The battle, the fallout and a new reckoning

December 22, 2006

We look back at the fight over pay and the year's other key events and offer festive fun in a news quiz and personal reflections on the past 12 months

It was billed as the first year of top-up fees, but 2006 will be remembered in universities as the year of the dispute.

As early as the second week of January, the academic unions threatened to bring universities to a "standstill" with a marking boycott as they pursued a pay rise of 21.3 per cent over three years. The deadlock with vice-chancellors would last for six months. In summer, just as it looked as if the action might prevent students from graduating, a deal was brokered: employers agreed to a 13.1 per cent rise over three years - 0.5 per cent up on their original offer.

But at what cost? The disenchantment of the union's rank-and-file members; the damage inflicted on academic-administrator relations; and the loss of trust between universities and their new fee-paying student customers perhaps.

Dawn of the super-union

From all this was born an academic super-union representing 120,000 lecturers across old and new universities. But in October, rifts within the University and College Union exploded into "open warfare" as Paul Mackney, the former head of lecturers' union Natfhe and one of UCU's joint general secretaries, launched a scathing public attack on his joint postholder, Sally Hunt, the former Association of University Teachers chief, over the (mis)handling of the pay dispute. It is unlikely that the UCU will be able to become a real force with a clear and powerful voice until a single leader is chosen next year.

Business as usual

In many other ways, however, it was business as usual for higher education in 2006: more angst over the failure to recruit students from working-class backgrounds; another fudge over post-qualifications admissions; much debate over student plagiarism; closures of science departments; and continued discussion over the vexed issue of the thousands of young researchers on fixed-term contracts.

The RAE reforms

And, of course, there was more debate over the future of the research assessment exercise. Just as universities were finalising preparations for the 2008 RAE, Chancellor Gordon Brown dropped a bombshell in his March Budget: not only would future RAEs be replaced by a metrics-based system, but the 2008 RAE itself might need to incorporate the new metrics.

Intensive lobbying resulted in concessions, confirmed this month, that the 2008 exercise will stay as it is, and panels of academics will oversee metrics, to be phased in from 2009.

Vice-chancellors were relieved, but 2007 will be a year of frantic debate about the detailed workings of the system.

Widening access

Politically, universities' efforts to widen access again caught the eye. At the start of the year, Ruth Kelly, then Education Secretary, bemoaned the lack of progress; at the year's end, her successor, Alan Johnson, continued the theme. Progress had been "too slow and may be levelling off", he said.

The politics of being Boris

Early in the year, Edinburgh Students' Association launched a vitriolic "Anyone but Boris" campaign for the post of university rector.

But by autumn, Boris Johnson's face had not only appeared on more newspaper front pages than he might have liked, but he could also be seen in Andy Warhol-style pictures at all university freshers' fairs as part of the Tory attempt to attract the student vote.

The top-up debate

How will top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year for students in England affect the higher education market? All will be revealed with the publication of full admissions figures for institutions next year. The total number of entrants was down by more than 15,000 - a 3.7 per cent drop compared with 2005. But it was still a rise of 3.7 per cent between 2004 and 2006.

Vice-chancellors are looking ahead to the 2009 funding review, with many privately in favour of a higher, £5,000, cap on fees.

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