THE seven-month higher education pay dispute is all but over after employers agreed to the principle of an independent and fully funded pay review body.
All eight unions involved agreed last Friday to recommend accepting the pay offers following successful individual bargaining group meetings with employers. Some unions will ballot members before accepting officially.
The settlement is a relief for both sides, who feared that the dispute, which has forged an unprecedented degree of union unity in the sector, could end in disarray with some unions settling and others escalating their industrial action.
It was clear, following the employers' revised and improved offer made unofficially on January 10, that the unions representing manual and ancillary employees would accept their two-year 7.3 per cent offer since it represented the best public sector pay settlement of the present round.
But the Association of University Teachers was prepared to escalate its industrial action, to include exams and possibly admissions disruption, unless its two-year 5.8 per cent offer was supported with agreement on an independent pay review body.
The breakthrough came when employers agreed at last Thursday's AUT bargaining group meeting, with "the principle that a fully funded independent pay review body would be a desirable mechanism for establishing salaries". The employers had already agreed to establish a one-off commission to look at academic pay compared with salaries in equivalent sectors. The AUT has now suspended its threatened exams disruption.
Gareth Roberts, chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, welcomed the resolution of the dispute, but said that a PRB was not necessarily the most appropriate way forward. He said: "One needs to recognise that universities are not like schools or other sectors with PRBs. A lot of universities' money comes from sources other than Government."
Despite the union support for a PRB the situation remains unclear. A lot will depend on the report of the Dearing inquiry, due this summer. The AUT fears that, if Sir Ron Dearing is insufficiently supportive of a PRB, employers and politicians could be left with the scope to duck the issue. These worries are compounded by the Labour party's stated intention to freeze public sector pay.
In the meantime, members of the eight unions are due to receive the bulk of their 1996/97 pay increases in lump sum payments included in their February or March pay packets.
The increases will be backdated to April or September last year depending on official settlement dates. Similarly the increases for 1997/98 will take effect from either April or September this year. There will be no pay claims from the unions this year.
The unions have already begun working towards creating an independent commission to compare pay in academe with comparable sectors. It is hoped that a report will be available by the end of next month when Sir Ron is due to start writing his HE report.
Michael Forsyth, secretary of state for Scotland, hinted at potential Government support for a pay review body when presenting the Scottish Office white paper on education, which proposes setting up a teachers' pay review body.
Asked whether he supported a similar move for higher education staff, Mr Forsyth said: "We have asked the Dearing committee to look at the situation in higher education and it is certainly something we would want to consider when we have had the report on that particular group.''