Pay talks face radical reform

July 27, 2007

Employers back consortia of universities taking on responsibility for salaries and insist on single-table talks, reports Melanie Newman

The prospect of academics' salary levels being set according to where their university stands in the pecking order of UK institutions emerged this week in a report by university employers.

A report based on the results of a survey of 78 institutions by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association indicates that while most universities support national pay negotiations for the "immediate future", this support "wanes" in the longer term.

Extracts of the report, leaked to The Times Higher , reveal that some institutions are actively planning to negotiate pay in consortia of universities with similar missions, profiles or status, or at a local level.

The report says: "In the medium and longer term, ie, five and ten years' time respectively, support for national-level determination appears to wane, with more higher education institutions envisaging a move to local or consortium bargaining.

"For some this is seen as a desirable and planned strategic objective, but for others it is seen more as an inevitable outcome of wider changes in higher education rather than a desired direction."

Chris Snowden, vice-chancellor of Surrey University, told The Times Higher : "We need to recognise that universities are much more diverse in terms of mission and capability than they were, and that the market for staff varies greatly.

"For those with research-led missions, the market for staff is global. They are competing against US institutions for researchers."

One vice-chancellor suggested that national bargaining would not survive a growing divide in income between universities, which any future removal of the cap on top-up fees, after the 2009 fees review, would exacerbate.

"The second issue is how long we can continue having settlements in which pay goes up but there is no corresponding increase in productivity," he added.

The report concludes that "two strong messages" emerged from the survey: "the prospective need/desire for many institutions to move away from national bargaining in the medium or longer term", and in the immediate term, "the need to improve the process of national bargaining".

The report said that current support for national bargaining depended on "certain conditions" being met by the University and College Union, including reform of negotiating machinery to ensure that the academic and non-academic unions negotiate pay around a single table, with a clear timetable. The UCU has so far refused both demands.

The report will add to fears expressed in private by some UCU representatives that national bargaining is being put at risk by the union's insistence on a separate bargaining table for academics.

One vice-chancellor told The Times Higher : "The single-table issue is crucial. National pay bargaining might well break down if that cannot be agreed."

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "We welcome a commitment from employers to national bargaining, but their reluctance to acknowledge the need to maintain the national framework has caused us to doubt their commitment."

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

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