National pay agreement is at risk, say employers

July 6, 2007

Accept single-table pay talks, incoming and former Ucea heads urge academic union. Melanie Newman reports

The collapse of national pay bargaining may be imminent, both the outgoing and incoming heads of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association have warned.

Writing in The Times Higher this week, outgoing chair Alasdair Smith says universities will have to walk away from the national pay system and set their own local pay levels if the system remains in its current "dysfunctional" state.

He says employers want the academic unions and non-academic unions to negotiate pay around a single national bargaining table something that the University and College Union is firmly resisting, arguing that academics are a unique group of staff who need their own pay talks.

Without such a change, universities are likely to walk away from national pay, he warns.

Professor Smith, vice-chancellor of Sussex University, also bemoans a lack of union interest in discussing pay reforms. He suggests that the UCU may not appreciate the damage done to the present pay system's credibility by last year's pay dispute, when unions "suffered the indignity of accepting a settlement that was not significantly different from an offer they had rejected weeks previously".

The incoming chair of Ucea is backing Professor Smith's stance. Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of Southampton University, said: "There are real concerns about the future of national pay negotiation in the academic sector. Consultation with institutions after last year's pay dispute has shown that a significant number would consider a move from national agreements, and that number will grow if the necessary conditions about national bargaining are not met." He added: "Much has been done to improve levels of pay, and increases in academic sector salaries have risen more rapidly than many others in the past few years."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, agreed that the pay deal had resulted in salary increases larger than those in any other major public sector group this year. She said that national bargaining was the most efficient way to agree pay and conditions. "The alternative for both unions and management is an increase in local resources required, more local inequality, more local disputes and less stability in the academic labour market."

On single-table bargaining, she pointed out that while UCU members had much in common with other employee groups, they also had distinct interests as academic and related staff. "We remain unconvinced of the need to move away from our distinct bargaining table or of the advantages to our members of doing so," she said.

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