Pay is the biggest single cost for a university. But despite its overwhelming importance for the finances of any institution, most have been happy for decades to outsource the negotiations that determine the size of their pay bill. But does national pay bargaining have a long-term future? We report (page 1) that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association has carried out a survey that revealed widespread support for long-term change.
This may seem ominous, but few of the universities that replied to Ucea's survey - let alone those that did not - are keen to abandon national pay bargaining just yet. University administrators are not the fiercest of employers. They may go on thinking that just one more year of national bargaining is needed for a surprisingly long time.
However, there is no doubt that national pay bargaining in a severely stratified university system is stressful for everyone. In the future, some universities are likely to charge more than others for their courses. Some already have rich streams of research income denied to their neighbours, while others have medical, law and business schools that bring in valuable revenue. Even more strikingly, university funding in Scotland is fast diverging from the English system. It is not likely that a single pay structure will suit two fundamentally different ways of paying for universities indefinitely.
Just what might replace the current national system is less apparent. Ucea members say that institution-level pay bargaining is unlikely because unions in many universities lack the capacity to carry it out effectively and would depend on regional union officers to negotiate. But this objection is surely exaggerated. Most serious pay talks in any industry involve union officers, who are often skilled at getting to an acceptable result for all sides.
Another possibility Ucea has discussed is what it terms consortium negotiations, in which several universities would negotiate together. For this to work there would need to be a sizeable group of universities with similar finances and a high level of trust. In practice, it might be tempting for the managers of the many university groupings that have sprung up in recent years to offer this service. But even within such groups, universities can have very different financial priorities and resources. They also have different ideas about pay, even under today's national bargaining. The Times Higher 's latest academic pay survey showed that Oxford University paid an average academic some £6,000 a year less than King's College London. Both are members of the elite Russell Group. This anomaly will be the unions' first agenda item if these universities negotiate together about pay.
Despite these problems, a more varied university sector means that national pay is already under threat. Whatever the fine print says about the academic pay spine, everyone knows that engineers have fatter pay packets than historians. Over time these differentials are bound to grow, in line with different institutional missions as well as the bargaining power of different subjects.
But although national bargaining may seem anomalous in the current climate for higher education, Ucea may have blundered by consulting its members about the future of the system in the immediate aftermath of last year's especially tricky pay round, and by linking this strategic subject to the immediate issue of dealing with future disputes.
In practice, national bargaining will probably continue, with a growing number of exceptions and opt-outs, until something causes it to break apart. The likeliest spur is a financial crisis that leaves one or more universities unable to afford the national pay settlement. If this happens, it may be impossible to reassemble the national system afterwards.