Local deal: fair play for fair pay

June 13, 2003

There is only one winner in national bargaining - the employers, argues Peter Knight

In last week's THES , Tom Wilson of lecturers' union Natfhe extolled the virtues of national collective bargaining. Let me add another advantage.

National bargaining is cheap. It is a conspiracy of convenience between the employers and the unions in which the only losers are the staff.

In national pay negotiations in higher education, the reality is that the employers will always win. The unions will submit a claim of 20 per cent plus. The employers will respond that the claim is unaffordable and that any increase will result in job loses in some institutions.

The magical process of national bargaining will then begin. There will be some formal exchanges and much hand-wringing, but eventually a deal will be done after behind-the-chair discussions.

Those private talks will settle on the lowest common denominator (perhaps the second-lowest common denominator to be fair) and a deal will be struck about 0.5 to 1 per cent above inflation. There may be a few sweeteners, which are low-cost items that the unions can sell to their members as significant gains, and the employers will sneak away into the darkness muttering that the deal is "only just affordable".

Union negotiators know that the balance between pay and jobs is a zero-sum game. If pay rises, jobs will be lost at the weakest colleges, and when push comes to shove - and it always does in national bargaining - union negotiators err on the side of defending jobs.

The result, year on year, is a pay rise that is less than the system could on average afford and perhaps significantly less than many universities could pay.

Tom talks grandly about "collegiality" and the "public sector" approach to pay. In how many universities are the support staff and the manual staff included in this "collegiality"? In the statutes of many universities, teaching staff are "members" of the university while all others are "employees". Collegiality is fine for academic decisions but not when you are looking at pay.

At the University of Central England, our policy is to be a "single-status employer". All staff are employed on the same contract of employment, with the same terms and conditions of service. All get the same increase in pay; there is no difference in the percentage paid to teaching staff as distinct from support staff. All are entitled to join a free medical scheme; there are no other perks. My contract is the same as everyone else's (except I have to give six months' notice). The annual pay rise always gets paid on the month it is due. There is none of this waiting for the "national agreement to be ratified".

Unlike Tom, I do not see universities as part of the public sector.

Universities are independent not-for-profit institutions that are not "owned" by anyone, certainly not the government.

We must convince the government that we can manage our affairs fairly and responsibly. Only by doing so, and by forcefully declaring our independence, will we stand a chance of stemming the ever-increasing tide of interference and crackpot ideas that emanate daily from the Department for Education and Skills. Pay makes up 60 to 70 per cent of our budgets.

Boards and councils should be seen to be controlling pay policy, and vice-chancellors, who from time to time seem to enjoy comparing themselves with chief executives, should be prepared to take the difficult decisions and decide locally to pay their staff more - most can afford it.

It is nice that where UCE leads, Imperial College London follows. How about a few more having the courage of their convictions and paying all their staff better?

Peter Knight is vice-chancellor of the University of Central England.

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