UK menu, local dish

June 6, 2003

By destroying the balance in pay bargaining, Imperial College is freeloading, argues Tom Wilson

If you care about the future of our higher education system, you should care about Imperial College London's decision to ditch national bargaining and decide pay locally. This is not a boring human resources issue. Where crucial pay decisions are made crucially influences the future shape of our higher education system. There are big issues behind this seemingly technical issue.

Imperial is not quite alone. The University of Central England also went local some years ago, while the private University of Buckingham has always been local. That's about it. A curious trio. All the other 169 higher education institutions have stuck to the nationally agreed rates, so far, and not from inertia. There has always been plenty of argument. The Bett committee debated the issue in 1998, deciding unanimously to keep a simplified system of core national bargaining. Before and since, there have been numerous threats of breakaway moves, from individual institutions or the Russell Group, big post-1992 institutions, Scotland, Wales or others.

Until Imperial's decision, none had actually split. Will others follow?

Few unions, and certainly not Natfhe, eschew all local bargaining. All the higher education unions do lots of local bargaining every day. National agreements are hardly a straitjacket. The issue is about whether we have the right balance between local and national. Higher education staff have far less nationally agreed than any other public sector. In health, local authorities or school education, there is much more national regulation of pay, promotion, grading, working time, leave, staffing and so on.

And it is no coincidence that pay and conditions are worse in higher education. Unison research shows that manual workers in pre-1992 universities are paid less than anywhere else in the public sector. They are also least well covered by the national higher education manual pay agreements. Conversely, the highest paid academics in the sector are those who most closely follow a highly prescriptive national pay agreement - clinicals. So it is not laziness that makes the unions keen on national bargaining, it is the evidence of their own members' pay and conditions.

But national bargaining is no shibboleth. There are plenty of circumstances where going local can pay more. The rail industry right now is a good example. Since breaking into competing local train operators, train drivers' wages have risen by more than 30 per cent in real terms. To their credit, the rail unions know this fragmentation makes little long-term sense and have offered to put the national bargaining system back together.

The US's fragmented higher education system does result in higher wages for many staff - but largely because the price can be passed on to students in the form of soaring fees. Many would argue that there are other costs, too - less collegiality and a more individualised, discriminatory, commercialised and managerial ethos.

Here's another example. For most of the 1960s and 1970s, the UK engineering industry operated a system of two-tier bargaining. National rates were a safety net for weaker firms; in better times they agreed to pay more on top locally. When the system collapsed under attack from Margaret Thatcher's neo-liberalism, there was a free-for-all. Engineering wages became volatile, and industry-wide provisions such as apprenticeships plummeted.

At the same time, Germany's engineering industry kept national bargaining.

Guess which system worked best? Higher education industry-wide systems such as peer review might go the way of engineering apprenticeships without the support of common national pay rates.

National bargaining helps managers and staff in many ways. Floor national pay rates provide a level playing field; national frameworks can be interpreted to suit local conditions within agreed national criteria; a national menu can offer a range of local choices. National equal opportunities agreements are helping to tackle higher education's endemic problem of unlawful pay discrimination. Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers' evidence shows it is worst where pay decisions are least nationally influenced.

Nobody pretends that all higher education institutions are identical, but they are all covered by common legal, quality assurance, funding and regulatory procedures. That is why most employers and staff support the current balance between national and local. If anything, we should strengthen what is national. Imperial is not striking a blow for freedom, it's just freeloading.

Tom Wilson is head of the universities department of lecturers' union Natfhe.

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