Comrades, we are on your side

November 15, 2002

A union campaign to name and shame 'fat-cat' London v-cs is misdirected and dangerous, writes Deian Hopkin.

Industrial relations in higher education is an odd business, especially where money is concerned. In most industries, where the employer controls the price of goods, it is clear who has the keys to the proverbial safe and who should be persuaded to open it.

But vice-chancellors are in a different position. If we want to increase pay or London weighting, we can do so only if our funders provide more money or if we change the level of services or the quality of facilities we offer. But, as we all know, we need to spend more, not less, on our services and facilities.

One answer is to deregulate fees and move to local bargaining, giving universities greater freedom to raise and spend additional income. I am opposed to this on principle. The casualties of increased fees will be the very students most in need, and any policy for extending opportunity to excluded groups and individuals would be undermined.

This is why I have been publicly criticising recent well-intentioned campaigns, largely led by the Association of University Teachers, in support of increased university funding, which, in my view, are misdirected and potentially dangerous.

Take the impasse over London weighting. I can assure you that, in general, London vice-chancellors do not get a lavish London weighting. The most recent data show that the median salary for vice-chancellors is lower in London than in the UK as a whole. But will people believe that we are not all fat cats being driven around in stretch limousines?

The real problem with London weighting is that meeting the unions' claim for £4,000 is just too expensive without substantial increases from funders. Even institutions such as mine, which has been increasing London weighting in line with salary rises, would have to find a crippling £2.1 million extra. Many institutions have been appointing academic staff, where they can, on higher points on the scale - certainly professorial salaries tend be higher in London for this reason. But that is no help to low-paid manual staff, who tend to be on flat rates and are exposed more than anyone to the full impact of London's housing costs. Among these workers there is a 60 per cent turnover.

No one is denying that London is an expensive place to live. However, there is an argument that increasing London weighting, without intervention on the supply side of housing will fuel further price rises. We should concentrate instead on how to increase the availability of affordable houses.

In any case, the boundaries for such things as London weighting or congestion charges always throw up anomalies. I can't imagine that those who are trying to live in many other parts of the Southeast, often just as expensive as London, aren't just a little fed up that they are excluded from the present debate.

As someone who has spent his adult life studying and participating in Labour and trade-union politics, I think it is regrettable that we appear to be moving to the trench-warfare version of industrial relations where each side settles down to a war of attrition.

In the meantime, I would urge some of my trade union colleagues at least to try to aim at the right target. Let us avoid replacing facts with propaganda. Caricaturing vice-chancellors may be a legitimate spectator sport but it is, in the present situation, pretty pointless. Let us join together, instead, to try to lever more resources for the sector. That will be a tough enough game in itself but one we will have to win if the social and political agenda for widening participation has any chance of success.

So, Sally Hunt, I am not trying to shoot any messengers, it is just that I don't agree with the way the message is being delivered and I don't want the price of the stamp to be increased any more.

Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of South Bank University London.

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