Flexing muscles will not improve the figure

January 20, 2006

The unions' move to a ballot over industrial action in their quest for better pay is premature, writes Ucea chair Geoffrey Copland

Vice-chancellors have been left disappointed and disillusioned by the decision last week by the academic unions to proceed with ballots on industrial action. The sector could now be dragged into an unnecessary dispute without any opportunity for serious negotiation.

It seems there is nothing that employer representatives might reasonably have said - short of committing universities and colleges to a much increased last-minute pay claim that they had not even seen - to avoid the Association of University Teachers and the lecturers' union Natfhe activating their plans for industrial action.

In October 2005, the academic unions submitted their original pay claim for 2006. They sought an undertaking that each higher education institution would spend on improvements in staff pay and conditions a minimum of one third of the extra income expected in 2006-07 from tuition fees in England and funding council grants in Scotland and Wales.

Based on their understanding of a Government statement, the unions sought to elevate this to a "commitment" that in fact had never been given by universities - collectively or individually.

The employers replied on October 25 that there would be substantial additional spending on staff pay and conditions. We also pointed out that there would be considerable variations between institutions in the amount of additional tuition-fee income because of big differences in the proportions of students liable for the higher fees, and reminded the unions of different circumstances in Wales and Scotland. But we agreed to meet to discuss the implications of their claim.

The academic unions declined an initial meeting in November, refused to include the four support-staff unions in the negotiations and now, somewhat disingenuously, say that we did not respond to their October claim and refused to discuss it with them until last week.

In the interim, the AUT formally declared an industrial dispute on December 6, and on January 4 formally notified vice-chancellors of a ballot on industrial action. This raised some doubts about their commitment to serious negotiations. But more was to come.

On the evening of January 9, the academic unions submitted a paper aptly entitled: "Enlargement of October claim." This effectively replaced their original claim. It seeks pay rises of at least 20 per cent for all academic staff over three years, plus a further 13 per cent over four years for the 60 per cent of academic staff in higher grades. This would cost more than half of all the extra income that institutions project for 2008-09.

In "negotiations" over the following days, the employers' representatives expressed their unhappiness about the way the unions were proceeding but nonetheless offered to consult universities and colleges about the new claim and to include positive comments, subject to affordability, on "catch-up and keep-up" and the idea of a multi-year settlement. We offered to return in a month for serious negotiations, provided the ballots for industrial action were put on ice. The unions welcomed our response but decided to go ahead with their ballots anyway.

The cynical among us have the impression that the academic unions are determined to flex their industrial muscles in advance of their much-publicised merger.

Last week, the AUT stated that "Ithe unions reluctantly ballot their members over industrial action". Yet they issued formal notification of a strike ballot in advance of submitting their new claim and before negotiations of any sort. This rush to create dispute and cause disruption is a strange way of portraying reluctance.

The employers are pleased that the sector is projecting a significant increase in income for 2008-09. Much of that will relate to new activity and be matched by new spending; the forecast 11 per cent increase in student numbers will mean more research and more consultancy.

There will also be substantial new spending on student bursaries, extra staff to tackle workload problems, bigger employer contributions to pension schemes and the implementation of a new pay framework (which the unions agree is raising average salaries).

Beyond that there will be money for pay increases in 2006 and later years.

But we need serious negotiations on what is really affordable - for the sector as a whole and for those institutions that are likely to receive little extra from higher tuition fees.J The only positive outcome from January 10 came from our constructive discussions with support-staff unions - which intend to submit their claim on the normal timetable and remain committed to positive negotiation. We have assured them that employers have no intention of reaching a separate agreement with the academic unions.

The AUT and Natfhe recognise that the only real victims of this avoidable dispute will be the students. But they declare a commitment to campaign for as much disruption as possible. JFor our part, the employers believe an agreement can be reached through serious negotiations. But the ball is firmly in the academic unions' court to engage in dialogue not a dispute.

Geoffrey Copland is chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association.

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