Still bang on target

April 22, 2005

The biggest ever upheaval in pay and equality can't happen overnight, says Geoffrey Copland

In light of motions put this week to the Association of University Teachers council meeting in Eastbourne let me reassure those in doubt that the framework agreement on pay modernisation is on course and that it will deliver improvements for staff.

There can be no return to a 50-year-old system that, as both Sir Michael Bett and Sir Ron Dearing identified, was outdated, inflexible and could not deliver equal pay for work of equal value.

We are just a third of the way through the timescale for implementation that was agreed between employers and trade unions. Ten higher education institutions have implemented the outcomes of the agreements they reached locally and more than a third plan to implement their agreements by August.

This is remarkable progress and to suggest, as some AUT motions did, that the sector should have completed the largest human resources initiative it has faced inside of eight months is not just unrealistic but wrong.

This is not to say that serious challenges do not exist. According to the national press, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is concerned about the long-term financial health of a number of universities, although it stresses that they are not at immediate risk.

The funding councils last month announced increases in grant allocations of 5.6 per cent in England, 3.4 per cent in Scotland and 4.9 per cent in Wales. These are considerably smaller in real terms when earmarked funds and expected increases in student numbers are taken into account.

Moreover, allocations for individual universities and colleges range widely. For example, in England allocations vary between - 3 per cent and +7.7 per cent of the the average after allowing for changes in volume.

Meanwhile, added pressure on institutions' finances arises from the massive increases in pension costs - increases over which universities have no control.

In the face of this intense pressure, however, not one university or college has indicated that it is unwilling or unable to implement the framework agreement and the sector is on course to meet the August 2006 deadline.

When the concept of pay modernisation was introduced to the National Health Service under the Agenda for Change programme, the original two-year target stretched to seven years - and that was just to reach an agreement. Local government had a similar experience, but there is no such slippage evident in higher education. And while the local government process is being reinvigorated, one of its lessons was that senior-level buy-in to the whole process is essential.

As a vice-chancellor and as chairman of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, I have continuously urged my colleagues to get involved in ensuring the success of pay modernisation. The feedback from them and their staff is increasingly encouraging.

Pay modernisation is on course to meet the deadline and a growing number of institutions are reaching agreement. But the speed with which the initiative is rolled out cannot be uniform because each institution is starting from a different position.

It would be wrong to accelerate the pace beyond that which circumstances dictate. Each institution needs to get the framework right and the devil is in the detail. If we are not painstaking in our attention to detail, we risk letting staff down not just in the immediate future, but over many years.

Those motions tabled at AUT council criticising the speed of implementation put union leaders in a difficult position. They are being squeezed between what they agreed and the impatience of some union branches. Institutions know that their staff are their greatest asset and they want to recognise this with the best pay, reward and career development, and through equality. The framework agreement is the most powerful tool yet for delivering these aims and the blood, sweat and tears shed by all sides in coming to the agreement last year were an early sign of the commitment of all parties to making it a reality.

The pessimists must not be allowed to derail the process. Instead, both employers and unions must work in partnership to ensure fair pay and reward for delivering some of the world's best education and research.

Geoffrey Copland is chairman of the Universities and Colleges Employers'

Association and vice-chancellor of Westminster University.

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