Seven-hour talks end in glimmer of hope

May 26, 2006

Hopes of a breakthrough in the pay dispute were raised as The Times Higher went to press this week but senior union sources suggested that there was only very limited optimism that the employers' current offer of 12.6 per cent over three years would be improved.

Seven hours of talks between employers and the unions, facilitated by arbitration service Acas, ended this week with nothing more than an agreement to keep on talking. But that alone gave rise to optimism that progress was being made.

After talks on Tuesday, the Association of University Teachers and sister union Natfhe issued a limited statement, agreed with the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association.

It said only that "a range of options were explored and the parties agreed to meet again for a continuation of the talks, through Acas, on Thursday morning". This meeting was due to take place after The Times Higher went to press.

Union sources, bound by the confidentiality of the negotiations, expressed only very limited optimism and suggested that there had still been no clear commitment to improve on the headline 12.6 per cent offer.

One source said that "there is no new suit, just one that might have been dry cleaned". It is understood that the talks have focused on a "repackaging" of the offer within a general limit of about 12.6 per cent, with potential small peripheral changes being mooted.

It was not clear if this might include changes to the current offer of staggered pay increases during the year, or even an offer covering a different time period.

The talks followed a well-attended meeting of vice-chancellors at Ucea last week, after which the employers insisted that they would not improve on their "best and final" offer of 12.6 per cent.

Ucea said that in the "packed meeting", employers had "stressed their absolute support for the 12.6 per cent pay offer to staff over three years".

Geoffrey Copland, Ucea chairman, said at the time: "Our members are clear that they cannot go beyond this offer - not a single voice this morning suggested that more money was available. The offer is at the very limits of - and for some institutions beyond - what is affordable."

The employers' commitment to stick with the 12.6 offer appeared to be confirmed by its decision to place a full-page advert in The Times Higher this week, urging the unions to put the figure to a ballot of their full membership.

The unions are adamant that the offer, which they say amounts to just 3.5 per cent a year for three years in real terms and is therefore just above inflation, is not nearly enough to stop the dispute.

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