Is there life after Bett?

June 25, 1999

The Bett committee report on pay and conditions has been published. Harriet Swain reports its recommendations

It was never going to be easy to tackle staff pay and conditions in a diverse sector that had undergone radical change without radical increases in funding.

Against this background, Lord Ron Dearing held his committee of inquiry into the future of higher education, which recommended better access for students who did not traditionally attend university, improved teaching and management, support for a world-class science base, and better use of developments in information technology - all of which were likely to demand more staff input. This, said Lord Dearing, was for others to address.

At the same time, the new Labour government, which supported most of Dearing's recommendations, proposed increasing student numbers even further.

So when the independent review committee was set up under Sir Michael Bett last year, it faced not only disgruntled HEstaff, but also a government demanding ever more from the sector.

For this reason, the committee was eager to get the government on board early, hoping it would at least nominate a chairman.

In fact, it eventually agreed only to "facilitate" Sir Michael's appointment and has worked hard to distance itself from the working of the committee ever since.

"Flexibility" and "affordability" in any future pay structure were key messages in the government's submission to the review.

Asked earlier this month in Parliament when the Bett report was due, lifelong learning minister George Mudie said: "The pay and conditions of staff in higher education are a matter for the employersI The review committee will reportI and it will be for the employers and unions to respond to any recommendations."

The committee has a different view. The conclusion to its report states:

"Some of our recommendations have substantial cost implications, and their implementation will require a significant increase in public funding. Early discussions between the national council (a new body to be set up to consider staffing questions), the funding councils and government will therefore be vital."

Even if the committee's recommendations on pay are ignored, says the report, it is unlikely that normal annual pay increases will match inflation, as envisaged by the government, and providing for more non-traditional students will entail extra costs. It warns that without more funding, quality could suffer. It also wants the government to acknowledge its role in improving HE management.

The report calls on the funding councils to set up an initiative to improve people management, and on governing bodies and senior managers to adopt better people strategies, such as regular consultations with staff representatives.

Surprised by the low priority given to training, the committee sees a need for greater investment in the training and development of all groups of staff.

Drawing on surveys that show striking differences in pay between men and women, it identifies "real concerns about whether universities and higher education colleges are fully meeting their statutory obligations to ensure equal pay for work of equal value".

To meet these concerns, it says, every university and college should publish a clear statement of its policies on equal opportunities and what it is trying to do for women and ethnic minorities.

Overall, the committee criticises "a dearth" of regularly collected data about higher education and says this must be corrected.

This is likely to be among the least controversial of its proposals.

Others - particularly proposed changes to pay structures and levels, evaluation and casualisation - are causing heated discussions.

The unusual structure of the committee, which included key representatives from all the major players, made it one of the leakiest higher education bodies as well as one of the hardest to reconcile.

But it has given the sector a set of aims, which should help to direct it through the discussions to follow.

Pay The basic change to pay structure proposed by the Bett committee is to reduce the existing ten pay negotiating groups to a single overarching national council with an independent chairman and two sub-councils, concerned with academic and non-academic staff respectively.

It rejects demands from the Association of University Teachers for a pay review body, from employers and Unison for a single nationally agreed pay spine, and from some universities for pay and conditions to be decided locally, but it concedes that individual institutions should be able to adapt some of the details.

The exact division of duties between the sub-councils is still to be decided, as is the line where national council duties end and sub-council duties begin.

It is clear from the report that the committee was heavily divided over the merits of one pay spine or two. It concludes there should be two, closely linked, with common systems for job evaluation and career routes between them, but that details should be decided by the new councils.

Also still to be decided are new pay-grading structures, which, the committee estimates, could take up to three years to change. It recommends rewards focused on performance rather than length of service, meeting government wishes. But this is against the wishes of the academic unions, which call merit pay divisive.

It also insists on job evaluation and says the Higher Education Role Analysis system, which has been criticised by the academic unions, "seems to be an appropriate tool for the purpose". But it says institutions will have to make up their own minds.

