Chance to advance ....

October 10, 2003

Geoffrey Copland says employers have moved towards a fair pay deal for staff, but Sally Hunt thinks they have done just the opposite and have engaged in mudslinging to obscure the real issues

Opportunities to change 40-year-old pay structures covering 350,000 staff bring many challenges, but they arise so rarely that they must be embraced.

The Dearing and Bett reports identified our antiquated pay structures as a major obstacle to achieving equal pay for work of equal value and to breaking down the binary divide in the sector. The multifarious arrangements covering different groups of staff in pre and post-92 institutions have created occupational silos and unhelpful barriers between academic and non-academic staff.

The new framework agreement for pay structure modernisation is out for consultation in most unions. It has already been accepted by the Transport and General Workers' Union, with a 69 per cent "yes" vote. It is the culmination of two years of intensive work by the parties to the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff, which included representatives of all higher education unions and employers. It is the sector's best chance to tackle low and equal pay issues, deal with recruitment problems and provide better rewards for the contribution staff make. It revitalises national bargaining arrangements, placing them in a 21st-century setting.

The framework provides a single national pay spine (in place of the previous ten) with a model grading structure and scope for locally negotiated variations to meet the differing circumstances of universities and colleges. This document, underpinned by an agreed set of principles, will apply to every higher education institution covered by the agreement.

The new arrangements are linked to a two-year pay deal from August 2003.

The overall effect is that pay for most staff will rise over two years by an average of 7.7 per cent, with the very lowest paid gaining 12.7 per cent. The agreement will also offer:

* Additional increases for some staff resulting from regradings associated with introducing new pay structures, which collectively could cost institutions an extra 3 to 5 per cent

* New pay progression opportunities for many staff (especially those in post-92 institutions), with higher grade maxima related to contribution.

This agreement will not solve the inadequacies of higher education pay overnight, but I believe it is significant progress. Much more work is needed to underpin successful implementation from August 2004: we have agreed to update the JNCHES guidance on job evaluation and role analysis; set up a technical group to produce role profiles for academic staff; and produce more good-practice guidance on pay progression.

As was made clear during the long negotiations in July, employers do not see the framework agreement as the complete solution to acknowledged pay problems in the sector. Rather, it provides a platform on which to build in future years. More improvements in pay levels will be needed to match the legitimate expectations of staff and to tackle continuing recruitment and retention difficulties. Such improvements will require additional funding about which government and funding bodies need to be convinced.

Given the declared views in January's white paper, it is clear that implementation of the framework agreement will help institutions unlock the funds available for pay through both phases of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's initiative to reward and develop staff. The agreement will also provide a more influential basis for the approaches to the government by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals in the forthcoming spending review.

All parties agree that change is needed, and without it national arrangements will fragment or break up. The academic unions have raised a number of concerns. We are working with them to build confidence in the framework. It is, however, time to move on from a sterile debate about the details of the negotiations in July and consider the real benefits the framework offers - the stakes are too high to get it wrong.

Geoffrey Copland is chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster.

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