Let the pay fight begin

August 11, 2000

Whatever happened to the proposals made in the Bett report? asks Chris Kaufman.

Hostilities have been declared between university staff and employers after attempts to impose pay "awards" before national negotiations are complete.

Battle lines are being drawn, with university unions getting together this summer to consult on tactics with their members before a gathering planned for mid-September at the Trades Union Congress in Glasgow.

How quickly the atmosphere has changed. Was it only a few weeks ago that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and union representatives were picking through the small print of a proposed national agreement, based on a partnership approach and the Bett recommendations - an agreement designed to produce a foundation on which to site yet greater expansion of higher education?

Was it only spring when union representatives joined the UCEA, Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and Standing Conference of Principals in lobbying education secretary David Blunkett and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone for greater higher education funding? And the chancellor did produce extra cash - perhaps not enough, but more than was expected.

In attempting to impose a settlement, employers have potentially blown a hole in any prospects of a partnership approach to dealing with the sector's problems.

For low-paid support staff - cleaners, caterers, security, gardeners, porters and administrative workers - the proposals made last year by Sir Michael Bett's team offer a way out of poverty and an end to discrimination between workers, old and new universities, men and women, manual and non-manual, part-time and full-time.

They offer more training, a new minimum pay rate and a shorter working week for manual staff, harmonising with other non-academic staff.

Yet UCEA negotiators said they were not prepared to talk about terms and conditions. In offering to remove the lowest scale point on academics' wages but not on those of support staff they signalled that discrimination would continue. And in offering a 16p increase on basic pay for the lowest grade in old universities they indicated only a desire to keep a shade ahead of the national minimum rather than to seriously tackle poverty pay.

The Bett report tries to address the future needs of higher education, building on the work of the Dearing committee. It achieved a carefully crafted consensus after rigorous debate between unions, employers and independent members. All those who sat on the committee, including myself, made concessions (often painfully) in order to reach that consensus.

But progress towards setting up a new national joint negotiating committee is slow in contrast to the newly established, productive, further education national joint forum. There is a disturbing lack of drive towards Bett's goals. Employers have told us they do not wish to address conditions of service nationally - but rather institution by institution.

Such an approach leaves universities vulnerable to equal pay claims. Behind it lies a fundamental misapprehension of the proposed new national single status agreement. This promotes unity and strengthens rather than diminishes local negotiations.

Nationally agreed minimum standards are set for pay and conditions, which are then implemented via local negotiations.

The same applies to Bett's suggestion of two closely linked pay spines for academics and non-academics. There would be strong guidelines on the application of these spines, but essentially they would be worked out at institutional level.

While university staff have become ever more frustrated as workloads have increased but pay levels have shrunk, vice-chancellors have been hit by rising expectations and under-funding.

The government wants wider access and lifelong learning to sustain and improve the output of highly trained people and the nation's research as a crucial investment in the economy.

Do we now dig our trenches or do we begin to build again on the Bett recommendations to give our students the high-quality service they need from a well-trained staff?

Chris Kaufman is a TGWU national secretary and was a member of the Bett committee.

* Should university pay negotiators be sticking to Bett? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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