Local pay agreements are the logical next step

July 21, 2006

Outgoing Ucea head Geoffrey Copland believes that it is time to jettison the one-size-fits-all national pay model

The future of higher education pay is at a watershed. Obviously, I am delighted that the 2006-09 pay agreement has been ratified by all six unions. And I am sure that this week's announcement will be welcomed by employers, staff, students, parents and all those affected by the dispute. Pay has dominated the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association agenda over the years, and we have begun to make good the relative decline of previous decades. But the dispute has highlighted issues other than actual salaries, including the balance in future pay deals between local and national considerations.JSome vice-chancellors believe a shift to individual institutions striking bargains with their own staff is logical and must be accepted sooner or later.

The difficulties with the national approach were apparent from the beginning. The academic unions' original claim demanded that all higher education institutions put one third of additional fee income into enhanced pay. Interpreted literally, it would have meant each university paying different salary rates - because the proportion of additional income will vary according to the balance of full-time home and European Union undergraduate fees relative to other income.J While this year's pay negotiations soon moved on from the initial claim, they were always complicated by the big differences in individual institutional income streams. This prompted the question: how far can there be a single pay negotiation in an environment in which there is increasing diversity of funding? Already, there are significantly different fee and funding arrangements between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

And there is every sign that there will be further divergence both between and within these. In addition, differences arise from universities drawing on multiple streams of funding, not just funding council grants. It is also likely that entrepreneurial activity will lead to further variation of income and the need for much greater flexibility in the deployment of staff, particularly academic staff, in the delivery of institutions' missions and activities.

Given this, it is hard to see how a single model can continue to work in such an environment except at the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, the well-received national framework agreement that was agreed in principle in 2003 was designed to be implemented locally and has provided the opportunity for institutions to devise structures to meet their individual needs.

Some see this logic as leading to more local determination of the detail of salaries, though there will remain a strong call for a national forum from many institutions that see the need for the support that such a body would give them. The unions, of course, remain passionately committed to national negotiations.

How such talks might be handled is itself a matter for discussion. The 2006 pay agreement sets out the importance of a review of the negotiating machinery of the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff. This was supposed to happen in 2003, but was delayed until the framework agreement had been completed.

But the recent pay negotiations have highlighted the urgent need for this review, something that the support staff unions asked for and all parties agreed was essential. Certainly, the two sub-committees for academic staff and professional, technical, administrative and ancillary staff should be merged to match the framework's single pay spine.

Future pay discussions must also include serious consideration of pensions. Higher education staff enjoy the considerable benefits of final salary pensions. These are usually overlooked when comparisons are made with salaries in other sectors but the escalating costs of pension schemes to employers can no longer be ignored.

When I became chair of Ucea in 2002, there were the usual jocular comments about "hospital passes" and "poisoned chalices" as well as recognition of the interesting challenges ahead. The triple legacy of rising student numbers at a reduced unit of resource, greater emphasis on research and knowledge transfer and increased bureaucracy had put more pressure on all staff. But it was not clear, then, how much turmoil the sector would face on the pay front.

Well, in my time there have been four pay settlements, the framework agreement and two national industrial disputes. This last dispute may be over, but as I hand over the chair of Ucea there are many new challenges facing both employers and unions as they move into the future. I wish them well.

Geoffrey Copland stands down as chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association this month.

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