Unions turn on Johnson rethink

May 12, 2006

The Education Secretary has played down remarks that top-ups should be used for pay, says Claire Sanders

The academic trade unions' warm welcome for new Education Secretary Alan Johnson cooled this week after the Government distanced Mr Johnson from previous remarks over academic pay.

Unions were delighted with the appointment of Mr Johnson, a former trade unionist. They reminded him that as Higher Education Minister he assured MPs two years ago that vice-chancellors had said that at least a third of income from top-up fees would be put back into improving salaries and conditions for staff.

The Department for Education and Skills told The Times Higher this week that the remarks had not been intended as a government commitment on pay.

While Universities UK has denied that it ever made - or could make - any such commitment, unions have used the comments to justify demands in their acrimonious pay dispute.

The DfES confirmed Mr Johnson's remarks, but said they had been made on the basis of conversations with vice-chancellors. The statement does not mention UUK.

It goes on to say: "This wasn't a commitment from Government, as salaries and conditions are a matter for individual universities... "The Government is not in the business of micromanaging how institutions' fee income is spent."

Unions reacted angrily. Roger Kline, Natfhe head of higher education, said:

"The real issue is not whether the Government should intervene in the pay dispute but whether a fair proportion of top-up fees should be used to support staff pay, which everyone, including Mr Johnson and the Prime Minister, agrees is very poor."

A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said: "Many MPs voted for top-up fees on the understanding that a third of income would go on staff pay. It appears they were hoodwinked."

UUK declined to comment on the fee issue, but Diana Warwick, UUK chief executive, welcomed Mr Johnson.

She said: "His previous experience with the education portfolio will ensure that higher education issues continue to receive the high profile they deserve."

But the new Education Secretary's focus will clearly be on schools this time round as he seeks to push through the Government's Education Bill.

Shadow Education Secretary David Willetts said: "Things must be pretty bad in education if they had to send for Alan Johnson."

Bill Rammell remains Higher Education Minister.

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk

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