Don's Diary

October 2, 1998


Home in London at 12.30am. Two down, two to go. Reaching half-time of the party political conference marathon is semi-bliss. Last night's joint higher education unions fringe meeting at the LibDems in Brighton ended controversially with Phil Willis (LibDem education spokesperson) defending his suggestion that noone with less than three Cs at A level should be given a university place.

Several delegates expressed a more general unhappiness with universities - the education experience is not what it was, degree standards have fallen etc - but Phil explained that the reason is the 40 per cent cut in funding in the past decade, coupled with a doubling of student numbers.


Today is a break from the conference funfair. Chris Banister, the new president of the Association of University Teachers, chairs his first executive meeting, where discussion centres on how to put the case for higher pay for academics to backbench MPs. Our target date for a parliamentary meeting is October 21. In four months' time the report of the Bett independent review committee on pay is due so MPs need to understand the issues in advance.


Back to preparations for the Conservatives in Bournemouth, where our joint fringe will see Andrew Pakes, president of the National Union of Students on stage with the Tory education spokesperson, Damien Green MP. Not the most common sight in recent years.


The afternoon train to Blackpool bearing New Labour ministers catches fire. I'm lucky: my train follows but is just ordinarily late. The Italian firework display near the north pier, part of an international competition, means the town is packed. I miss the bangs and soaring sparkles but hit the traffic jam.


Up early for the next fringe notice distribution stint. Talking to delegates about the new-style conference there is confusion and cynicism. Once elections to the national executive committee have secured places for members of the "awkward squad" there is a sense of relief that the controlling powers of Millbank party headquarters can still be challenged.

Debate at conference is to cover just four issues. For the rest, it is speeches or report rubber-stamping.

Gordon Brown tells conference that Labour will "back our scientists" and put "Pounds 1 billion into science and its commercialisation so what is invented in Britain will be manufactured in Britain too". Mild applause.

Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe puts in a plug for public sector pay, decrying the chancellor's move to claw back money from low-paid health workers by staging their pay offer. Thunderous applause. Public sector pay is not off the agenda yet.


With 45 per cent of lecturers and researchers on temporary contracts, the higher education unions are sharing a fringe meeting on casualisation. It clashes, as all fringes do, with Labour students, who have education secretary David Blunkett and AUT general secretary David Triesman as speakers. They are meeting in a church, and the unions are in the famous Tower ballroom of Come Dancing fame. By next Tuesday it will all be over - until next year.

David Melhuish

Parliamentary liaison officer for the Association of University Teachers

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