For sale: a profitable academic industry

November 8, 1996

As balloting takes place in every university in a powerful display of unity against the latest pay offer, the celebrations of The THES quarter-century allowed me a peak into the past.

From 1973 to 1989 I chaired the clerical and related union negotiations on pay and for most of that time led the joint union team representing all support staff including manual and technical. During that period, eight secretaries of state and seven ministers of higher education tried to cut through the jungle of the educational acronym.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that three of them changed political parties and four left politics all together. The annual pay round with vice chancellors saw rates of inflation varying from 3 per cent to 26 per cent.

In 1975 what was regarded as a Pounds 6 pay limit for academics represented the biggest pay rise support staff had ever seen. In 1977 - the year of "Rectify the Anomaly" - apparently a THES survey found that two-thirds of academics considered their pay was adequate! As I was on the lower rungs of the academic-related staffs at the time I could make an educated guess about the survey's conclusions.

Pay is seen as a package, and issues such as career structure, job security and occupational pensions are vital parts of that package. Possibly academics were prepared to accept their pay levels in 1977 because all the other parts of the package were still intact. Tenure and stability were crucial factors. It would be fascinating if The THES considered doing a survey, 20 years on, about the adequacy of university pay. Hopefully it would cover all staff. I suspect that change in attitude would be dramatic. The year 1980 saw the long overdue hike in academic pay by the Clegg commission. By the time they got round to support staff it had become the Wood commission. After the 20 per cent staff cuts in 1980 and the abolition of tenure for new staff in 1988 the picture changed completely.

Short-term contracts and privatisation lowered the pay of both academic and support staff. The only exception to this trend was the pay rise awarded to the heads of universities. The move to a mass higher education system was achieved as smoothly as it was by the dedication of university staff, paid for by imposing a lower standard of living on them.

In London, which represents one-fifth of the system, there has been no increase in London weighting since July 1992. This is extremely prejudicial for support staff as London weighting represents a very significant percentage of their salary - for some manual and clerical staff up to 25 per cent of their income. As a result of the freeze in London weighting support staff there have become a shifting population, which does nothing to improve the quality of service or the efficiency of London colleges. The Government has claimed that pay rises should not be automatic, but should depend on productivity, performance and the contribution to the economy.

By any objective assessment, university staff deserve a huge pay rise. Would Government ministers qualify if judged by the same criteria? University staff should not have to demonstrate their worth in accountancy terms. However, our annual report could read "university staff have increased their productivity by 50 per cent in five years. At the same time they have reduced their unit of resource costs, turned out an internationally recognised quality product and boosted the local communities' revenue by hundreds of millions." My fear is that we are such an asset they will sell us off.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education students' union, a member of the TUC General Council and of the national executive of Unison.

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