Now the government has increased HE funding, employers should begin negotiations with staff over pay and conditions, says Tom Wilson.
On Tuesday, members of the six higher education unions took part in rallies and events at institutions around the country to launch a campaign for fair pay, fair workloads and a fair deal for students. Members plan to withhold marks, work to contract and impose an overtime ban.
The campaign follows a ballot in which members of Natfhe, Unison, EIS, MSF, TGWU and GMB voted overwhelmingly in favour of action in response to employers' latest pay offer.
It is quite extraordinary that the employers, who offered 3 per cent (less than further education or teachers, who were both awarded 3.3 per cent), refuse to negotiate even though this year's higher education funding has halted the recent cuts and next year's level of funding will actually bring growth - including an additional £330 million earmarked specifically for pay between 2001 and 2004.
Education secretary David Blunkett has publicly called for employers to return to talks and said he supports the principle of national bargaining over pay and conditions.
Low pay is a scandal. Of course funding remains a problem, but something can and must be done.
On the conditions issue, a majority of employers have said they wish to remove the employees' right to national bargaining by excluding national conditions issues from the remit of the new bargaining machinery proposed in last year's Bett report on staffing. Excluding conditions is contrary to those recommendations.
That matters. This could mean lecturers losing the protection of the national contract - which guarantees certain basic working conditions and employment rights - and see teaching hours soar to 800 or more per year, as they have in further education.
Some institutions have already admitted they want that to happen. If they are allowed, many others will feel driven to follow their example. The national contract is far from perfect, but it provides essential protection. The quality of teaching and learning offered to students would be the first casualty of a free-for-all.
The dispute and our action have the full support of the National Union of Students. NUS president Owain James wrote to Natfhe on November 22, stating that the union shares our concerns about the need for substantial improvements in workloads, stress, pay and conditions. He added that, without doubt, some of the action would disrupt students, but stated: "The NUS recognises that, despite short-term difficulties, a positive result would lead to significant improvements for staff and students in the longer term."
By working strictly to the terms and conditions of their contract, staff will remind employers of its importance and of just how many of our members regularly work well beyond their contract.
At stake is not just the quality of working life for staff, but the quality of higher education in the new universities and higher education colleges. Student numbers have increased by 90 per cent in ten years, yet staff numbers have risen by just 25 per cent. Everyone is overloaded, yet the employers refuse to update the national contract that provides a means of negotiating fair workloads.
Staff and students are saying enough is enough. But employers are saying different things. Many want to scrap Natfhe's national contract because it is a relic of the binary divide - but they do not want to merge pay scales or tackle the absurdly low new university research scales.
All agree on the need to end discrimination - indeed, government funding will depend on demonstrable progress in doing so - but many are reluctant even to measure the race or sex pay gap.
Some want extra pay to stop "high-fliers" leaving, but seem unaware that would legally require objectively justified market supplements applicable to all staff or it would actually exacerbate discrimination.
Recent legislation to help part-time and fixed-term contract staff cannot be ignored. Many simmering issues have come to a head. They all need to be resolved through negotiation.
Our action clearly helped secure the recent funding increase and pay earmarking. Vice-chancellors have no excuse for not returning to talks. Our action will continue until we negotiate a settlement that is both fair to all staff and preserves quality for students.
Tom Wilson is head of Natfhe's universities department.