Not quiet on the university front

August 11, 1995

Universities in August - a different world from the chalk and talk of term time. Those not familiar with higher education probably have an image of a large oak door firmly closed with a sign on it "Gone to Tuscany".

The reality is that it is an intensely busy time, the busiest of the year for maintenance, building, craftspeople and the holiday accommodation trade. Admissions, publications, timetabling, office moves are all at their peak. The end of the financial year brings in armies of accountants, and stocktakers to crawl all over the books (non-academic ones) and end of year stock.

At the risk of sounding like the Diary Column, my week so far has involved meetings with the external auditor, the stocktaker, phone conversations with the architect and a building company for some major refurbishment starting next week, interviewing for three catering vacancies and appearing before the Licensing Justices in Marylebone. When a friend commented that it must be lovely to put my feet up in August my stress levels must have twanged like a Japanese harp.

The contrast between the worker ants of higher education and the areas which Lord Nolan has announced he will report on by next Easter could not be greater. Public accountability and financial probity in higher education should be scrutinised. The appalling publicity surrounding certain fat-cat severance payments and the occasional allegations about excessive use of powers put all of us who work in higher education in the spotlight.

For those of us who deplore the current destructive competitiveness in higher education, it is particularly galling to be tarred with the same brush. For the diminishing number of support staff in universities their only reward is a miserly offer of a 2.5 per cent salary increase. Even if this is improved to 2.7 per cent in line with academics it only amounts to an increase of Pounds 4 a week for the highest paid manual worker.

A great deal of hope is pinned on Lord Nolan's committee turning the tide in favour of the concepts of fairness and decency in public life. What a pity he has not been asked to deal with fairness in wages and conditions as well. The part-time staff, mainly women, who make up half the manual workforce in higher education earn on average 57p an hour less than National Health Service part-timers and 70p an hour less than local government part-timers, themselves among the most poorly paid in the country.

Clearly the introduction of a statutory minimum wage of around Pounds 4 an hour would help to ensure that decent standards are maintained. In a recent TUC report on the national minimum wage, Martin 0'Halloran of Mediclean, the largest cleaning contractors in the NHS, was quoted as saying: "If we have a minimum wage then we start to compete on issues such as quality." Obviously there is no hope of a government-led initiative on a statutory minimum wage until after the next general election. Meanwhile, trade unions are negotiating with university employers to boost the prospects of the lower paid.

All the support staff pay negotiations are taking place now. The technicians have rejected 2.7 per cent and may ballot their members about industrial action. The clerical and manual groups all meet the university employers this week and next. Who said August was a quiet month? No time for Tuscany. Most staff in universities could not afford it anyway.

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the student union at the Institute of Education, London University, a member of Unison's national executive and the TUC General Council.

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