It looks as if the Association of University Teachers will have no option but to ratify the agreement reached last week for a pay increase of 2.7 per cent. That will set the benchmark for the Natfhe negotiations which are about to start.
It is pretty moth-eaten and it will do nothing to close the gap that has been opening between university staff and other non-manual staff, including school teachers. But everyone knows there is no money to do more without putting serious numbers of jobs and some institutions at risk when student numbers, particularly postgraduate and part-time numbers, are rising.
People in higher education are already under enormous work pressure. The load will go on increasing anyway thanks to expansion in non-capped categories of students and Government-imposed "efficiency" gains.
The load could not be carried on fewer shoulders without serious damage to students' experience, the quality of which has already been deteriorating for some years. It is greatly to higher education staff's credit that they are not prepared to act in ways which would destroy institutions, jobs or students' opportunities. But that reluctance lays them open to exploitation. This has been the key to the United Kingdom's rapid and highly successful expansion of higher education for which the Government now wishes to take the credit. In truth the credit belongs to staff who have paid for it with their time and money.
Worse, it is hard to see when this convenient arrangement might end. Dominic Cadbury argues below, as do the vice chancellors (page 3) and the AUT, that further expansion to 40 per cent participation is needed. It is. But he does not volunteer more funds from employers. Mr Cadbury does not expect more money from Government beyond a pro rata share in rising GDP - and that is optimistic, with the tax cutters clamouring for savings and other lobbies pushing for more spending. He wants parents' and students' additional contribution confined to maintenance. That leaves once again the main contribution to be made through productivity gains: that is by staff.
Unfortunately, the only argument that might change the position is not available. There is no evidence that mean pay and overwork are making it hard to recruit. Each year many thousands of short-term contracts end leaving well-qualified postgraduates chasing too few permanent lecturing jobs.
The expansion of postgraduate education in recent years is filling the pool of would-be academics. Continued high unemployment makes recruiting in other staff categories similarly unproblematic.
And there is an additional wrinkle: British higher education is attractive compared to that in some other countries and Britain, too, is attractive. Recruiting has been made easier by the desire of many foreign postgraduate students to stay on, by mobility within the European Union and by the in-flow of excellently qualified people from countries they were once forbidden to leave.
The prospects for improving the pay and conditions of academics and other staff are therefore not good. Nor will they be improved by most of the proposals for changing the way universities are financed which are now being discussed within political parties and student unions. If control over any additional money raised remains with the Treasury, governments, which have learned how to exploit higher education staff, will go on doing so.