Two tribes' twinning formula

February 15, 2002

University staff should take a leaf out of the QAA's book in their battles over pay, says Tom Wilson.

Anger over last week's league tables of vice-chancellors' pay and concerns about its secretive allocation show that higher education staff want their pay systems to be subject to higher standards. But, like cricket and football, pay and quality issues have long seemed to inhabit separate worlds, peopled by different tribes.

The two separate controversies have raged for at least the past ten years, side by side. One arguing about audit, enhancement, standards and institutional autonomy; the other about pay levels, conditions, national bargaining and institutional autonomy.

Human resource specialists and trade unionists argue about pay and conditions. Senior academics, Quality Assurance Agency and funding council representatives argue about quality. Few play both games. The pay discourse involves specifics such as numbers and cash. Quality discourses balance abstract concepts.

But the similarities are also striking. Last year both controversies erupted into open battle. The chief executives of both the University and College Employers' Association and the QAA resigned. For the first time, many academics and other staff took united industrial action, while some universities threatened to lock out the QAA.

Both disputes involved much behind-the-scenes lobbying. In both government intervened. An injection of £330 million helped stave off the pay dispute. A promise of a "lighter touch" on audit resolved the QAA row.

These parallels are not just accidents of timing. There was a determined attempt to reduce national bargaining and weaken the collective framework of rates and conditions. The QAA was, similarly, seen to be attacking the existing peer-review system. Twin revolts from staff forced new frameworks for quality and bargaining. Both new systems are based on consent, combining national standards with institutional autonomy.

The QAA is further ahead in designing a new approach. What could we pay negotiators learn? Over the past four years, the QAA has put together a complete new four-part national infrastructure. The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) describes what diplomas, degrees and doctorates should look like. The code of practice describes good practice in managing and assuring quality. Subject benchmarks describe the kind of thing graduates in 42 different fields ought to know. Finally, programme specifications tell prospective students what they should expect for their fees.

Over in the pay arena, we are trying to develop a similar four-part infrastructure. The new national pay spine will look a bit like the national FHEQ. Attached to it will be descriptions of what peoples' job titles mean. Already there is a draft code of practice on rewarding and developing staff. We are working towards benchmarks that describe or evaluate staff roles or jobs. They will allow comparisons between all staff (not just academics), enabling consistency in pay and conditions. Finally, we aim to improve the national contracts that describe staff conditions, thus clarifying what kind of job staff can expect.

One lesson from the QAA is that patient work does succeed. National coherence is crucial. Fragmenting into local bargaining would not help.

The QAA also recognises the need to win active academic support. Peter Williams, acting chief executive, says the new approach allows "the twin traditions of academic collegiality and autonomy" to be "nurtured". He also likens the shift to giving people a map, rather than a route.

This is maybe the QAA's most useful lesson. We could see the pay negotiations as drafting a map. Exactly the same route is unlikely to be right for every institution. But each should meet the same national standards of pay, workloads, conditions and career development. Once we have a clear, agreed, national infrastructure mapping out such standards, then we can set off - but not before.

Tom Wilson is head of universities for the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education.

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