Almost a year into its work, the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, led by Sir Michael Bett, has no fixed finish date. Harriet Swain reports on what it has been doing
It is nearly a year since the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions committee was appointed, and it is finally beginning to draw conclusions.
Some of these have the potential to change radically the way negotiations in the sector are conducted, in effect ending the divide that exists between staff in old and new universities and bringing academic and non-academic staff closer together.
But there is still much to play for. The pay review committee was set up on the recommendation of Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry, which envisaged its reporting last April. Its first deadline of the end of 1998 was pushed forward to spring 1999, and still there is no fixed finish date.
The last scheduled meeting falls at the end of March, and ministers have been told to expect a report sometime towards the end of April, although committee members admit it may stretch into early summer.
As for the value of what has emerged from the regular meetings, which have been held about once every fortnight since last autumn, members are cautious.
"I don't like using words like optimism in these kind of things," says Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and a member of the committee. "Good progress is being made, but we have a bit to go yet."
Chris Kaufman, T&G national officer for public services, said: "It is a very important exercise. I said beforehand that the lack of coherence in the sector needed sorting out, and this is our big opportunity to do it."
But he found it harder to say whether the opportunity would be met. On the whole, he thought it might be.
One of the problems is that the committee, rather than the usual amalgam of experts and independents, includes heavyweight representatives from each of the major "stakeholders" involved.
The Association of University Teachers is even represented by its general secretary, David Triesman, since its original member, Tom Wilson, defected to rival lecturers' union Natfhe.
The other union representatives - Liz Allen from Natfhe, Elaine Harrison also from public-sector union Unison, and Paul Talbot from the Manufacturing, Science, Finance union - are all highly experienced in conducting pay negotiations. Members of the employers' side, represented by vice-chancellors and principals of higher education colleges and new and old universities, have experience on higher education decision-making bodies as well as on their own institutions.
By contrast, most of the independent members were relatively inexperienced about higher education when they started on the committee. This apparently held up initial meetings, as the complicated ins and outs of higher education staffing were painstakingly explained to the likes of Admiral Sir John Kerr, Nigel Horne, special adviser to KPMG and Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council chief executive David Henshaw.
But as their knowledge has grown and differences between unions and employers, between union and union and between different types of university have remained unresolved, the input of the independent members has become increasingly important.
Indeed, the learning experience seems to have gone down well all round. Sir Michael Bett, chairman of the committee, has never hidden his enjoyment of the cut and thrust of industrial relations. And committee members have described the meetings as "stimulating" and "conducted with academic rigour".
They feel such rigour will be vital in arguing for government cash to back up any final conclusions from the committee.
No one believes this will be easy. Originally, the work of the committee was supposed to have been carried out by the Dearing committee itself. A working party, chaired by Labour peer Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, was charged with examining "staff and use of resources".
Officially, they saw quickly that they would not have time to examine the intricacies of pay and conditions and decided to confine themselves to general recommendations on aspects such as equal opportunities and accreditation with a new Institute for Learning and Teaching.
Privately, some members of the committee said that amid all the other calls for resources by Dearing, it was hard to make a case for substantial extra sums for pay when there was no evidence of a recruitment crisis in higher education.
Of course, between the Dearing committee's inception and its final report, the general election brought in a government considered more inclined to be generous to higher education.
An early battle was lost when ministers refused to appoint a chairman to the committee on pay and conditions, agreeing only to "facilitate" the appointment of Sir Michael. This in effect absolved them from any obligation to honour his recommendations.
But frequent talks have taken place with ministers and officials behind the scenes throughout the committee's life, and they have apparently shown themselves "interested" in what is going on.
Mr Triesman for one is not over-hopeful. "Certainly, around our membership I don't get much of a sense of optimism," he said. "If Bett comes out saying a lot needs to change and that that costs money, the government will have to be persuaded to pay it, and I expect there will be a lot of disappointed people. The odds are we will all have to put pressure on for money."
It is also likely that the committee's final report will strive to present its recommendations in terms most likely to extract financial favours - for example making evidence of performance, such as accreditation by the ILT, a condition of more pay. Demands on the cash pot could also be staged to make them more palatable.
