Most staff would pursue pay at students' expense

June 16, 2006

A poll shows that about 66 per cent of academics are in principle prepared to take industrial action over wages even if it affects people's studies. David Jobbins reports

Almost two thirds of university academics are in principle willing to take industrial action over pay - even if it affects students, a telephone poll by ICM suggests.

Just 20 per cent said that industrial action that had an effect on students could never be justified. Even among non-union members the proportion holding this view reached only 34 per cent.

Industrial action in defence of issues of principle such as academic freedom was, predictably, most strongly supported - 74 per cent of respondents in both old and new universities said it would be justified.

A smaller percentage (65 per cent) felt that action to protect conditions of service, including pensions, was justified. Women (68 per cent) took a tougher line than men (63 per cent), and staff at the pre-1992 universities were marginally more militant than their colleagues at former polytechnics and colleges.

Women were just as committed to taking action that affected students when it came to supporting pay claims - 68 per cent would take action, compared with 56 per cent of men.

Engineers were the most militant faculty - 86 per cent said they would be prepared to take action on an issue of principle, compared with only 29 per cent in medicine.

Asked about the exam boycott imposed by the unions to secure a 23 per cent pay claim, 57 per cent said they supported it compared with 35 per cent who opposed the action.

Once again, women were the more militant sex: 65 per cent supported the action compared with 54 per cent of men. Views on the action were polarised - 35 per cent said they strongly supported it, while 26 per cent said they strongly opposed it.

Among the small number of medical faculty polled, 43 per cent said they slightly supported the action, while 43 per cent said they strongly opposed it.

There was little variation across different academic grades, although heads of department were the only category opposed to the action. Otherwise, professors were almost as committed to the action as lecturers.

Two thirds of non-union members (who made up a third of the sample) were opposed to the boycott, while 72 per cent of union members supported it.

In practice, the industrial action directly affected only a minority of academics polled. Just 26 per cent had been engaged in the boycott, while 60 per cent had not, according to the poll.

Education was the faculty most significantly affected. Thirty-nine per cent were involved in the action; engineering was next, with 33 per cent involved. No one from the medical faculty said they were taking action.

But there was no doubt about the overall commitment of staff to the 23 per cent pay claim.

A massive 82 per cent of those questioned, including non-union staff, supported the claim, while only 10 per cent opposed it.

Even heads of department, whatever their qualms over the action taken by the unions, were committed to the claim. Some 70 per cent supported it, compared with 81 per cent of professors and 93 per cent of readers.

Support for the claim was slightly stronger at the new universities (86 per cent) than at the old universities (78 per cent).

The 13.1 per cent offer was significantly more likely to be accepted by staff at the older universities (58 per cent) than at the new ones (44 per cent).

Medical staff were overwhelmingly inclined to accept the deal on offer (71 per cent), while scientists were split equally, with 44 per cent for and 44 per cent against.

After the medics, the faculty most strongly in favour of the deal was the arts (65 per cent for), followed by social sciences (48 per cent), business (47 per cent) and science (44 per cent).

The greatest hostility was among engineers (55 per cent were opposed).

A majority was concerned that the action would damage the universities' reputation in the UK, but there was less concern about potential damage overseas.

While 56 per cent thought there would be some damage in the UK, 41 per cent felt there would be no harm at all. Staff at the old universities were less confident (37 per cent) than their colleagues at the new universities (45 per cent) that there would be no damage.

The universities' international reputation was less at risk, the poll suggested. Fifty-three per cent considered there would be no damage at all, while 43 predicted that there would be some damage. Again, new universities showed more confidence, with 60 per cent predicting no damage.

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