Ministers could soon have a disaster on their hands if they do not address the parlous state of academia, warns Phil Willis.
When Baroness Blackstone took office in 1997 she described higher education as "somewhere between a shambles and a crisis". She was right. Unfortunately, two and a half years later, too many issues remain unresolved.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Sir Michael Bett's meticulous report into higher education pay and conditions. The report is damning in its conclusions on equal opportunities and academic salaries. Yet six months after publication neither the government nor the employers have addressed Bett's recommendations seriously.
Surely we should expect our higher education institutions to be setting an example in the field of equal opportunities? Yet male domination remains widespread, especially at the highest levels.
Women routinely receive an average of Pounds 4,000 per annum less than men. Only 25 per cent of senior staff and 35 per cent of academic staff are women, although they make up 51 per cent of the workforce. And women are twice as likely to find themselves on a fixed-term contract.
Bett identified structural causes for the difficulty and a general academic complacency. Addressing this failure means tackling the issue of pay. There is a pay crisis in our universities. Since 1981 academic salaries have fallen considerably behind those of comparable professions. The effect is to threaten the future expansion of higher education and to leave universities struggling to attract quality staff.
The lobby group Save British Science recently reported that 75 per cent of our universities experience difficulty in recruiting academic staff and 95 per cent have difficulty retaining them. Increasingly universities have to rely on overseas applicants to fill vital academic posts, while recruiting UK PhD research students in some subjects is almost impossible.
How can we hope to attract the best graduates into university research and teaching when law firms offer graduate starting salaries of Pounds 25,000, banks Pounds 30,000, but universities only Pounds 16,000 - after three or four years' extra study to acquire a PhD?
Bett concluded that without substantial additional government funding, "meeting the costs of the needed reforms would raise serious doubts about the sector's capacity to sustain, let alone improve, the quality of teaching and research and put plans for widening access to higher education seriously at risk".
So is the government taking up the challenge of the Bett report? Apparently not - the standard reply appears to be that pay and conditions are simply a matter for university employers. On this the government is wrong. An estimated increase of 2.5 per cent in the sector's overall costs will be needed for institutions to meet their obligations on equal pay and that is likely to give the government as well as the universities a major headache.
Moreover, when politicians and managers ignore monitoring and compliance, the equal opportunities field tends to be left to the lawyers. The charge sheet against one university in a single case (so far) includes three breaches of the regulations on Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value, one breach of the Equal Pay Act and two breaches of the Sex Discrimination Act. More actions of this type must surely follow.
I believe the government should act before it is forced into an ignominious climb down. Universities need an independent pay and review body, along the lines of those for teachers, doctors and nurses, to avoid a looming crisis.
Phil Willis MP is the Liberal Democrat spokesman for education and
Do universities need an independent review body? Email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.