THE NEW review committee on higher education pay has the opportunity to initiate the most significant and radical changes in pay and conditions bargaining for those employed in higher education for generations.
I want to see the chance offered by the Dearing report and the recent upsurge of feeling on campuses, which crossed from porters to professors, grasped with both hands.
It should see the breaking down of barriers between blue and white collar workers, men and women, new and old universities, part-timers and full-timers, temporary and permanent workers.
It should be informed by a commitment to deliver the best quality education to our students and thus the future economy of the United Kingdom. But universities and colleges as employers should in turn be committed to high-quality treatment of their workers because how you treat employees is crucial to the quality of service provided.
The tide of history is flowing strongly in this direction with employers recognising that they must give women equal opportunities or risk litigation. Likewise, single-status employment abolishing the outdated distinctions between manual and non-manual workers and embodied through common grading structures and single-table bargaining is now sweeping through industry.
As one involved in the historic agreement bringing 1.5 million local government workers into single status, I can testify to the hard and detailed work required in its preparation and to the euphoria of both employers and unions when it was achieved - both sides feeling that they had made important progress.
Underfunding and the huge expansion in student numbers have left both academic and non-academic staff feeling stressed, beleaguered and demoralised.
But support staff - the gardeners, cleaners, clerical and administrative, security, catering and portering staff - have the most reason to complain. While they are critical to the running of higher education institutions, they are often ignored, even, alas, by the headline on the story "Lecturers' Pay Team to Meet" (THES, February 20). Hence the title of the Transport and General Workers Union's submission to Dearing (The Forgotten Army - Support Staff in Universities and Colleges). At the last count there were 21,300 manual and ancillary workers in the old universities and 10,900 in colleges and new universities. The vast majority were on the lowest grade, (13,600 and 7,200 respectively), receiving the princely sum of Pounds 3.77 per hour in the old universities and about 30 pence more in the new.
I am not asking that these underpaid and undervalued workers match the salaries of the 75 vice-chancellors now scraping by on Pounds 100,000 plus per year - but clearly we must see the end of the scandal of low pay in our universities. We should not forget that clerical and administrative staff rates begin at Pounds 7,649 per year.
Equally important and ironic is the lack of training available to most support staff. Institutions which exist to teach are not giving their own employees a chance to learn. With other unions such as the GMB and Unison we want to usher in the era of the well-paid, well-trained university worker enjoying single status and equality with no barriers to career advancement, working flexibly to provide a highquality service. It needs to be both vocational training and "personal self-development" non-vocational training.
Let us not forget that while pursuing the drive for equality of treatment there will have to be positive action to end discrimination against women, the ethnic minorities and those with disabilities. While we look for harmonisation across divides like the "old" and "new" universities, we also look for one pension fund for all higher education staff. Dearing appeared to have neglected this area and that of staff development.
This ambitious but necessary programme requires strengthened national-level bargaining to give it shape and purpose. Weakening that structure would leave the whole process at the mercy of a hundred cross-currents, with wreckage inevitable.
But with imagination and courage from both unions and employers the opportunity is there to chart a determined course, giving proper treatment to university and college workers and high-quality education to future generations of students.
That way we would be able to say to our members that whether you hold a seminar or a mop, take minutes or tutorials, push a broom or a pen, you will enjoy equal treatment in the brave new world of higher education.
Chris Kaufman is Transport and General Workers Union national officer for public services and a member of the review committee on higher education pay.