Going private on a public matter

August 30, 1996

One of the fundamental planks in Government policy has been that increases in real incomes have to be earned. Gone are the days when there would be an inexorable rise in living standards, regardless of the efforts of those in work, generated by Britain's success as a trading nation in a rapidly developing world. Productivity is the name of the game - only greater effort brings bigger rewards.

Another prominent line of argument has been that salary rises are necessary only when there are recruitment difficulties in a particular area. There is no need, it is said (at least in the public sector), to pay higher salaries on comparability grounds if there are no problems in finding suitable employees at current wage levels.

Given these two principles, it is illuminating to compare the present treatment of two professional groups, university teachers and members of parliament. I have no objection in principle to the salary rises MPs have received: I believe that in general they do a difficult job pretty well. But it is impossible to demonstrate that they meet the second of the two criteria noted above, as there is no shortage of qualified applicants to be parliamentary candidates. It is almost as difficult to demonstrate the first, namely a substantial increase in productivity, if by that we mean more and better legislation which improves society.

University staff, however, cannot be offered reasonable salary increases this year despite the truly massive productivity gains they have achieved. For example, the enormous deterioration in student:staff ratios - we now have departments approaching 30:1 - nor the very substantial increases in research income achieved. University staff have delivered.

Then there is the difficulty of recruiting excellent young academics, particularly in readily marketable disciplines. In short, university teachers not only meet the one criterion considered by MPs - that their salaries had fallen behind other comparable groups - but also the two overall criteria deemed relevant for pay rises in general. Universities have delivered - but the rewards ostensibly deemed appropriate are denied to those responsible for the achievement.

One solution much discussed is a pay review body analogous to that used elsewhere in the public sector. MPs, after all, benefitted from just such a mechanism. They, however, had one great advantage - the power immediately to vote the funds to implement its recommendations. For universities, a pay review body without the guarantee of funding to implement what it suggested would clearly not resolve the underlying problem, that of inadequate resources.

Here is our fundamental dilemma. If universities act as public sector bodies, their funding will be set by government in direct competition with all other claims for taxpayers' money. Political choices will prevail - and universities simply do not get to the top of the agenda often enough or for long enough to win.

But if we are private bodies (as higher education minister Eric Forth reminds us when he seeks to wash his hands of responsibility for this year's inadequate pay offer), then is it any longer credible to rely on the state to act fairly towards its universities? Either the next government has to grasp the nettle as, for example, outlined by Tom Husband in the THES (August 16), or we shall have no alternative but to charge those who can afford to pay for our services, not least so that the question of salaries can at last be addressed.

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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