The best kept low pay secret around

March 3, 1995

Not for the first time, I have been struck by how much more successful other groups of public employees are than university staff at drawing attention to their ungenerous treatment and at winning widespread support for their case.

This year's public sector pay round is going according to precedent. A partially unfunded settlement for teachers properly brings protests on all sides, not so much because of its effect on the teachers - though the possible redundancy of some thousands of skilled professionals is no small matter - but because of the loss of quality implied by a further increase in class size. The effective imposition of local pay bargaining for nurses, skilfully separated from doctors, comes hand in hand with a flat-rate rise of l per cent that implies a real reduction in living standards for many in this group. Finally, there is the question of merit pay for senior civil servants, the rights and wrongs of which are lost in the hubbub about the overall picture and in astonishment at the ineptitude of the timing of the announcement.

Yet all of these dilemmas face our universities. Much though one sympathises with teachers, for example, their average pay has risen 379 per cent since 1979 while that of academics has gone up by 1 per cent. During this same period, average professional pay has increased by 385 per cent. And all of this while the growth in the number of students has been phenomenal. And yet, with a revenue uplift which may, on average, bring universities only 1.5 per cent more grant, one option is to cut further the real wages of colleagues whose productivity gains are probably greater than those of any other comparable group. Or we could, like school governing bodies will have to, pay a slightly higher pay rise - albeit less than the rate of inflation - but in so doing provoke job losses and hence reduce the quality of what we provide.

This is because, with no more student growth permitted, partly unfunded pay rises cannot be met by increased income but only by reduced expenditure - "efficiency gains" finally unmasked as cuts.

"Local bargaining", it will be said, is the way out. But universities are used to local bargaining. Promotions, accelerated increments, professorial salaries - all are long-established examples of performance-related pay, and an important part of our salary structure. But for these tools to be effective and seen as fair, the "merit" element for those judged by their peers to be particularly deserving has be additional to, rather than instead of, an adequate pay level for all. For universities, the funds are not provided to do either adequately, let alone both.

And what of professorial pay, the analogue to senior civil servants? In the new market, very talented academics can and do demand salaries well above what they would have sought just a few years ago. Good luck to them - why should not an outstanding physicist or philosopher earn a really good salary? But for every two professors on Pounds 45k instead of Pounds 35k - hardly excessive - one fewer lecturer can be afforded, one young colleague cannot start his or her career, staff:student ratios again suffer. What a choice!

But do you read of these issues in the press or hear of them nightly on the radio or television? Teachers and nurses yes, and rightly so - yet university staff are never mentioned. How come we are so wholly ineffective at making our case?

Can it be because we fail to speak with one voice?

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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