The new chairman of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association seems unfazed by the news that four of the five campus unions have rejected its 0.5 per cent pay offer. The University and College Union, Unite, GMB and EIS have refused to play ball, but Keith Burnett doesn't think this will lead to industrial action of the scale seen in 2006. Pay has improved considerably over the past three years, he said, and the economic climate is very different.
"It's unlikely people will want to enter a dispute at this difficult time. It would be destructive and horrible for the sector," he added.
UCU has asked Ucea to reopen negotiations, but Professor Burnett doesn't think it is "worth going back into direct talks on pay because we have such a clear mandate on the current position".
Under the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) mechanism, each of the four unions must individually invoke dispute procedures, which will then lead to talks facilitated by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Unite is already in Acas- facilitated talks with Ucea, having officially declared a dispute with the employers in the summer.
All five unions wrote to Ucea on 19 October, pointing out that following the JNCHES procedure would be "a long drawn-out means of tackling our differences". The letter asks for "constructive dialogue about a jointly agreed and national approach to job security", and says that the employers themselves introduced the link between pay and job security by suggesting that rises would lead to job cuts.
Professor Burnett gives little sign that Ucea will budge on the job protection issue any more than on pay. "We can't negotiate locally," he said. "Our role is to share best practice. It's not about telling people what to do, but we understand there are concerns across the sector."
At the University of Sheffield, where Professor Burnett has been vice-chancellor since 2007, 320 employees are leaving under a voluntary redundancy scheme - 5 per cent of staff - as part of a bid to plug a £25 million funding gap. But universities are doing their best to avoid redundancies, he said, despite suggestions that some are using the recession to cut jobs in a way that would be difficult to justify in times of prosperity.
"When discussing this, I haven't encountered the 'excuse of the downturn'," he said. "I've heard a lot of 'bloody hell, this is hard'. We are well aware of the quality of our staff and how hard people are working. My personal view is that there isn't a lot of slack in the system. We need to convince the Government and the public of that."