One-note union dirge: change the record and listen to our record

Ideology is preventing the UCU et al from appreciating the private sector's diversity and its fair treatment of staff, argues Aldwyn Cooper

November 3, 2011



Credit: Femke De Jong


David Willetts has made clear the coalition government's desire to see privately funded organisations playing a greater role in UK higher education.

Perhaps inevitably, the immediate response from the trade unions, particularly the University and College Union, has been concern about the detrimental effects of such a shift and a demand for union recognition in private colleges.

As the head of one such institution, I would be encouraged to see the unions wading into this debate if their concerns were about the student experience, employability or educational oversight. It would be positive if their focus was on matters other than simply salaries. But their position is unclear.

Are their concerns principally related to the quality and sustainability of a first-class higher education sector, the welfare of their members or some political dogma that brands anything with the title "private" as something from the dark side? The majority of union pronouncements suggest the final point.

The reality is that all higher education in this country is private. The real differences between institutions are twofold. The first is between those that accept government funding and those that are reliant solely on students' tuition fees and other sources of income. The second is between those that are "not-for-profit" and the "for-profits" that distribute dividends to shareholders. In the for-profits there is a tension, although not an insurmountable one, between academic standards and shareholder dividends.

If the unions are worried about quality, they should be reassured that only institutions that meet the conditions for Quality Assurance Agency educational oversight and UK Border Agency highly trusted status will be able to continue to operate internationally. This may reduce the number of lower-quality for-profit providers and there is already evidence that many such players are leaving the field.

If, on the other hand, the unions' concerns are about their members' welfare, they should compare more carefully the terms and conditions in the predominantly state-funded sector, where they already have almost full recognition, and a basket of the better privately funded institutions, where they do not.

There is an unfortunate tendency to assume that non-state-funded higher education providers are homogeneous and must all offer terms and conditions far worse than the national agreements negotiated by the unions. This is not true.

Complete figures are difficult to secure, but whether for-profit or not, salaries in private institutions appear to be around the median for their state-funded peers in the same geographical areas. Salaries, holiday entitlement, sickness benefits and development opportunities for all staff have generally improved year on year, with settlements that trump the national agreements negotiated by the unions.

Further, job security in the private group would appear to be better than in the state-funded sector, where many institutions have declared redundancy schemes, with potentially negative implications for the student experience.

Pension provision is the one area where the non-state-funded sector necessarily falls behind the current position in publicly funded institutions because the cost of establishing final-salary schemes is unsustainable. On the other hand, state-funded bodies are now coming to the same conclusion: annual employer contributions exceeding 20 per cent cannot be maintained and the demise of such deals is inevitable.

That said, some non-state-funded institutions do contribute as much as 10 per cent to their pension schemes, which is generous compared with the wider private sector.

We must all accept that there needs to be diverse provision of higher education in this country to fulfil varied needs and expectations at different levels and for different purposes.

Many high-end universities and specialist colleges would prefer to have the freedoms of the non-state-funded sector and would become "private" if some reassurance about access to research and specialist funding could be provided.

The need for this diversity, and the flexibility required to sustain it, almost certainly means an end to the restrictions of national pay bargaining and a shift towards performance-related pay.

Education is one of the few sectors where the density of trade union membership has been relatively stable for the past decade. It is questionable whether this will continue over the next 10 years if the unions fail to recognise the diversity of employment and pay more attention to political agendas than addressing members' interests realistically.

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