Life, liberty and the pursuit of a pay rise

May 8, 1998

Michael Bett outlines the factors that will be considered by the independent committee reporting on academics' pay and conditions

Most readers of The THES will have heard that an independent committee has been established to review academics' pay. Some will recall that I am its chairman. But rather few seem aware of the breadth of our remit. It covers the pay of all staff in higher education: academic, academic-related and non-academic. And, for all of these groups, we are looking at pay structures, conditions of service and future means of determining pay and conditions, as well as at pay levels.

The committee has begun to immerse itself in the background relevant to each of the ten groups of higher education staff for whom there are currently separate national pay agreements, and is learning something of the local variations which modify or substitute for these at some universities and colleges. We are assembling the existing data on all these arrangements and will be collecting more to fill gaps in what is presently available.

But we also need to hear the views and comments of those directly affected. We are therefore canvassing widely for evidence and will very much welcome contributions from individuals, and from organisations with professional or other involvement with aspects of the higher education system, as well as from the major players who represent staff and university managements.

We want to hear a full range of perspectives on the difficulties (or lack of them) arising from the present arrangements. And we would especially welcome constructive suggestions on how such difficulties might be remedied within likely financial constraints.

UK universities and higher education colleges are autonomous and have diverse missions - a message much reinforced by the Dearing report. The first question for the review therefore has to be: to what extent can the operation and development of our higher education system be assisted by national arrangements for determining pay and conditions? What sort of local flexibility do individual employing institutions require to meet their own mix of staffing needs most effectively?

The answers to these questions will inevitably shape the nature of our recommendations. But whatever the ultimate balance between national and local determination, the same sorts of issues will arise about pay levels and structures and about conditions of service in relation to remuneration. The review will seek to point the way forward on each of these.

On pay levels there are a range of questions about relativities between different staff groups and with external comparators. There are also issues about the recruitment, retention and motivation of staff of the quality that universities and colleges need. How much institutions are able to afford and the efficiency with which they deploy staff are also pertinent.

What is the case for rationalising pay structures - across "old" and "new" universities? Between different staff groups? The present arrangements may be a dog's breakfast, but would something simpler necessarily be better able to respond to differing needs within higher education? How should experience, performance and extra responsibilities be rewarded, and particular labour market factors reflected? What are the links between career progression and pay progression? Would certain sorts of structure be better than others in facilitating institutional developments and the inevitable changes in delivery of teaching and research over the next decade or two?

What it comes down to is the question of how well placed universities will be to attract a fair share of the country's brightest graduates as researchers and teachers - and to what extent pay is a key factor in addressing deficiencies in any area.

Arguments for harmonisation of conditions of service raise some of the same issues. To what extent would the benefits outweigh the loss of local flexibility or the scope for variations in respect of different staff groups? And there are also some important extra questions in relation to part-time and fixed-term staff; and particular issues about staff development and staff appraisal.

As for future means of determining these matters, we shall be examining the arguments for and against a pay review body or other external reference mechanism. Considerations about funding the outcomes are likely to weigh heavily. We shall also be assessing the case for single-table bargaining at national and institutional levels, and alternatives.

Throughout there are issues to consider about equal opportunities, the increasing casualisation of employment and human resources management. And, with an eye to the future, the attitudes and aspirations of younger staff will clearly be important.

It is a big agenda and we hope to report early next year. (We have no part in this year's pay negotiations.) How much headway we can make will depend in part on the quality of the evidence we receive in the next couple of months. The challenge and opportunity to influence future arrangements for pay and conditions in higher education is before us. Worthwhile change will be built on as full as possible an understanding of the needs and concerns of those working in and with our universities and colleges. We hope that many of them take this chance of helping us to identify the major problems and to map the way forward constructively and realistically.

Sir Michael Bett is chairman of the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions. Evidence should be sent by June 30 1998 to IRHEPC, 76 Oxford Street, London W1N 9FD or via their web site at

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