Singing tune of Return to Fender

May 12, 1995

I attended the Association of University Administrators' Conference in Bristol last month. The prospect of so many university administrators all together would be daunting to the most resilient vice chancellor. One session was entitled "Return to Fender - Promoting People Two Years on". The January 1993 Fender report made some very welcome recommendations: "The human resource management capacity of institutions should be strengthened". "The Government should make a firm choice between a 'hands off' approach to university negotiating machinery and full participation in the employers' side".

As chair of the clerical staff negotiations for years (some of them facing Brian Fender across the table as chair of the employers' side), I remember how frustrating the Department of Education and Science/for Education "Hot-Line" mode of negotiations could be. The report also recommended the creation of a national single table bargaining forum. A single integrated pay spine for all higher education staff providing equal pay and career mobility across all higher education groups has long been a Unison goal. Other aspects of the report were not so welcome - the devolution of conditions of service issues to local level and the apparent diminution of the role of trade unions.

So it was with an air of anticipation that I headed for the seminar. Unfortunately, although we waited over half an hour, the speaker did not materialise. We held a self-organised seminar but it was difficult to find any common threads of experience. Perhaps it was significant? Had the Fender report been consigned to that great task group in the sky?

Hardly. The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association consultation on future pay structures, together with the news that Professor Fender is to be the new chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England make me think that the issues in the report are alive and germinating.

The second round of consultation asks universities to choose between four options - continuation of "new" and "old" university negotiating structures; single table negotiations or one each for teaching staff and all other staff; new groupings of institutions on a self-selected basis. The questionnaire sent to universities allows a permutation of at least 80 answers, many potentially contradictory. What is worrying about its language is the bullish reference to withdrawing or limiting national union recognition agreements. The legal right to recognition is now back on the active agenda since the European Court judgment last year and the TUC consultative document on representation at work. It would be unfortunate if we in universities were out of step.

One hopes that the outcome will protect universities and the morale of their staff. National negotiations on pay, grading and conditions of service will ensure that universities present a coherent pressure group on funding issues with successive Governments. Ensuring equal opportunities, training and career development across the system will assist staff morale already shaken by uncertainties.

Maybe Fender will appear in person at AUA next year?

Rita Donaghy is permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union, and a member of the national executive of Unison and of the TUC General Council.

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