CRACKS may appear in the unprecedented unity forged by unions in the campaign over pay following an improved and potentially divisive offer from university employers.
Pressure on the eight-union alliance has increased since the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association revealed its final and much improved offers last Friday. The UCEA, which claims it is close to settling the seven-month-long dispute, offered lecturers and academic-related staff 5.8 per cent over two years and manual staff 7.3 per cent over two years. The original offers were 1.5 per cent and 2.5 per cent respectively.
The UCEA deal also includes a commitment to an independent pay commission to assess the pay gap between HE employees and comparable professionals and a pledge to review the existing negotiating machinery, but only after the Dearing Inquiry has reported later this year.
The unions involved in the pay dispute claim that the final offers are a partial victory for united action, because the original offers have been significantly increased and national bargaining has been effectively saved. They are now consulting members on the offers, which would be backdated to April 1 last year. The unions are expected to give their responses at a joint meeting next Friday.
Early and unofficial indications show that while most of the eight unions, particularly those representing manual workers such as Unison, are minded to accept the offer, the lecturing unions may not be so willing. Union executives are concerned that the offer could split the alliance.
The national executive of the Association of University Teachers, with more than 36,000 lecturer members mainly in the old universities, has already said that the pay offer is "not good enough" and has pledged to complete its second ballot of members over plans to disrupt the admissions and examinations processes. The ballot results are due to be announced next Wednesday and a vote against escalation could make the AUT more willing to accept the UCEA offer.
The Association of University and College Lecturers said that its response is likely to be broadly in line with the AUT.
Liz Allen, head of higher education for lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "The offer is a mixed bag for our members. I think we will take other unions' views into account."
But a spokeswoman for Unison said: "I think the general view is that this is a much improved offer. We are expecting a positive result from members." The General and Municipal Boilermakers, Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical, and the Transport and General Workers Unions say that members may also accept the offers.
Paul Talbot, the Manufacturing Science and and Finance union's national officer for higher education, took the middle line. He said: "What the unions started together, they should finish together."