CALLS for better pay and criticism of student tuition fee charges dominated the Association of University Teachers annual conference beside the seaside in Worthing last week.
The association pledged its support for the National Union of Students campaign to oppose fees and agreed an "education tax disguised as tuition fees" would have a divisive effect on higher education.
Main bones of contention at the conference centred on the union's response to this year's pay deal and relations with fellow lecturing union Natfhe.
Delegates gave what they termed "a good kicking" to their leadership by carrying a motion accusing the executive of manipulating the consultative ballot to achieve a vote accepting the pay offer. Members of the union voted by 58 per cent to 42 per cent to accept the deal, which offers them a 2 per cent increase for six months and a further 1.8 per cent for the remaining six.
But Stephen Holland, from the University of Kent, said: "This ballot was a disgrace." He said the executive should have advised members to reject the offer, rather than sitting on the fence.
Speakers at a well-attended fringe meeting called to discuss closer links between the AUT and Natfhe stressed the benefits of closer working with their partners in colleges and the new universities.
Colin Bryson, from Nottingham Trent University, said further links would make for a stronger union when both further and higher education were becoming closer and were facing similar problems.
Dave Guppy, from University College London, said: "Snobbery and suspicion don't get us anywhere. If the AUT carries on like that it will become smaller and smaller."
But AUT general secretary David Triesman said Natfhe still needed to balance its books. He said the two unions would work together on practical projects. Motions put to the conference on speeding up moves towards merger were referred for further consideration.
Bill McCall, the independent chair of meetings this year between the two unions, will produce a report on their future relationship next month. The conference also agreed to approve a "council of education unions" linking all unions involved in post-16 age groups, including the National Union of Teachers. The council would try to secure common policies between unions to present a unified front to managers.
But Hugh Mason, from the University of Portsmouth, urged delegates to oppose any shift in funding from higher to further education. While he recognised the needs of further education, he said universities could lose their top position in Europe if there was any shift.
Other issues included: The council agreed that the Teacher Training Agency and Ofsted could pose a major threat to academic freedom by over-stringent monitoring of university courses.
It struck a further blow for academic freedom when it voted to support Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, who faces legal action for refusing to dispose of a book by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, declared to contravene the Obscene Publications Act. AUT general secretary David Triesman said: "A culture of disregard for academic freedoms is now sufficiently prevalent for the police to believe it is normal to ask a university to burn a book because it has photos they don't like."
The council was also critical of the Quality Assurance Agency's proposals for registered external examiners but stopped short of condemning them altogether, agreeing further work was needed on a new quality system. Joanna de Groot said: "Condemnation of the QAA proposals is not enough. We need to be in there, fighting for the best we can get."
It agreed to campaign for compulsory disclosure of freemason membership in higher education governing and quasijudicial bodies.
Delegates repeated the AUT's opposition to a further research assessment exercise conducted along lines similar to the last RAE. They called for more attention to interdisciplinary research and for extra resources to fill the gap in funding identified by Dearing.
Universities are having problems recruiting computer staff because they are being poached by businesses wanting help to cope with the millennium bug.