Put £4K where your mouth is

November 22, 2002

V-cs need to get involved in the battle for increased London weighting, argues Sally Hunt

Last week, thousands of staff from London's universities went on strike in support of their claim for a decent allowance. The following day, in this slot, they read an opinion piece by a vice-chancellor saying in essence that London employers were sympathetic, but not to blame. The key thing, however, is not to argue about who is culpable but to find a way through this dispute so that staff can afford to work at the capital's higher education institutions.

London vice-chancellors are working hard to increase funding in the sector and in London in particular. Both they and the Association of University Teachers agree that the government must increase the funding available to preserve standards. However, when it comes to placing all the responsibility for meeting a reasonable London weighting claim on the government, I am afraid that is where we disagree.

AUT members, along with Natfhe, Unison and Amicus, are in dispute with London employers over the allowance that staff get for working in the capital. It is one of the lowest in the public sector.

Employees at University of London institutions get just £2,134 a year, while staff at new institutions get a maximum of £2,353. To put this into context, police officers get £6,111 extra for working in London, prison officers receive £3,500 and teachers get £3,105.

To rub salt into the wounds, London weighting for staff at the University of London has been frozen for ten years.

The London allowance is so pitiful that many university staff will never earn enough to buy a house in the capital. Many have to rely on financial support from their relatives.

Because of the huge financial burdens of living and working in London, unions have asked for vice-chancellors to increase the allowance for all university employees, from porters to professors, to £4,000.

This is not an unreasonable claim. When the four unions held a one-day strike over the matter last week, it was so well supported that many institutions virtually shut down. So exasperated do low-paid support staff feel that last Thursday's day of action was the second time they had gone on strike in little over a month.

Throughout the build-up to the strikes, unions have been urging vice-chancellors to talk with us about London weighting. With a few honourable exceptions, they have continuously refused to attempt meaningful negotiations. The approach appears to be: "Deeply sympathetic but not my fault, guv." Really? I thought that management was about taking responsibility, finding solutions. About dealing with the fact that poorly paid workers have lost one or two days' pay because they want their managers to pay attention and find a way through this.

Instead, unions have been told that London employers cannot afford to make any increase and that their hard-working staff are wrong to ask them to improve the London allowance.

Well, how long can they afford not to? It is common knowledge that recruitment and retention in the capital is becoming very difficult. Attracting and keeping the right staff does not happen without the right terms and conditions. London weighting is part of that salary package. Ignoring its existence, saying it is the wrong mechanism to use, simply won't help.

Two weeks ago, a document put together by the business-led partnership, London First, called for public workers to be given a minimum London allowance of £4,000 - exactly the figure for which we are asking. One of the key groups of managers in London First is London's vice-chancellors.

So, if they are backing a report that calls for a minimum allowance of £4,000, why is it wrong for their staff to expect them to explore options with unions to achieve the same? We are ready to negotiate. Are they?

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.

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