University and College Union activists deliver an official rebuke to their leaders over their actions in the national dispute this year, Tony Tysome reports
The many thousands of lecturers who took part in the biggest ever higher education pay campaign this year were let down by leaders who "lost their nerve" and "surrendered" a better pay rise.
This is the official verdict of the University and College Union activists after a special higher education conference late last week.
The conference carried ten motions, most of which were highly critical of the handling of the dispute. These lamented tactical errors, lost opportunities and a lack of consultation with members. One motion said that the pay deal was "derisory" and "completely undermined" the UCU as a new organisation following last summer's merger of former lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers.
The pay dispute, launched in early spring, ended abruptly in June when the AUT and Natfhe, on the brink of formal merger, called off a boycott of exams and assessment before any real threat to final-year graduations.
The deal - ratified by a members' ballot in July - gave staff a 13.1 per cent pay increase over three years, just 0.5 per cent up on the employers' original offer at the start of the year.
A motion from Edge Hill University's UCU said that the mishandling of the dispute by union leaders had resulted in "a complete undermining of UCU as a new organisation".
It noted: "Embarrassingly, even Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, stated that he believed that UCU settled for less than what could have been achieved. Why then did UCU claim that the offer was the absolute best that could be achieved?"
London South Bank University UCU condemned negotiators for calling off action with "indecent haste", resulting in a deal "that does little to rectify our long-standing grievance over academic pay".
A motion from both Leicester and De Montfort universities expressed "disappointment that the pay dispute did not result in better salary increases". Brighton's branch described the marking boycott as a "strategic error", allowing members to be victimised.
The tense conference also saw the first major shots fired in the run-up to the elections for the UCU general secretary's post next year.
Sally Hunt, joint UCU general secretary who was formerly head of the AUT, is running against Roger Kline, the former Natfhe head of universities.
Talking to The Times Higher after the meeting, Ms Hunt took apparent aim at Mr Kline by implying that union members were largely unhappy with the way former Natfhe leaders acted in the dispute.
She said: "Most of the critical motions were from branches at post-1992 institutions (represented by what was Natfhe). It is not for me to comment on how they felt about the way Natfhe handled the dispute from their end."
Mr Kline immediately hit back, saying he was "extremely surprised" at the remark. Mr Kline has let it be known in private that he feels that the AUT side, which outnumbered Natfhe representatives in the negotiating team, mishandled the dispute.
He said: "The dispute did fall short of what we set out to do. We need to avoid ever again having the same situation where we go in not properly prepared for the employers' response. We also need to inject more democracy into the way we make decisions."
Ms Hunt said: "I do not necessarily wish I had done things differently in the dispute, but I do think that in future we must make sure we fully involve all activists and members."
COLLEGE CAN'T AFFORD WAGE RISE
While union activists complained that their leadership failed to secure a large enough pay settlement, one higher education college confirmed that it could not afford to pay the rise agreed.
University and College Union leaders said they were ready to back an academic boycott of Writtle College in Essex after its decision last Friday to make staff wait until February for a non-backdated pay rise - after similar delays last year.
Rob Stevenson, Writtle UCU president, said that last year the college claimed to be unable to fully pay the award due to a £110,000 deficit. But delaying payment had saved the college an estimated £210,000, and this year it had a budget surplus of £640,000.
The college declined to comment.