The best deal possible, but our work is not done

June 23, 2006

The national pay deal is a small step, but Sally Hunt pledges to keep seeking more respect for academic staff

Contrary to reports in last week's Times Higher , the decision to ballot union members on the university pay dispute has provoked a complex reaction from those who have been involved in the industrial action. The responses to the pay deal agreed between union leaders and employers have ranged from outright relief to anger and disappointment.

Many members of the University and College Union have invested a great deal in this action, and it is quite rightly their decision as to what the union does next.

So as voting begins this week, what does the offer deliver, and where does it fall short? If it is accepted, salaries will rise by 10.37 per cent over two years, with a minimum third-year increase of 2.5 per cent. This compares favourably with any deal the public sector has struck for this year or next; it is ahead of underlying movements in average earnings and substantially above current and likely inflation. These are not statements that I could have made about any other university pay settlement in recent years.

It became increasingly clear to me during negotiations that although the sector was receiving extra funding of more than £3 billion over the next three years, the actual amount budgeted for improving staff pay was a fraction of that. Requests made under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the typical pay increase budgeted for by most universities was between 2.5 and 3 per cent a year between now and 2009.

The employers' March offer of a 6 per cent rise over two years reflected this. The industrial action taken by UCU members boosted the offer to more than 10 per cent on salary points over the same period - no mean achievement, but clearly not enough when set against the historic decline in salaries.

Could we have got more nationally? Some negotiators, or people "close" to them, have been reported in The Times Higher as thinking that we could have done better.

My view is that we could not - not through national negotiation, at least. After more than 40 hours of talks, it became clear to me that the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association had lost the confidence of some of its subscriber institutions and was incapable of going further.

Any further rises would have come from local negotiations, which many vice-chancellors would have welcomed. Some union members would have done well from this - but the majority would not. Local bargaining may appear superficially attractive, but a pay free-for-all will be bad for the profession and especially for members outside the richest institutions.

As things stand, we have nationally agreed increases over the next two years and a commitment to open the sector's books through an independent review in the third year. The review must determine how much money is available and examine universities' spending priorities. All too often, staff are at the bottom of a long list. One aim of the review is to get institutions to refocus on their greatest asset - people.

So what lessons can be learnt from the dispute so far? The first is that the unions have to seek reform of the bargaining arrangements. The employers' negotiators need, at the very least, to be mandated to negotiate effectively on their institutions' behalf. The second is that although we must work with all the trade unions in the sector, we must also make it clear that academic and related staff need distinct negotiations. I have welcomed the extra percentage increases for support staff at the bottom of the grading structure in this offer, but others must recognise that there are real and serious problems with UCU members' pay that require the continuation of separate pay negotiations.

Finally, this dispute has shown what happens when staff anger builds up as a result of employer neglect. The discontent felt by our members stretches beyond pay. Insecure contracts, ever-increasing bureaucracy, rising workloads, a perception of inequality of opportunity and reward by women and ethnic-minority staff, and the pervasive threat of job cuts have all contributed to the sense staff have of being undervalued and not respected.

History shows that our employers will not act voluntarily to improve these things.

I will continue to argue that we deserve much better from our employers. A strong union in higher education must campaign actively not just on pay but also on what it means to be a professional working in our sector today - and my commitment to university staff is to do just that in the years ahead.

Sally Hunt is joint general secretary of the University and College Union.

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