Education: Lecturers set to suspend their pay protest

After four months of industrial action, it looks as if the AUT is not going to win any more money.
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INDUSTRIAL ACTION threatened by university lecturers is expected to be suspended next month following today's talks at the Trades Union Congress in Brighton between lecturers' leaders and the employers. But the Association of University Teachers (AUT) looks likely to gain little from its four months of industrial action, which began with a one-day strike and was followed by action on exams and by the boycotting of admissions in August.

The employers - the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association - aren't expected to improve their offer of 3.5 per cent, on the grounds that they don't have the money. But the two sides are likely to agree to set up working groups on pay discrimination and casualisation and to hold talks on new wage-bargaining machinery, as recommended in the recent Bett report.

The display of militancy was thought to have had little effect and was denounced during the summer by David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, for putting academic jobs at risk and disadvantaging students.

But some academics sympathise with the AUT case. "When lecturers go on strike it is extremely unpopular, not just with the victims - the students and their families - but with high-minded and decent academics," says Professor AH Halsey of Nuffield College, Oxford, the author of The Decline of Donnish Dominion. "But I do think the cause is just, and that academics suffer very badly these days. They run one of the most successful export industries. There is no doubt the country prospers from their efforts."

The AUT has repeatedly asked employers to return to talks and there's some suggestion the breakthrough was triggered by 10 Downing Street. Certainly, Tony Blair heads the most anti-strike Labour government on record, so it would not be surprising if his office intervened to end the dispute.

Malcolm Keight, the AUT assistant general secretary, denied that the return to negotiation represented a cave-in by the union, but he did agree that 3.5 per cent was probably all the universities could afford. The dispute was a success, he said, because it forced the issue of academic pay on to the agenda, with editorials in many national newspapers. Even Mr Blunkett's denunciation of the action could be seen as a victory because it focused attention on the cause, he added.

The other academic union, Natfhe, representing lecturers in the new universities and further education - and which has a different pay settlement date to the AUT - had been expected to join this autumn's industrial action. But, with the AUT returning to talks, Natfhe is likely to do the same.

One of the Bett recommendations was that the pay dates for unions in higher education should be harmonised. The AUT is hopeful that the common pay date and new money in the year 2001-2002 - the next phase of the comprehensive spending review - will provide a chance to improve pay in the longer term, according to Keight.

Other experts remain sceptical that academics will be treated decently until the structure of higher education is changed. Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, believes that the vice chancellors' committee should campaign for universities to become semi-detached from government.

"There needs to be a concerted effort to persuade the government to allow universities to price their own courses," he says. "Then universities - as in the US - would be paying what academics are worth."