood and being the sole carer for her disabled grandmother, with part-time study, she won an Economic and Social Research Council grant to spend three years full time on the doctorate - an ethnographic study of Armenian communities.
Now, Ms Aghanian is desperate to kick-start her career. She missed out on an interview for a postdoctoral research post at Cambridge University earlier this month. She was due for an interview at Leeds University as The Times Higher went to press.
She said: "This could seriously damage my job prospects."
Ms Aghanian said that the staff at York had agreed to explain the position in her references.
But she was concerned that the delay might hit her performance when she does eventually have her viva.
"I'm trying to keep engaged but it is not the same as writing up and it is hard to get back into it all as time goes by," she said.
However, Ms Aghanian remains objective about the action.
"While my job prospects may be temporarily affected, for those intent on a career in higher education the prospects are much bleaker if the AUT loses the dispute. Its fight is on my behalf as well."
Rob Aitken is reluctant to hurt students as part of his trade union's industrial action, but he sees it as a necessary evil.
"The only way to get listened to is to cause real disruption and the only way we can do that is not by the odd one-off strike but by boycotting exams and assessments until we are taken seriously," he said.
"Unfortunately, this will cause disruption to some students but that is the price we have to pay."
Dr Aitken said that he and his colleagues had done everything they could to get round the rules of the boycott to help students without compromising the national action. And he stressed that exams were being postponed indefinitely, not cancelled.
"We rushed to get vivas done before March 1, when the action began," he said.
Dr Aitken, a politics lecturer, is discussing with the AUT the possibility of making exceptions - rescheduling vivas for students with exceptional cases, such as overseas students who may have to pay for another return flight to England.
"We have worked with the students over the years and know them well, so we are in a very awkward position. In some cases, you find yourself trying to find ways of getting round the rules and actually undermining our case."
He said he was doing all he could to minimise the impact for Denise Aghanian (see left) and others. "I'm writing Denise's references at the moment. And I'm stressing that her viva has not taken place because of the dispute but that I believe it is a good thesis. I hope she will not be disadvantaged for not having it 'in hand'."
For Dr Aitken, who is not a union activist, there is a fundamental issue at stake that is more than simply about pay levels.
He earns just under £30,000 a year on the lecturer B grade, and his standard of living is not too bad. But he points to the historic decline in lecturers' pay and the fact that many subsidise their work.
"We buy our own computers to work at home and we have to conduct the research that is essential to our careers at home and at weekends. The nine-to-five day is spent on teaching and administration," he said.
Dr Aitken added that there was also a wider issue of principle at stake - the introduction of local-pay negotiation.