We must sit around a single table

July 6, 2007

A sensible reform of the national pay system is urgently required, argues Alasdair Smith

UK higher education faces serious choices about the future of the national pay system. Indeed, there is a real prospect of an imminent end to national pay negotiation.

Last year's dispute was a difficult and disruptive experience for everyone. Students' work was disrupted, universities offered a deal at the limit of affordability and still had to cope with an assessment boycott for which they were not fully prepared; academics faced uncomfortable choices between the interests of their students and loyalty to their union; and the academic unions suffered the indignity of accepting a settlement that was not significantly different from an offer they had rejected weeks previously. No sensible person wishes to repeat that experience.

After the dispute, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association consulted its members about the management of future disputes and about the future of the pay system. Several clear positions emerged from this process. One of the strongest messages is that most institutions are willing to stay with the national pay system for now, but only if some essential conditions are met. Another was the need to prepare better for any future industrial action, especially to protect students in any future assessment boycott. Ucea is responding with determination to such messages from our members.

The present pay system has an interesting mix of national and local elements. The valuation of the pay spine is subject to national negotiation, but virtually all the rest of the system is negotiated locally. Many employers are looking to strengthen the latter element of this mixed system in the longer run and build local performance-related pay on top of a nationally negotiated base.

More immediately, employers want a sensible agreed timetable for national negotiations, including a procedure for settling disputes so that claims are planned for and dealt with on a predictable timescale. Rational and efficient arrangements for negotiations, including single-table bargaining, are also needed.

It is illogical to have separate negotiating tables for academic and support staff when what is being discussed is a national pay framework and single pay spine, covering all staff. Indeed, the very distinction between academic and support staff in discussions is no longer sustainable - an individual's pay is determined by where they are on the spine, not by whether they hold an academic or support post. The current arrangements treat some categories of staff as "academic related" in pre-1992 universities and as "support staff" in other institutions. All these outmoded distinctions are indefensible, and the cumbersome two-table system was agreed in 2001 only as a transitional mechanism.

Despite differences, some progress has been made this year. Indications are that the employers and support-staff unions could come to a satisfactory agreement on future arrangements for pay negotiations. However, the University and College Union has shown little sign of understanding what changes are needed if the national pay system is to be retained. Indeed, it seems not to recognise how much damage was done to the credibility of that system by last year's dispute.

Of course, the employers and support-staff unions recognise that the single table issue is difficult. The employers have made proposals that recognise the legitimate differences of interest between different unions, and we are willing to engage in constructive discussion about everyone's concerns.

So far, however, the UCU has not come up with any coherent counterproposals on the single-table issue. It has shown little interest in constructive discussion about the reform of the pay-negotiating machinery. There is scant recognition of the progress made since the setting-up of the joint committee in 2001. In addition to pay modernisation and a range of other good-practice agreements, average earnings of academic staff increased by 30 per cent over six years, higher than the public sector and economy as a whole.

University and college employers are not interested in maintaining a system that is oriented towards confusion and dispute. We want to move to a reward oriented culture. We all recognise that employers cannot afford high pay without high performance and need to reward high performance with high pay. A change in culture requires serious discussion about the management and reward of performance.

It takes two to tango. If we cannot achieve sensible reform of the national pay system it is clear to me that many institutions will have to walk away from the national system. In the short run, the transition will be difficult, but these short-run difficulties will be judged by many as preferable to sticking with the current dysfunctional system.

Alasdair Smith is vice-chancellor of Sussex University and will be stepping down as chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association at the end of August.

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