In the free-for-all of local pay talks, nobody wins

November 23, 2007

Trading national for local salary negotiations leads to more disputes and inequality, not less, says Sally Hunt. In 1997, the Dearing report said: "Central pay bargaining is under strain, as many institutions feel the need to take decisions in relation to their own circumstances rather than collectively." Ten years on, and reports of the death of national bargaining, like that of Mark Twain, continue to be exaggerated.

The University and College Union's decision last week to sign up to proposed new bargaining arrangements, subject to safeguards similar to those that schoolteachers enjoy to represent members' distinct interests, further strengthens the case for national bargaining. It is undeniably a watershed moment.

Now it is time to move on. Time to take a step outside age-old inter-union rivalries and the "mine's bigger or better than yours" culture encouraged by a small number of vice-chancellors. It is time for the sector to unite. Does anyone really believe that the challenges facing higher education are better met through a fragmented approach?

The UCU's commitment to national bargaining is as much pragmatic as it is ideological. National bargaining provides the most efficient way to agree pay and conditions across our diverse sector. The alternative is a local free-for-all with more local disputes, more local inequalities and more unnecessary "keep up with the Joneses"-style pay leapfrogging. The break- up of national bargaining would create much less stability in the academic labour market, which does absolutely nothing for our country's future wellbeing.

Local bargaining will further divide the sector when we need to work together to do better by those who work in higher education. I would like to invite vice-chancellors and principals to work with us through the new national bargaining arrangements to address five key issues.

- Pay. It was interesting to see employers waxing lyrical about the recent salary increases delivered to university staff. These were achieved because of the industrial action that staff were forced to undertake last year to drag employers back to the table. We hope the pride employers showed in decent rises in pay will be evident in future talks.

- Job security. As reported in today's Times Higher , the UCU's Fixed Term: The Scandal Continues report reveals that less than 4 per cent of newly advertised research posts are permanent. This is despite guidance agreed in 2002 between the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and the trade unions saying that "indefinite contracts should be the normal form of employment" for staff.

It is time universities stopped treating the next generation of academics as a cheap, contingent form of labour, and it is time for unions and employers to demand that funding bodies make decent pay and job security for staff a condition of public funding. That only the hotel and catering sector employs more staff on temporary contracts remains a blight on our sector.

- Equality. Why, four years after the framework agreement, are staff in many institutions still waiting to see the implementation of equal pay audits? Universities must stop seeing national agreements as an alibi against equal pay claims and start implementing open and transparent procedures in which all staff can be confident. This means equality, not uniformity, and an equal pay audit is the place to start the process.

- Pensions. Our members view pensions as deferred pay. For many, generous benefits have offered compensation against comparatively low salaries. The UCU wants decent pensions for all staff, including those starting their careers now, and we think it is in employers' interest to provide these. Ultimatums and scare tactics about the future of pension funds will not win over university staff; respectful negotiations with their union might.

- Finally, industrial relations. The Times Higher reported last month that vice-chancellors were increasingly flirting with an 1980s-style union- busting approach. Aggressive management and bad employment practices have no place in higher education, and the legacy left at local level when advice from union-busting legal firms is put into practice stays with us long after the lawyers have moved on.

So that is the challenge. Last week, the UCU moved forward to meet the employers. We hope they respond in kind so that together we can tackle these five problems. The new era will be shaped by forces at least partly external to the sector, such as the research assessment exercise and its funding regime, globalisation and, of course, international competition.

Meeting these challenges requires unity, not division. The UCU looks forward to working with all who share our agenda of a better deal for the sector's greatest asset: its people.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.

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