Late plea to save pay package

November 10, 2000

A battle for academic pay is under way as higher education chiefs plead with vice-chancellors to drop their opposition to setting minimum national terms and conditions.

Sir Howard Newby, president of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, has warned vice-chancellors that the Bett report recommendations, and potentially hundreds of millions of pounds in government funding, are at risk unless they agree to national minimum terms and conditions for lecturers.

CVCP fears are compounded as universities continue to wait for their spending review settlements for 2002-03 and 2003-04. The sector was disappointed that chancellor Gordon Brown made no mention of the settlements in his pre-budget statement on Wednesday. The settlement for 2001-02 will be confirmed later this month. It is hoped that the overall settlement for the following year will also be announced.

Sir Howard's plea comes as trade unions, including lecturers' union Natfhe, prepare to take industrial action. The unions have warned vice-chancellors that unless they honour the Bett recommendation that pay and minimum conditions be negotiated nationally, they will face the worst disruption for decades. The ballot for industrial action started this week and will close on November 21. The first one-day strike could take place in early December.

In a letter to vice-chancellors, dated October 31, Sir Howard says that negotiating terms and conditions locally while continuing to negotiate pay nationally would be "difficult to justify in political terms".

Consultation last January revealed that 89 per cent of vice-chancellors oppose any nationally binding minimum terms and conditions.

The Bett report called for a single national joint council for pay negotiation that should also set minimum terms and conditions. The CVCP and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association immediately accepted the Bett report and its recommendations in full. It would cost about £1.4 billion to implement, the bulk of which would go on equal pay for women.

The government has not committed to funding Bett in full, although ministers have said it is a high priority. But ministers have made clear that the sector must show that it is reforming the bargaining and management structures.

The CVCP and UCEA boards therefore fear that failure by vice-chancellors to accept the report in full will seriously undermine their chances of extra money, in which case key recommendations, such as equal pay, would have to be shelved.

Sir Howard's letter tells members: "In the light of these serious concerns I am writing on behalf of the CVCP's UK board to ask you to endorse the UCEA board's preferred option of including within the remit of the proposed national joint council reference to minimum terms and conditions of employment."

Tony Bruce, policy director for the CVCP, said: "There are big issues at stake. We are still lobbying government for the £1.4 billion needed for Bett. But if there is no movement (from vice-chancellors) on minimum terms and conditions, negotiations will stall. The Bett agenda will be put on ice."

Philip Love, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University and chairman of the UCEA, also wrote to vice-chancellors explaining the reasoning behind the board's preferred option. The UCEA board has recommended acceptance of the Bett report in full since the outset but was then forced to accept the vice-chancellors' mandate on minimum terms and conditions after the consultation.

Professor Love warned what could happen if there is no reference to national minimum terms and conditions. He said: "The unions will be able to adopt the 'high ground' and will argue that the employers are cherrypicking from the independent Bett report. In addition, they may make much of the fact that the employers are not prepared to talk about even minimum terms and conditions."

Later he told The THES : "Vice-chancellors need to give this very clear thought in the light of the possible outcomes. If the sector maintains its view, then the UCEA board has no option but to say to the unions that we cannot negotiate on minimum terms and conditions. It is something the UCEA board would greatly regret."

Tom Wilson, head of universities for lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Few vice-chancellors seem to realise that we are within days of the biggest dispute in higher education for decades. They are being told they have a choice. Either continue with the current mandate and plunge into a major dispute with almost all the unions. Alternatively, think again."

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