Employers prepare to discuss consortia model of negotiations as UCU reiterates its commitment to UK-wide bargaining. Claire Sanders reports
Vice-chancellors could band together to negotiate the academic pay levels best suited to their type of institution under an option being considered by employers.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association has sent its members an internal discussion document that is understood to outline a number of options - including the possibility of a shift to a form of consortia bargaining.
The document, which Ucea this week insisted was for internal viewing only, is part of a review of the national bargaining machinery by employers and campus unions. Results are due to emerge this summer.
But in a talk to the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education in November, Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of Ucea, spelt out a number of options for longer term pay strategies.
These ranged from the current national pay bargaining system and a regional model to one based on "similar higher education institutions" negotiating together, or "ad hoc consortia".
Any move to a consortia model, in which universities that share common interests reach joint agreements, would be highly controversial because it would destroy any concept of national pay bargaining.
Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The UCU remains committed to national pay bargaining - which provides important protection for all staff and remains the most efficient and effective way to negotiate.
"The efforts of the unions and Ucea should now be focused on a levelling-up to the best pay and conditions in the sector."
Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the UCU, said: "The consortia model would bring back the binary divide and a two-tier pay system or, worse, the very splits that the framework was designed to overcome."
The degree to which the framework has overcome the old binary divide - or indeed has exacerbated it - is a hotly contested issue and one that will feed into the debate on the future of pay bargaining.
The pace of change is slower in new universities. However, this is in part due to the number of conditions set by Natfhe, the former lecturers' union.
Natfhe held out for the transfer of hourly paid lecturers to permanent fractional contracts, which are comparable to those of full-time lecturers, and insisted that all job evaluations be completed.
The former Association of University Teachers' approach was to sign off an agreement in principle and then transfer staff later. The AUT also held out for a memorandum of understanding containing a "no detriment" clause.
Mr Kline said: "I do not think the framework is leading to a two-tier system. Some of the deals at new universities match or better many of those at old universities. Over time, as the impact of fee income is felt and some old research universities lose in the race for research funds, there may be more variety - disastrously so if national bargaining fragments."
He insisted that national pay bargaining would ensure national comparability on pay and protect those working at the most vulnerable institutions.
"The staff in some of the most vulnerable institutions contain high percentages of women and ethnic minorities, as do the student bodies. This is an equal opportunities and equal pay issue," he said.
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University and a board member of Ucea, said: "From the perspective of this university, the pay framework has been an enormous success. It has given us the assurance that we are offering equal pay for equal work and has allowed us local variability within national guidance."
On the future of pay bargaining, he said: "This is a particularly challenging question that arose during the pay dispute, when the unions asked for a third of fee income to go on salaries.
"Levels of fee income vary enormously between universities, and there were questions about how collective pay bargaining could reflect these differences."
He said that, as vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, he would not favour a consortia model.
"I think a national model or purely local system would be preferable.
However, what I think will emerge is the sort of framework we have at the moment, which allows for local variation, but possibly without the degree of detail that exists at present."
A Ucea spokesperson insisted that there were no preferred options on the table. "The aim is to have as wide ranging a debate as possible."
University lobby groups, such as the Russell Group, refused to be drawn on the subject, saying that all options were up for consideration.
'Universities have adapted the framework to their needs while keeping a common reference point'
The latter conformed to the national model set out in Appendix C of the national pay framework.
"The Teesside model has 51 points and nine grades, as well as contribution points at the top of each," Ms Amos said.
But starting salaries for lecturers are comparatively low: £24,886 for new staff and £29,716 for senior lecturers. Ms Amos said that this was still an improvement on pay before the agreement, adding that there would be further rises in February in line with the 2006 pay settlement.
Teesside has transferred part-time lecturers who work more than 120 hours a year to permanent fractional contracts and, in addition, has aligned the pay of hourly paid lecturers with that of full-timers.
It also completed initial role assessments and transferred staff to the new structure before signing off the agreement with local unions. "We had fewer than 30 people red-circled (identified as being overpaid for their role), all of whom were support staff," said Ms Amos, referring to the fact that some people have faced pay cuts after job evaluations. "We are confident we will resolve their situations satisfactorily."
