Low-paid pawns set to strike back

August 9, 1996

This is not the first time that university staff have been used as political pawns by government and university management but this year we have reached the pits of cynicism and manipulation with the 1.5 per cent pay offer (2.5 per cent for manual workers). We are asked to bear the brunt of the crisis in higher education.

There was a time when public sector workers would accept the compromise of uncompetitive pay in return for job security and an occupational pension. University workers were no exception to this. You would see the odd high-flier flouncing off to the United States stating that he could earn thousands more and have more research support over there, while summer headlines warned about the "brain drain". But on the whole people who worked in universities understood the bargain. You gave loyalty in return for security.

Now we have the worst of all worlds. Although on paper the occupational pensions are good, how many people will be allowed to stay at universities long enough to collect one? The appalling low pay of some manual, clerical-related and technical staff means that they often opt out of the occupational pension in favour of a personal pension.

Short-term contracts affect every level of staff in universities with rumours of renewal of contracts awarded in return for total conformity. Work pressure has increased as a result of the doubling of student numbers to 1.5 million while staff numbers have increased by only 15 per cent and student funding has dropped by almost a third. In the new management-speak cuts in quality and increased exploitation are termed "efficiency gains" while outside accountants keep changing the rules on university funding in order to ensure their own job security.

All the university unions are committed to the future of higher education and are sharing platforms all over the country with politicians and vice chancellors publicising the crisis in higher education under the slogan "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow". At the same time most staff are being offered and have rejected a 1.5 per cent pay rise for 1996/97 when the going rate in the public services is a minimum of 3 per cent and most universities have budgeted for this. Oh, for the ability to vote ourselves a pay rise! At our local Unison branch meeting in July we voted unanimously for a 26 per cent pay rise. Unfortunately when I checked my pay packet at the end of the month it was not there. I am going to write to my MP to see how it is done.

Apparently this year the employers have decided to cost the "incremental drift" at 1 per cent of payroll costs. This is a new wheeze and it would be interesting to see their calculations. A high proportion of university staff are stuck at the top of their scales with no prospect of "incremental drift" and normal staff turnover allows for a downward drift.

We are now facing a situation in the autumn that is ridiculous bordering on the tragic - a university management admitting that this year's offer is unacceptably low "entirely due to the underfunding of the universities by the Government" and a Government which is pledged to cut public expenditure in order to pay for electioneering tax cuts.

The latest low offer has enraged staff to the point of contemplating industrial action in the autumn. Not something anyone relishes but even pawns fight back sometimes.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, a member of the TUC general council and the national executive of Unison.

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