Tom Wilson: What do we want? More than 3.5 per cent

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The Independent Online

Will universities join this summer's mini-wave of public sector strikes? They certainly could. Staff from cleaners to professors are balloting on a 3.5 per cent pay offer. If rejected, that would certainly lead to strike action. You think a 3.5 per cent pay rise sounds OK? Here are three reasons why not: cleaners, porters, catering and security staff in higher education are even worse paid than council workers; junior academic staff are far worse paid than teachers; and senior academic staff typically earn about 40 per cent less than equivalent jobs elsewhere. All of these problems are far worse in and around London.

Will universities join this summer's mini-wave of public sector strikes? They certainly could. Staff from cleaners to professors are balloting on a 3.5 per cent pay offer. If rejected, that would certainly lead to strike action. You think a 3.5 per cent pay rise sounds OK? Here are three reasons why not: cleaners, porters, catering and security staff in higher education are even worse paid than council workers; junior academic staff are far worse paid than teachers; and senior academic staff typically earn about 40 per cent less than equivalent jobs elsewhere. All of these problems are far worse in and around London.

To make matters worse, higher education institutions routinely break the law by paying women less than men for doing jobs of the same value. Casual staff have been used far beyond reason: four out of five new academic jobs are offered as short-term contracts and there are about 30,000 hourly paid part-time teachers. Again, this resort to casual staff as a cheap expedient will become unlawful from October. Small wonder the employers themselves agree that staff should get more than a 3.5 per cent rise – but claim they can offer no more. So the eight academic unions have put the offer to their 150,000 members not knowing what the response will be.

One reason the 3.5 per cent rise may be accepted reluctantly is that the comprehensive spending review does offer real hope of jam tomorrow. Total education spending is set to rise by 18 per cent, after inflation over the next three years. Like teachers and council workers, higher education staff could be looking at a three-year deal, starting next year when the spending review cash comes on stream.

There has been much work behind the scenes to pave the way for such radical reform. In the last 18 months all unions have agreed to scrap the previous cumbersome negotiating machinery. In place of eight separate bargaining tables there are now just two – for academics and non-academics, with a further single table uniting both. In place of eight separate pay scales there is now a single pay spine. Equal value problems are being tackled through systematic job evaluation. Last month, university employers signed an agreement that aims to reduce substantially their use of fixed-term and hourly paid contracts.

More generally, the previous national bargaining climate of frank hostility has been replaced with pragmatic partnership, a concept pioneered by the TUC which is gaining popularity within higher education as the sensible way to argue out differences. So far it has delivered four new national agreements and a much-improved national bargaining system. But the key test is yet to come. Everything depends on pay. And that rests largely with the Government. Of course institutions are autonomous and some do have lots of non-public income. But most rely heavily on government cash.

So the 18 per cent rise in education funding really is crucial. Until the autumn White Paper we do not know whether higher education will get the same share. Arithmetic suggests it must, otherwise schools and further education would have got even more. Further education has already, shamefully, been told it may get less – which would certainly lead to major strikes and unrest as well as destroying any chance of further education contributing to the 50 per cent target for participation in higher education.

An 18 per cent rise for higher education would offer a unique chance to tackle the multitude of pay and staffing problems. It would give the employers some stability and the chance to plan ahead. It would give bright graduates contemplating an academic career the prospect of better pay earlier. It would mean universities could equalise the pay of part-time staff, end the immoral reliance on low pay and introduce fair job evaluation systems, thus tackling the gender pay gap. And staff could reach a fair salary by their thirties.

The writer is head of the universities department at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

education@independent.co.uk

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