While careful to respect institutions' insistence on autonomy, ministers are thought to favour ways of making the sector more coherent. They have already asked for better statistical information from the Higher Education Funding Council for England on aspects such as student retention and use of resources so that decisions on the sector can be better informed.
A strong frontrunner in the Bett committee's current thinking is an overarching body, overseeing core conditions such as sick pay, holiday entitlement, staff development and grievance procedures, uniting all staff involved in higher education. Under this two separate bodies would operate for academic and non-academic staff.
This arrangement would satisfy calls from employers and support staff unions such as Unison and T&G for all staff to be treated under a single system. It would mean the end of the AUT's pay review body hopes, which appear to have attracted little support on the committee.
But the AUT could be mollified by abandoning the idea of a single pay spine, which would be "disastrous", Mr Triesman said. "The pay spine would only move to the degree of the people paid least," he says. "Therefore rather than suffering from what has been very poor pay, we would suffer from bloody disastrous pay."
Mr Triesman also condemns the idea of organising people involved in research and scholarship on the same contract as porters.
The level at which pay is decided remains a key issue, although it is possible it will be negotiated separately by the academic and non-academic bodies, overseen by the overarching "council". This would reduce the number of pay-negotiating bodies from nine to two, but demand closer relations between the unions and a single settlement date, probably April 1.
The committee has commissioned Hay consultants to research job weights and gradings in higher education as a basis for comparing pay levels with those elsewhere in the economy.
It is also looking at job evaluation schemes such as Higher Education Role Analysis, which plot everyone's work along "equal pay for equal value"
lines. Hated by the AUT, disliked by Natfhe, but supported by other unions and many employers, the future of Hera or other such schemes is bound to be controversial.
The possibility remains that it will be up to individual institutions to employ a job evaluation scheme of their choice, obeying guidelines laid down by any new negotiating bodies.
The committee has also commissioned from Hay one of the largest surveys ever to be carried out in the sector, looking at staff numbers, grades and earnings.
This has shown that the worst paid in the sector, compared with other professions, are at highest and lowest grades. It also revealed the extent of casualisation.
Detailed changes to pay and conditions are likely to be hammered out at yet another level by the new negotiating body or bodies. But fewer grades and increments are almost certain in an attempt to streamline the process.
The first thing to be decided will be what happens in this year's pay round. A motion before this week's AUT council threatened industrial action should the pay round suffer delays because of Bett. Natfhe, meanwhile, has submitted an early pay claim to speed post-Bett negotiations.
Whatever and whenever the Bett committee finally reports, one outcome is certain. The sector should never again be as ill-informed about itself as it has been in the past.
Independent members of the committee have apparently been shocked by the lack of coherent data informing decisions. Just a few weeks into chairing the committee, Sir Michael admitted to being overwhelmed by how fragmented higher education was. He had not realised how many differences existed between institutions' missions, staff conditions, full and part-time contracts and training.
If it achieves nothing else, the committee will have at least done something to bring them all together.
MEMBERS OF THE BETT COMMITTEE Sir Michael Bett,first civil servicecommissioner (chair)
Peter Humphreys, chief executive ofthe Universities and Colleges Employers Association
Derek Fraser,vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Teesside
John Rea, principalof the UniversityCollege of St Mark and St John and a member of the council ofmanagement of theStanding Conference of Principals
Richard Shaw,principal and vice-chancellor of theUniversity of Paisley and convenor of the Committee of Scottish Higher EducationPrincipals
Philip Love,vice-chancellor ofLiverpool University and chairman of UCEA
David Triesman,general secretaryof the Association of University Teachers
Liz Allen, nationalofficial for higher education at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education
Elaine Harrison,head of highereducation at public-sector union Unison
Paul Talbot, national officer of theManufacturing, Science, Finance union
Chris Kaufman,T&G national officer for public services
Admiral Sir John Kerr, who served on the Armed Forces Manpower Review and chairs the committee's sub-group on Scotland
Sheila Forbes, chair of governors at Thames Valley University,a non-executivedirector of Lloyds TSB, civil service commissioner and chair ofthe committee's sub-group onclinical academics
Nigel Horne, special adviser to KPMG and chairman of Alcatel UK
David Henshaw,chief executive of Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council
Leif Mills, formergeneral secretary of the Banking Insurance Finance Union The committee has received submissions from more than 180 organisations and individuals, including a third of higher education institutions.