Today the higher education unions meet to decide whether they should collectively accept the pay offers now on the table. As The THES went to press it looked likely that most would. The Association of University Teachers understandably hankers for more, and will go into today's meeting armed with authority to escalate its industrial action.
Its officers are however aware that holding out would probably break the successful common front established by higher education unions in the past year. It would cause more delay and have little chance of success. The joint front has forced the offer higher than most expected. More would mean larger swathes of redundancies and if AUT members hit admissions and exams in the run-up to the election period they would damage the prospects of the party many hope to see victorious.
That said there may still be a little something to be gained in the detail. The deal on the table does nothing to make good the lamentable state of academic salaries. Anything which helps a bitter pill go down would be welcome. This might take the form of the vice chancellors agreeing to ask the Dearing committee to recommend a fully funded pay review body for university staff. It might take the form of a little more on the backloading in the second year linked to the retail price index.
Vice chancellors would like a commitment to a fully funded pay review system as much as the unions would. But the Dearing committee, with its eye on acceptability to Government, is not likely to agree. Pay review: perhaps. Full funding: no.
The AUT will doubtless argue, with some justice, that commitment to full funding need not cost that much, judging by the track record in other areas where there are pay review bodies. Recent recommendations have not been far out of line with inflation and, year on year, have been funded, more or less. But the level of the review body awards reflects general recognition that funding cannot be relied on and that institutions may be broken on the wheel of high, unfunded recommendations.
Commitment to full-funding takes off the pressure to assess what can be afforded by the employers. Both major parties will be haunted by the spectre of the Clegg awards at the end of the 1970s which, coming at a time when catching-up settlements seemed only fair (as they would now for academics), drove inflation to alarming levels. A week may be a long time in politics but 18 years is not much in the folk memory of politicians. Labour and its friends have this week made it abundantly clear that they will not be encouraging anyone to flirt with such risks.
The implicit message for higher education both from shadow chancellor Gordon Brown's speech on Monday and from the Commission on Public Policy and British Business in its report, Promoting Prosperity, published by the left-inclined IPPR on Tuesday, is "No more money for higher education". Indeed, it is worse than that. Gordon Brown's commitment to present spending targets while requiring readjustment within departmental budgets to reflect the party's policy priorities, can only mean less public money for the sector.
Labour, rightly, wants more participation in education at all stages of life, more equity for part-time students and sub-degree students, and more investment in schools. It also wants more public/private partnership and it can see very clearly that higher education and training is the one big area in education where private revenue can be found. It is perfectly plain that it will want to move as fast as possible after the election to increase contributions from students. The quick and dirty way to do this, saving, as the IPPR report points out, some Pounds 2 billion, is to abolish maintenance grants and switch all student support to privately funded loans. Privatising loans, pace the National Union of Students, is not the unattractive bit of this package. Far worse is the highly regressive nature of making savings by cutting out grants which already go only to the poor.
Even this undesirable option would not, however, according to the IPPR report, be enough to produce the Pounds 3.5 billion extra they want to see spent on other areas of education: pre-school, schools and post-16 subdegree study. They also count into their figures a contribution to tuition from degree-level students, whether full or part-time, equivalent to about 20 per cent of real cost.
Labour has said it wants to see money switched into education. That is buoying up the hopes of many. It would be unwise for higher education to expect to benefit. The IPPR report may be asking for an extra Pounds 1.5 billion from tax revenue for education but none of it would be for higher education.
This week, Mr Brown, knowing what was coming, made clear that extra taxes are not on the cards. That Pounds 1.5 billion will have to come from some other existing budget.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Brown, with the firm support of party leader, Tony Blair, is not only trying to improve Labour's election chances by avoiding frightening tax-payers. They are also bent on confronting their supporters in the unions with the need to produce change after the election within fixed budgets rather than demanding "new resources" for new developments.
They have clearly understood that change is easier to bring about when there is a crisis and are setting out the conditions which will provoke the kind of crises in publicly-funded services which force people to find new solutions. They have no reason to want to exempt higher education from that kind of pressure nor much reason to fear the political consequences if they have a decent majority and move fast.
Those who have this week lamented the lack of redistributive zeal and radicalism in Labour's current position, accusing it of pandering to business and being little different from the Conservatives, should pay close attention to the wording of Mr Brown's speech. He has certainly made a commitment not to raise income taxes and not to increase public spending but there is also frequent use of the words "fair" and "fairness". What does this seeming contradiction mean? It is not good news for higher education which, as the IPPR report among others points out, disproportionately benefits the fat of the land.
"Redistribution" is a no-no word in politics today. "Fairness" sounds better, more moral, more socially cohesive, but alongside a commitment to hold tax rates and public spending steady, it means much the same thing. To be fairer - and the case for doing so is very strong - to those now hard done-by, someone is going to have to lose.
There is no evidence here that the party has lost interest in redistribution. Understandably, at this stage it will put more stress on enticing the prospective gainers and will keep quiet about who are going to be net losers.
None the less it is clear that the beneficiaries of full-time degree level higher education are in the frame. They and their families may not see their tax bills rise but they should not expect to escape in other ways. The Labour agenda for education is genuinely redistributive, radical and different from the policies pursued by the Conservatives.