Personally Speaking: Rodney Bickerstaffe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS a sad fact that, in higher education, as the haves get greedier, the have-nots grow more dispirited. That is why Unison is seeking a minimum wage of pounds 4.79 an hour. At half male median earnings, it is not a luxury level. It means an extra pounds 33 a week on the lowest grades as a start to bringing members out of the poverty trap.

The moral arguments against pay discrimination are beyond dispute, but there are practical, cost-effective justifications for investing in staff and eradicating low and unequal pay. It is untenable to sustain rates of less than pounds 4 an hour at the bottom of the heap while those at the top are creaming off the wages. Some 276 academics are earning six-figure salaries, as are 89 vice chancellors, who last year averaged 4.8 per cent pay-rises.

The best-paid are pulling away from their peer group using spurious market- force arguments. The more you up the ante, the less public money will be available for redressing inequalities and establishing decent pay for all.

The Borrie report, an independent study commissioned by Hay Management Consultants, showed significant disparities between "old" and "new" university pay and different rates and prospects for jobs of similar weight. It concluded that, with few exceptions, average base salaries are below external market rates. Staff are proud to work in institutions and are committed to the education process and care of students. But they also feel aggrieved that their efforts are inadequately rewarded.

Unison represents staff in a wide variety of professions and occupations. They bring different skills, knowledge and experience to higher education, but their access to fair pay, training and career development should be the same. Equality of treatment should exist for part-time workers and those on temporary contracts, which should be kept to a minimum.

Unison welcomed the independent review of higher education pay and conditions as an opportunity to prepare the sector for the next millennium. Its written and oral evidence has stressed the need for a national pay determination system for all staff, with mechanisms for resolving grade and pay disputes. The single pay spine should provide for incremental progression and career opportunities, assisted by lifelong learning. Breaking down the barriers would enable trade unions to bargain with employers at a single table. Nobody should be fearful of losing privilege or position. We should be prepared to be judged on what we do rather than who we are.

Unison members in higher education have been very patient. They have pulled out the stops to provide the full range of non-teaching services vital to the smooth running of the institutions. In the last 10 years, the sector has changed beyond recognition. New universities and higher education colleges emerged from local government control; funding councils were created - enormous quangos charged with allocating public resources to politically independent and largely unaccountable suppliers of higher education.

The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association was formed to advise on employment issues and to negotiate with trade unions across the sector. It was bequeathed a rag-bag of 10 bargaining committees representing the full range of occupations with duplication across old and new universities and between the various bargaining groups. It is unwieldy and irrelevant to modern industrial relations. The rigor mortis in the system has prevented meaningful negotiations and improvements in national conditions of service.

Unison is committed to a new industrial relations framework, one that unifies the higher education team and banishes class-based divisions between staff. Current structures are feudal and bear no relation to the work people do or the value of it. Employers and unions alike are aware that historical differences in pay are vulnerable to legal challenge under the Equal Pay Act.

For nearly four years, the majority of institutions have been sponsoring the Higher Education Role Analysis project. It has been developing a new job evaluation system which could be used as part of the modernisation process. Unison has co-operated throughout, unafraid of the close scrutiny of its members' jobs, their content and value.

Our "One for All" campaign calls for a single national pay spine, single status and harmonisation of terms and conditions in higher education. It is consistent with developments in other sectors. Local government has managed to dispense with the tired labels that limit possibilities for people with potential. The artificial ceilings imposed by status-based bargaining groups are under attack. Negotiating hierarchies built on perceptions about types of worker are giving way to more objective evaluation of job content. Flexibility at work is a much-bandied concept. But there is nothing flexible about the current stratified industrial relations framework in higher education. Staff are cocooned in co-existent bargaining groups. It is high time they were joined together.

Unison hopes that the independent review will have the courage to set the sector its greatest challenge. It calls upon other unions, employers and government to share its vision: a higher education system which can shake off its partisan past. New national bargaining machinery must be created to deliver for the many and not just for the few.

The writer is the general secretary of Unison