Employers are in disarray and staff would get a better deal if they were unified, argues David Triesman.
For an energetic advocate of national bargaining in higher education, it is painful to acknowledge the parlous state it is in. There are times - this is one - when it is essential to face facts, ponder options. Some argue that even to analyse this crisis is to hasten it. I fear the opposite. Unions are too prone to wish problems would evaporate. Making no contingency plans, they are criticised fairly for failing to anticipate what seems so obvious as a crisis matures.
Debating a problem does not create it. Attacking those who acknowledge the problem is just the old habit of shooting the messenger.
What are the facts about "national bargaining" in higher education? It is a long time since it occurred. All higher education unions make careful claims, usually based on pay levels for equivalent jobs in the economy, equality and security issues, workload and the need for serious staff development expenditure. The University and College Employers' Association (UCEA) canvasses its members ("subscribers"), asking what they say they can afford, and after some patronising dramatics, offers that sum as the final settlement. When unions reject the figure, it is imposed unilaterally and there is a rigid refusal to discuss other issues.
Year after year, the offer is at the top of the bottom quartile of what institutions can afford. The three-quarters of employers with greater capacity use the money in personal deals with staff they favour for good or bad reasons. In this private pay distribution lie the seeds from which such a healthy crop of discrimination has grown.
Nor has bargaining on the Bett report on new industrial relations and pay brought improvements. Nothing has happened for 18 months. Not one proposition has emerged from the UCEA. Indeed, the Trades Union Congress, coordinating the staff unions, received no response whatever to detailed proposals last September. There have been sensible calls for progress and compromise from the former Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Standing Conference of Principals, stirring great regret in me that we do not deal with them on national issues.
From the UCEA, nothing. Not even a recognition that there is a dispute with unions. No credible response to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Their website has not ticked over since July. Their only news is of the imminent departure of their chief executive.
It would be more surprising if groups of vice-chancellors were not questioning the value of their subscription and whether to form new groupings. Many privately suggest that on Bett, pay and limited national bargaining on conditions of service, their authority has unaccountably slipped. Consequently, I find it harder to understand why vice-chancellors relinquish control over 60-plus per cent of their budget to the UCEA, especially when it shows so little sign of life.
But things are changing. We did not cause this, but we cannot ignore it. I believe we will make no progress by trying to revive the UCEA. Education secretary David Blunkett appears to have recognised the realities by giving the funding councils authority to deal with the additional pay element in the comprehensive spending review.
The unions must respond realistically but imaginatively. For the fourth year running, the Association of University Teachers has suggested that the academic and related staff form a single union side. They are distinct - recruited in national and international, never local, labour markets and needing at least a first degree. Of course, such a group would co-operate closely with staff in other groups because, while pay determination is the most vital matter, it is not the only one.
I have long been clear that academic and related staff would do better in independent pay review. Nobody in such a scheme gets landed with lower quartile pay settlements, that is for sure. But a unified professional staff side is more urgent, a group capable of dealing with whatever emerges from the rubble of the UCEA. And this is where we must be realists. A union colleague described the UCEA as "the only game in town". It is not. There are better alternatives in Universities UK and Scop. For the UCEA, the final whistle surely blew some time ago when it failed to respond to a single short or long-term issue, doing higher education no favours at all. Fortunately, there are better games in town, but we will only find them by studying the map.
David Triesman is general secretary, Association of University Teachers.
* Do we need an alternative to UCEA? Email firstname.lastname@example.org