Goodwill eroded by public pay sacrifices

July 31, 1998

It will take some time to assess the impact of government spending plans for universities. Is it all smoke and mirrors or a push towards real change?

Universities are not thought to be a priority compared with nurseries or further education - that is clear. In a recent ministerial speech, taxpayers' spending on individual university towns was emphasised and a clear quid pro quo expected in terms of support for the local community and responding to the "real" needs of society.

The underlying current of the speech was that universities had to prove themselves and to justify what the minister regarded as the enormous investment being made in higher education.

Couple that with the government's priorities on lifelong learning, and it points to reform within existing spending limits rather than an injection of new cash. No one can disagree that barriers to lifelong learning for under-represented groups should be removed. It is no coincidence that the groups that have been let down by the education system also appear in the bottom 10 per cent of the earnings league - the young, the unskilled, the part-time workers.

It is unlikely that higher education will be their first point of call, however. Not unless universities turn themselves inside-out, as proposed by the national council of the Training and Enterprise Council. It proposes customised learning programmes and franchise degrees in local communities as well as breaking down institutional ivory towers. If that is where the Brownie points are to be earned in future, it will change staff conditions, and, ultimately, pay, toward a further education model.

How will that affect the proposal for a pay review body for university staff? It is ironic that after years of campaigning for such a body, the established pay-review bodies are being transformed back into virtual negotiating bodies accountable to individual government spending departments.

From the trade union point of view, the strength of a pay-review body lay in its independence from government (a bit undermined by recent decisions to stage recommended awards). Skills and professionalism were supposed to be rewarded by objective assessment rather than by the hurly-burly of collective bargaining.

The new-look pay-review bodies will have as their watchwords "affordability" and the government's 2.5 per cent inflation target. It is hard to see how a university pay-review body will be any different, or how it will improve things, if settlements continue to be below the rate of inflation, staged or both.

Although any real increase in education spending should be welcomed, even if universities are not on the priority list, it is difficult to escape from the thought that, as public-service workers, we are being asked to pay for the governments' priorities by sacrificing pay and conditions. While pay rises in the private sector and boardroom bonuses put pressure on the inflation rate, according to the Bank of England, public-sector increases are settling into pre-Clegg levels.

There is mounting anger at the unfairness of it all and few reassurances from government. Apart from exhorting the private sector and the City to behave responsibly, the government has no control over those areas. At the same time, the grip on public-service spending is vice-like.

One wonders how long it will take for hope to turn to cynicism. Fund-raising and marketing skills will not be sufficient to keep a university alive. There is still enormous goodwill in the education world for the Labour government but magician Gordon Brown cannot just conjure up more smoke and mirrors and expect us to applaud him.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education students' union, and a member of the national executive of Unison, the TUC general council, and the European TUC Executive.

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