The committee found higher education salaries generally were below market medians for most grades but varied substantially. Pay for professors and manual staff was about 30 per cent below market rates, but for academic Bs and academic-related staff in old universities and senior lecturers and senior non-academic staff in new universities it was equal to or slightly above the market.

It found staff in London and the South-east were particularly badly off compared with other sectors.

It concludes there should be a real-terms increase of up to 20 per cent in minimum pay levels for certain grades. Premiums should be paid for members of the new Institute for Learning and Teaching and for staff working in London.

Conditions The committee found conditions of service varied markedly for different staff groups and institutions.

It recommends that the new national council should try to negotiate a common core of minimum conditions, covering holidays, special leave, sick pay, maternity benefits, access to grievance procedures, trade union duties and health and safety consultation.

Working time arrangements should form part of this core, but should be negotiated at sub-council level. It wants these core conditions to apply to all "regular" part-time staff as well as to full-timers.

It is explicit on working time, calling for a shorter working week for manual staff, including part-timers, to harmonise it with whatever is agreed for non-academic staff within three years. For academic staff, it wants baseline arrangements on working hours that "offer safeguards against overload and help to protect quality".

The committee wants more staff offered permanent or longer fixed-term contracts, but it also wants changes to the present complex and lengthy redundancy procedures for academics in the pre-1992 universities. This would make dismissal easier.

BETT SUMMARISED

* The future of our universities and HE colleges depends on the successful recruitment, retention and motivation of quality staff.

* HE must sustain and improve the quality of teaching for a growing number of diverse students. The research arm must stay at the forefront of knowledge-generation.

* Flexible solutions to pay and related issues should be allowed to evolve and adapt.

* There should be a new national council for negotiation between employers and staff on a national framework of pay and conditions.

* This must be running by the end of this year. These recommendations require increased funding - early discussions are vital.

* Additional public funding will be needed to: provide a coherent reward structure; ensure equal pay for work of equal value; avoid recruitment problems; and deliver quality teaching.

* Low levels of staff training and equal opportunities must be tackled urgently.

* The sector must be sure it has the staff to improve its output and research.

ACADEMIC CLINICIANS

Difficulties in recruiting and retaining clinical academics have been recognised by the Bett committee, which recommends a number of changes to ensure parity with NHS medics, including a special committee on clinical academic staff.

A Bett sub-committee found that, despite mechanisms designed to ensure parity, there are financial disincentives to being a clinical academic. It also found clinical academics are under increasing pressure to satisfy university research demands and NHS clinical duties, and that younger staff no longer saw time spent as an academic clinician as such a crucial part of their advancement.

The Bett committee was "absolutely convinced" of the need to retain pay parity between academic clinicians and NHS doctors and dentists. Parity does not exist, despite it being a condition of grant to universities that pay is the same.

The committee also recommended easing rules limiting how much academic clinicians can earn from private work, currently 10 per cent of gross salary.

The committee rejected the British Medical Association's proposal that all academic clinicians have 30 days a year for external activities including private practice.

SCOTLAND

Bett has recommended a standing Scottish committee to consider pay and conditions in the HE sector in Scotland.

The remit of the committee would be to advise the national council within a harmonised UK-wide structure. But it could consider and even determine pay and conditions in Scotland in areas agreed by the UK council or its sub-councils. It should also respond to and lobby the Scottish parliament and the Scottish HE Funding Council.

Bett set up a sub-committee to consider Scottish issues. By and large it found no differences between the pay and conditions of staff at pre-1992 Scottish universities and staff at comparable English institutions.

There were differences between the structures relating to staff at new universities but these, the report says, were small. The sub-committee therefore rejected an entirely separate Scottish structure.

Institutions would be allowed the same flexibility to reflect local employment markets and economic conditions. There is disagreement, however, between employers and the HE unions over conditions of service. The employers agreed with the Garrick report on HE in Scotland that these are too inflexible. The unions disagree. Talks are under way.

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