AUT and Natfhe unmoved by lure of improved offer, reports Phil Baty.
A commitment by employers to improve on their offer to staff of a 6 per cent pay rise over two years was not enough to entice the two main lecturers' unions to formal pay negotiations this week, making serious disruption to this summer's exams look increasingly inevitable.
The Association of University Teachers and sister union Natfhe are taking part in a continuous boycott of student exams and assessments in support of their claim for a 23 per cent rise over the next three years. They have repeatedly rejected the employers' requirement that they suspend the action before formal negotiations can take place.
Frustrations boiled over this week as one senior negotiator from a non-academic campus union broke ranks and accused the AUT, which is leading the uncompromising stance, of "forgetting the basic rules of negotiations - give and take".
"There is increasing frustration from all the other unions about the AUT's stubbornness. They are completely intransigent, and we would like to see them and Natfhe back in the talks," he said.
The National Union of Students also qualified its overall backing of the unions' pay campaign as president Kat Fletcher "strongly urged" the AUT to reconsider its tactic of refusing to set exams and to adopt Natfhe's softer position of simply refusing to mark them. It is understood that even Natfhe negotiators are privately concerned that the AUT position is preventing progress, despite strong public unity with the union it is set to merge with in June.
After informal talks facilitated by arbitration service Acas this week failed to get the parties round the negotiating table, the University and Colleges Employers' Association said it had made "a significant shift" in its position, but that the academic unions still "refused to minimise the risk of long-term damage to students caused by their boycott".
Jocelyn Prudence, Ucea chief executive, said: "The employers asked AUT and Natfhe to protect the future position of students by setting and marking examinations, even if they chose to withhold the marks until a settlement is reached, or at the very least to suspend the other elements of their industrial action."
She said that instructing union members to resume covering for absent colleagues, for example, would have been enough.
She added that Ucea was seeking to find a settlement to the dispute in the next fortnight and was willing to make an improvement to the opening 6 per cent two-year offer - including a possible three-year deal, as demanded by the academic unions - at a formal negotiating meeting of all unions within the next week.
A joint statement by Natfhe and AUT said: "The unions clearly stated that once Ucea is able to remove preconditions to negotiations taking place and makes an acceptable pay offer, both Natfhe and AUT will begin consulting on that offer immediately."
They said they welcomed the acknowledgement that the 6 per cent offer would need to be improved. But, even if talks can be held soon, any improvement would have to come much closer to meeting the unions' three-year claim to prevent widespread disruption of summer exams.