Academia's Bett noire

The Government appears determined to ignore a report recommending big academic pay rises,writes Lucy Hodges.
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The Independent Online
During the Eighties, teachers across the country went on strike, organising marches, working to rule and disrupting children's education in a major showdown with the Government. The fear is that this will happen in universities if the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, ignores the modest Bett report on higher education pay published last week.

Governments have ways of finding money if they're so minded, but if this one doesn't we could be in for years of unrest in our universities, accelerating the decline of a higher education system becoming increasingly shabby and mediocre by the day.

The Bett report, which called for substantial pay rises for the lowest- paid lecturers and professors, though not for academics in mid-career, was stonewalled by the Department for Education and Employment. "The Government plays no role in determining pay and conditions of higher education staff," said a spokesman. The report, we were to understand, was a matter for the university employers who commissioned it, not the Government.

The recommendations of Sir Michael Bett, the first civil service commissioner, call for the Government to inject pounds 380m a year by 2002 to iron out sex inequalities in higher education and reward the underpaid. But, according to the spokesman, there is no provision in the comprehensive spending review for pay increases above the forecast rate of inflation. We are now in our first year of the three-year CSR round. Next year's allocation has been decided. But the third year (2001-2002) has not been announced.

Clearly, university employers and unions are hoping that Blunkett will find more money for higher education pay in the announcement for that final year. The signals from the DfEE, however, are not encouraging. The Education Secretary believes that he has wrung generous deals for education out of the Treasury, better than for some time, with more money for higher education and research as well as for schools, and that academics will have to wait until the next CSR round, beginning in 2002, before he can think about meeting any Bett proposals.

The 107-page report, accompanied by five appendices, suggests that junior lecturers should start on pounds 20,000 a year rather than the present pounds 15,000. It also wants to see professors' minimum pay rising from pounds 35,000 to pounds 46,500. And it recommends that the big disparities in pay between men and women should end. The expectations of many academics will rise as a result, but the universities say they cannot meet the recommendations without job losses.

The Association of University Teachers, which has already begun a campaign of rolling industrial action, including strikes and a boycott of certain administrative tasks, is prepared to boycott cherished Government initiatives. "If the DfEE is going to take this attitude, then all the other worthy things they would like to see done, like a further expansion of higher education, cannot be delivered," says Chris Banister, the AUT's president. "It's saying it doesn't think the United Kingdom needs a high-quality higher education system."

Anger is also being directed at the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals for setting up a committee that ministers could ignore. According to Brian Roper, who is one of the vice-chancellors who opposed the formation of Bett, the report is an "unmitigated disaster" because it has raised expectations without the means to meet them. "The way it's going to have to be funded is by job losses," he says.

Dr Peter Knight, Vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, says establishing Bett was foolish. "The moment the Government said they weren't going to appoint a chairman, it was doomed as a strategy," he says. "We have backed ourselves completely into a corner."

Some vice-chancellors of new universities are also opposed to Bett's recommendation to set up a national council to replace the jumble of arrangements for negotiating pay and conditions. "This is like going back to the dockyards or the Ford Motor Company in the 1970s," says Mr Roper, Vice-chancellor of the University of North London.

Another controversial recommendation is performance-related pay. Like teachers, lecturers' unions are opposed to the idea on the grounds that it is divisive and leads to favouritism, and that a lot of work is done in teams anyway. Bett suggests that academics in mid-career should qualify for pay rises as a way of rewarding merit and achievement.

Many vice-chancellors agree, and Professor Richard Shaw, Principal of Paisley University and another Bett member, says: "I think there are proper concerns that some people do achieve more than others, and there has to be some way of recognising that, other than through the promotion route." Some vice-chancellors have tried to introduce performance-related pay for academics - and failed. One is Frank Gould, Vice-chancellor of the University of East London. "There will be enormous resistance from the unions, so I can't see it happening very quickly, if at all," he says.

At the University of North London, lecturers have accepted an element of performance-related pay with targets, and will get more money this way, according to Mr Roper. "We think there is a role for performance- related pay at the margins, maybe 10 per cent," he argues. "People's performance is influenced by the prospect of performance pay, albeit at the margin."

So there are months of hard bargaining ahead if any of the Bett proposals are to be met. Martin Harris, the CVCP chairman, is gearing up to apply maximum pressure.

"The Government is very sensitive to issues of recruitment and retention and equal pay," he says. "I am confident that over the medium term they will help us find the resources to meet the most pressing needs. There's a lot of evidence of a major recruitment problem in some key disciplines."