STORM clouds are gathering over universities as lecturers fight to defend jobs and pay.
Delegates at last week's Association of University Teachers council meeting in Scarborough passed an emergency motion setting up a fighting fund and approving a national demonstration against redundancy on June 4. The national executive was instructed to investigate all forms of industrial action against job losses.
The delegates also passed motions threatening industrial action if the Government refuses to act on funding and if there is no acceptable pay settlement for 1998/99. Failure to introduce a statutory pay review body for all higher education academics and related staff will greatly increase the likelihood of industrial action.
The warm welcome extended to the new Labour government was cooling almost as quickly as the weather outside Scarborough's seafront Spa Conference Complex. A cold North Sea haar blanketed the town as delegates inside the hall voted on motions condemning possible job losses and restructuring at Brunel, Nottingham, University of Wales Swansea, Bristol, Lancaster, Glasgow and Exeter.
General secretary David Triesman told council: "Let us have no illusion. On the last government's plan, between now and 1999/2000, the cuts will inflict a further 11.5 per cent damage at today's prices. The new chancellor is committed to sustaining that bankrupt programme.
"But I say we will not take those cuts and the Government must know that. We are forward-looking, we will fight for higher education. We do not seek industrial conflict but we will never be cowardly if we know it is necessary."
Mr Triesman was joined by several delegates in attacking the "crudely simplistic" approach taken by university managers in the face of funding cuts. Delegates passed a motion condemning those senior managers who had resorted to "victimisation, threatened redundancies or placed individuals under pressure to take early retirement". The motion called on managers to drop compulsory redundancy plans.
Managers were also accused of using the "red herring" of research assessment exercise ratings as justification for axing individuals and departments. The executive was mandated to organise a campaign against the use of the RAE as a means of assessing individual or departmental worth.
Delegates voted to disband the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, set up by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to conduct national pay bargaining. The UCEA had handled recent pay negotiations with "spectacular obstructiveness", according to a Glasgow University motion.
There was further condemnation for the "centralising, bureaucratic tendencies" of the Teacher Training Agency and for the policy of reducing the role played by universities in initial teacher training.
Women members secured a greater commitment to combatting harassment and promoting equal opportunities. Council carried a motion calling on employers to conduct gender pay audits to ensure that women are not concentrated at the bottom of the pay ladder. AUT branches were also urged to negotiate comprehensive harassment policies and to secure improvements for members with onerous domestic responsibilities.
Union unity offered delegates most hope. The merger between the AUT and Association of University and College Lecturers was approved and delegates voted to progress talks with Natfhe with a view to a joint union conference this winter. Mr Triesman warned that no one would take higher education unions seriously if they remained split by "antique rivalries". He called for them to unite as a single professional organisation.