Cleaner way to a brighter future

May 23, 1997

David Blunkett has been inundated with open letters but I have not seen a single mention of clerical and support staff.

When staffing was mentioned it was fairly clear it meant academic and research staff. So, David - I gather I may call you David - congratulations on your appointment. Thousands of further and higher education support staff wish you all the best. We know you are committed to education.

Achieving high office in the field presents enormous challenges which we are sure you will meet with your usual combination of humanity and determination. Non-teaching staff have put up with a lot over the years - being invisible was the worst aspect, being paid poverty wages another. You can do something about both.

First, please do not let all your academic advisers forget about us. Staff in cleaning, security, maintenance, libraries, computer centres, and catering simply want to be recognised as an important part of education and not just listed in the expenditure sheet as a liability. Listening to us might even help to use resources more effectively.

We think it is more cost-effective to employ support staff in some jobs rather than expect academics to perform clerical and administrative functions which take them away from teaching or research. The expansion of workloads in universities has not necessarily meant a sensible distribution of that workload. Constant tinkering with the research assessment exercise, quality control and other bureaucratic nightmares has tied up academic and support time without improving a single student's education.

The pursuit of efficiency, which we all support, has been subordinated to the wholesale adoption of deregulated business practices - upfront presentation and decaying infrastructure. Wasteful competition has replaced co-operation.

If these issues could be addressed it will help to turn the tide towards a more positive outlook. Support staff share the fears of all in universities and colleges about job insecurity, lack of career structure and disempowerment. A lot of support staff jobs could continue to be privatised through the private finance initiative.

Universities and the taxpayer will take on long-term liabilities, sometimes between 30 and 60 years, in return for initial pump-priming, and some colleges are accepting joint responsibility with a private company for maintenance and security.

Build now, pay later means the children and grandchildren of our current students will take on the mortgage but will not necessarily end up with ownership or even security of tenure.

Your department will also be overseeing the introduction of the statutory national minimum wage. This will help thousands of support staff. An hourly rate of Pounds 4.26 will help to lift the low paid out of the poverty trap and put good employers on a secure footing because the bad employer will not be able to undercut them. Up to a quarter of Britain's male manual workers work for more than 48 hours a week. A minimum wage would mean workers could spend more time with their families.

Support staff worked hard throughout the last government to achieve a mass higher education system and a lower cost ratio. They will work just as hard to ensure that universities and colleges succeed under your Government. The big difference is that your aims and values should encourage university employers to enter into genuine dialogue with us particularly at local level where consultation is at a minimum. Fair pay and recognition - that is what support staff want from you. We look forward to working with you "in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect".

Rita Donaghy is permanentsecretary of the Institute ofEducation Students' Union, and a member of the nationalexecutive of UNISON, of the TUC General Council, and the European TUC executive.

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