She thinks there is a role for national pay bargaining if it is flexible enough to allow for local variations. "The framework seems about right.
Universities have been able to adapt it to their needs while keeping a common reference point."
'Our aim is to attract not just current big names, but also the potential names of the future'
For Karen Heaton, the new director of human resources at Manchester University, the pay framework is creating a highly competitive system.
"Our policy is to attract the best people in their field - whether they are academics or support staff," she said. "This means we need to compete globally as well as locally."
Manchester has been quick to act after seeing that Liverpool University was offering particularly high professorial salaries. "We became aware that Liverpool was offering starting salaries of £52,107," Ms Heaton said. "So we raised the professorial starting salary to £52,107."
The university also offers competitive starting salaries to researchers, at £25,633, although research assistants start at £21,467. "Again, our aim is to ensure that we do not just attract the current big names, but also the potential names of the future," Ms Heaton said.
She pointed out that salaries could be enhanced by contribution points and market supplements - but urged caution. She said: "A few years ago it was hard to fill IT posts, so significant market supplements were offered, but as the IT market has changed these have come in some cases to represent golden handcuffs as the salaries cannot be matched elsewhere and this can prevent staff moving on."
She added that salaries were just part of an overall package for any member of staff. "We offer some of the best maternity provision of any university in the country," she said. "Salaries are just one part of an increasingly varied mix."
'Colleges can supplement the pay of staff, employ their own fellows and support staff - and ignore the new framework'
For Peter Deer, director of personnel at Cambridge University, the new pay framework has enabled the university to bring a greater degree of transparency to its pay structure.
"By extending the pay spine to cover all non-clinical salaries, including those of professors earning more than £100,000, we can certainly argue that it provides an inclusive and transparent structure from porters to professors," he said.
However, the situation at Cambridge - as at Oxford University - is complicated by the relationship between the university and the colleges.
At Cambridge, colleges can supplement the pay of university staff, employ their own fellows and support staff - and indeed ignore the framework completely.
Nevertheless, Mr Deer stressed that the new structure would apply to all non-clinical staff employed by the university.
It has major implications for contract researchers, who form about half of the university's academic staff. While their salaries are in line with many in the sector, they are not the frontrunners. Research assistants at Cambridge start on £20,942, with research associates starting on £24,161.
While the latter's salaries can rise to £30,606 - and above, if contribution points are included - the starting salary is behind Manchester University's and Oxford's.
Mr Deer said: "Most of our researchers are above the minimum salaries and so their average salaries are considerably higher."
He said that the university kept salaries under constant review and that there would be a further 1 per cent rise in salaries from February.
'We listened to the unions when they called for consistency with the national pay framework and have pegged points on our structure to the national pay spine'
On the surface, the pay structure at Northumbria University has little in common with the nationally agreed pay framework.
For a start, it has 37 points - rather than the 51 on the initial pay spine. And it has eight grades, rather than the ten set out in the initial framework. But this does not mean that Clare Curran, director of human resources at Northumbria, has ignored the framework.
"We decided to consult across the university and to negotiate with the trade unions and adopt a structure that was right for Northumbria," Ms Curran said.
"But through our partnership processes we listened to the unions when they called for consistency with the national pay framework and have pegged points on our structure to the national pay spine."
Northumbria also decided not to introduce contribution points, as set out in the national framework.
"At Northumbria we had a well-regarded staff development and appraisal system. After much discussion, we decided to keep it and extend it to all staff.
"We do, however, have contribution pay for staff who are paid outside the national pay structure and for the top point of the principal lecturer scale."
The university also offered all hourly paid staff who do more than 80 hours of formal scheduled teaching a year the chance to go on to factional contracts, with their role graded in line with the new structure.
"This ensures that we are paying our hourly paid lecturers on the same level as our full-time lecturers and offers them greater job security," Ms Curran said.
She did not think that a two-tier system was developing between old and new universities.
"At Northumbria, starting salaries for junior lecturers are £28,010 and for senior lecturers they are £32,471. These compare favourably nationally," she said.
There was still a role for national pay bargaining, she added. "We are all fishing in a national pool for talent and this brings some coherence," she said.