MPs wade into the war of words

May 19, 2006

Unions say that universities, by digging in their heels over pay, are tainting graduates' qualifications and undermining academic values. Phil Baty reports

Academic unions are furious over the 'malicious' tone of a leaked Ucea letter to vice-chancellors about pay dispute

The bitter propaganda war between the employers and lecturers' unions over pay hit a new low this week as MPs tried to knock heads together and cut through the spin and counter spin.

On the eve of an emergency session of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, accused Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, of resorting to "malicious gossip and unsubstantiated rumour" in the battle for hearts and minds.

Ms Prudence, in a letter to vice-chancellors leaked to The Times Higher , voices frustration that the AUT and sister union Natfhe had rejected an offer of a 12.6 per cent rise over three years, and refused to put it to a membership vote.

The letter says: "Given that Sally Hunt has previously signalled to ministers and other senior figures that something in double figures or in the range 11 to 14 per cent 'should do it', the union itself will be under huge pressure to explain why the goalposts have now moved."

Ms Hunt responded angrily to Ms Prudence's comments: "The level the employers seem prepared to stoop to in this dispute apparently has no limit," she said. "Resorting to malicious gossip and unsubstantiated rumour in a letter to universities drags their behaviour down to a new low."

Not to be outdone, Ms Prudence issued a press release accusing the AUT of making "misleading allegations" about employers' willingness to return to talks. The release was headlined: "Employers perplexed by academic union's latest lines". It left some wondering if the "n" in "lines" was a deliberate mistake.

It was in this climate that Barry Sheerman, chairman of the select committee, brought the parties to Parliament in a bid for clarity on the issues.

Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West, said: "Both unions and employers have supplied us with (pay) tables and they all look very convincing." However, he said, they included dramatically different figures.

The employers had argued that between 2001 and 2005, academic pay had increased by an impressive 20.3 per cent and had claimed that the average academic salary was at £40,000.

"To most people out there, that would look like good money," said Mr Williams.

"It would be if it were true," retorted Steve Whorton, the AUT president, who accompanied Ms Hunt to the session. The 20.3 per cent increase included increments and bonuses and failed to take into account the fact that many academics were stuck at the top of their pay scales, enjoying only the much more modest increases in basic pay negotiated each year.

And as for the fabled £40,000 salary, Mr Whorton said, it is time to scotch the Inspector Morse image of comfortable dons with long holidays and light workloads. "I work at Bath University," he said. "And it took me 16 years to be able to afford a flat here."

The committee was similarly perplexed as to what sort of increase was affordable.

The employers said that the 12.6 per cent offered would cost £1.6 billion a year - far more than the £1.3 billion expected to be brought in through the introduction of top-up fees. The figure, they said, was already too high for some vice-chancellors to stomach without having to make cuts, and could in no way be increased.

But, countered the unions, what about the 5.8 per cent increase in the annual teaching grant from the funding council that will come in addition to top-up fee income?

"The offer does not come close to addressing the catch-up element on pay that our members demand," Ms Hunt said.

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