High time for co-operation

In a turbulent year, says Bill Wakeham, academic unions should join forces with institutions to survive the downturn

January 8, 2009

I am writing this as we face a new year that follows a turbulent 2008 for the world economy. The full consequences of these dramatic events for higher education probably still lie ahead, and it is likely that our financial difficulties will escalate in the next few years. Whatever else, these events add to the uncertainties we face as borrowing becomes more difficult, even if it is cheaper.

Of course, the sector is facing its own specific uncertainties. These include the March funding announcement that stems from the 2008 research assessment exercise and the unpredictability of government resources for teaching and science. The effect of the downturn on the flow of overseas students remains unpredictable. Similarly, at this stage we can only estimate future pension costs. In these conditions, institutions must behave prudently if they are to safeguard students' education and our ability to deliver acclaimed research.

It is therefore almost impossible to comprehend the threatened behaviour of the University and College Union (UCU), whose membership accounts for about a third of academic and academic-related staff. As chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea), I received the UCU's 2009 pay claim on 8 December 2008; a headline bid of "RPI +5 per cent or 8 per cent, whichever is the greater" to be paid from August 2009. This came with a warning of "further appropriate measures to pursue the claim" should a January meeting be declined, despite the fact that the UCU has signed an agreement that runs until July 2009.

The 2006-09 pay agreement contained expectations of both employers and the unions. Employers undertook to enhance the national pay spine in each of three years to July 2009 - they honoured and delivered each element of that enhancement. National pay for all staff has increased by more than 15 per cent since August 2006; 8 per cent has been delivered in the past year alone. These increases have further stretched the limits of affordability for institutions.

As a result of incremental pay scales and promotions, higher education staff have enjoyed some of the best pay increases across both public services and the private sector: in excess of 35 per cent since 2001. This comes with a pay framework agreement that has delivered many advantages to staff and institutions along with a more modern human resources framework. In response, all higher education unions, except the UCU, have delivered on their side of the 2006 agreement. They have agreed a new negotiating framework (New JNCHES) around a single table, with a timetable for discussions beginning in March 2009, when institutions will have a better idea of funding.

Employers have appreciated the constructive engagement with colleagues from Unison, Unite, GMB and EIS, who represent the support and academic staff who make up at least 55 per cent of our workforce. All the unions, without exception, engaged in the preparation of the joint Higher Education Finance and Pay Data Review that was a further part of the 2006 agreement and undertook to sign up to its content. The review's remit was that it should inform the subsequent negotiations on the national pay spine.

It seems perverse that the UCU has formulated a pay claim without reference to the review. Perhaps it is concerned that its findings would undermine an excessive pay claim. The UCU's inability to deliver on key components of the 2006-09 pay agreement and its reluctance to employ the results of the review are a grave source of worry to me.

At this difficult time, we need to work closely with our staff to build a strong future, balancing the need for properly rewarded staff with the financial stability of our institutions. The entire sector has expressed its preference for national pay bargaining to assist that process and all have signed up to the current arrangements - except the UCU.

Nevertheless, the door remains open for the UCU to accompany employers and other unions to discuss its predicament in relation to national bargaining through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, and to engage in national negotiations when they begin in March - once all other pay claims have been formulated. I urge the UCU to join us in this endeavour for the sake of staff and students and for the viability of the institutions in which they work and learn.

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