Memo targets boycott staff

March 17, 2006

Pay row escalates as Nottingham Trent threatens to stop wages. Alan Thomson reports

Attitudes hardened in the higher education pay dispute this week after managers at one university threatened to stop the wages of boycotting lecturers.

A memo sent to staff at Nottingham Trent University says that academics who boycott student assessments will be in breach of contract, which means they may be treated as voluntary workers whom the institution is under no obligation to pay.

A standard format letter sent to staff on March 9 says: "It is important you understand that the universityIJwill not accept partial performance of their contracts by members of staff.

"If staff are not willing to carry out all of their duties, the university may need to take a decision to treat attendance at work as voluntary. In these circumstances, the university would not be obliged to pay such staff for any work they undertake."

Roger Kline, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, responded: "If we believed that employers are escalating the action and are moving towards lockouts, we would not hesitate to consider further strike action."

Mr Kline said the university had originally declared that it would definitely remove staff from the payroll but that, following Natfhe's intervention, it had downgraded this to an action that it might consider.

A spokesman for Nottingham Trent said that its actions with regard to assessing the impact of partial performance on students were in line with those of a number of other universities.

He said: "As part of this process, and in the interest of clarity, the university feels it is only reasonable to advise staff of any personal consequences of their actions. One consequence could be that the university decides to either fully or partially withhold pay in cases where individuals fail to fulfil their contractual obligations."

Mr Kline said that while Nottingham Trent stood alone in threatening to stop pay altogether, most post-92 universities intended to dock the pay of any academic who boycotted assessments and other work.

"Pay docking ups the ante considerably. We have told employers that there will be no return to normal working until all such deductions are repaid,"

he added.

So far, most pay docking has been threatened at post-92 universities. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, representing academics in pre-92 institutions, said: "The majority of universities recognise that bullying tactics such as withholding pay will act as a catalyst for prolonged and more damaging disruption with, in some cases, irretrievable damage being done to students' education."

The assessment boycott began last week, but the action is set to cause maximum disruption after Easter when the exam season begins in earnest.

A bulletin to staff at Leeds Metropolitan University says that the university does not accept partial working and is legally entitled to withhold a full day's pay from every academic who fails to carry out all their contracted duties. It has said that it intends to withhold a minimum of 30 per cent of a day's pay.

Kingston University has reserved the right not to accept partial working by staff. This leaves open the possibility of pay docking, although the institution has not yet implemented such a policy.

Westminster University is considering its position on pay docking, but in an e-mail to all staff this week vice-chancellor Geoffrey Copland made his views known. "It must be clearly understood from the outset that any member of academic staff who takes part in this action short of a strike is not fulfilling their professional duties," Dr Copland says.

Thomas Player, a partner and a specialist in industrial relations and labour law at legal firm Eversheds, said that universities were within their rights to dock and even stop the wages of staff deemed to be in breach of contract, as long as institutions spelt out their policy to employees.

"The key is making it clear. Making it clear that they decline to accept partial performance is a legitimate basis for deductions," he said.

Mr Player added that any refusal by Natfhe members to return to normal working until docked pay was reimbursed could be seen as a separate dispute. As such, it would require a fresh ballot of Natfhe staff. Without a ballot, any such action by union members would not be protected in law.

In a joint statement, Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association say that a number of institutions are docking pay in a bid to minimise the effect of the boycott on students.

The statement says: "This is a difficult decision and has not been taken lightly, and different institutions are taking different approaches to the issue."

alan.thomson@thes.co.uk

EMPLOYERS SAY

  • Average academic pay was £40,657 in 2004-05, according to the Office of National Statistics. (The data exclude researchers and include allowances and bonuses.)
  • Academic pay rose by 20.3 per cent between 2001 and 2005
  • Well over a third of the additional £1.3 billion income from top-up fees will be spent on staff pay and conditions
  • Academic pay will rise by between 4 per cent and 6 per cent as a result of the new pay framework, irrespective of any pay award
  • In 2004-05, 49 per cent of staff were on higher academic grades, which meant that they earned a minimum of £35,254 compared with 38 per cent in 1995-96
  • Less than 8 per cent of all university staff voted for industrial action as part of the AUT and Natfhe ballotsn Average pay for full-time academic staff is £35,773, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. (Basic salary only and includes researchers.)
  • At only ten universities do academic staff earn an average salary above £40,657, based on Hesa figures

UNIONS SAY

  • Average salary for lecturers, excluding senior academics, is £32,531. Average salary for researchers is £25,807
  • Academic pay has fallen 40 per cent in the past 20 years compared with average earnings
  • Proportion of university budgets spent on pay has fallen from 70 per cent to 59 per cent in 30 years
  • Just over half of all AUT members voted, with 64 per cent backing strike action and 81 per cent backing the marking boycott. Natfhe turnout was 47 per cent, with a stronger endorsement of action

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