Waging war on local bargaining

July 7, 2000

No one could be surprised by a vice-chancellor advocating the benefits of local pay bargaining (Soapbox, THES, June 30), but those belonging to an association other than the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals need not speculate: where institutions do have a free hand in employment matters, we generally find practices that would embarrass a 19th-century mill owner. On the evidence, never mind the guess, the "some" who would get more money from local pay bargaining would be a very small subset of the class that includes, almost exclusively, the male and the white.

We know from recent studies that in appointment and promotion, the current preserve of local management, sexism and racism have figured prominently and there are grounds for adding special pleading, cronyism and ageism. The view Peter Knight believes to be widely held in government circles, that "universities are incapable of managing their own affairs and need the constant guiding and interfering hand of Whitehall to protect them from their own worst excesses", is wrong. A government that came to power claiming to put education first does not. The worst excesses of university employment mismanagement required European legislation, rather than local "interference", to cause a modicum of change - and all of it resisted tooth and claw.

What autonomy exists for local management has produced a gap between male and female pay for similar work that is rarely less than 10 per cent. The situation is mirrored for ethnic minorities. We can add a staggering misuse of fixed-term contracts to cover for an inability to plan ahead and a determination in many institutions to stick to the terms of the now outlawed waiver clauses.

The failure of the relevant bodies to negotiate effectively with their employer is the true cause of the present pass in higher education. Both parties have plagued their respective houses by saying "yes" to every whim of the purse-holder without any condition that more requires appropriate payment. Staff associations and unions need to start saying "no", and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals needs to deny the government its targets without further immediate and substantial funding.

There are no local solutions to an underfunded national system, and the idea that there may be only exposes the sandy foundations of an ivory tower.

Andrew J. Morgan

Swansea

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