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THE BETT report on academic pay published yesterday is probably more important than the grand report of the Dearing committee on the future of higher education two years ago, which first recommended an independent review of salaries in colleges and universities.

Bett, of course, will not please everyone. How could it, when initial expectations were so divergent? The Association of University Teachers wanted a statutory pay review body, as much for symbolic and status reasons as in the hope that (to recall an old rallying cry) "the anomaly would be rectified", and dons paid as much as merchant bankers... well, civil servants. That was never on offer - and perhaps never will be.

The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education was suspicious of Bett because it was seen as a bureaucratic intervention in free collective bargaining. Natfhe's ideal was, and is, national negotiation of academic salaries. It went along with Bett because it was at least a national exercise.

The universities supported Bett as a way of putting pressure on the Government to increase funding. But ministers distanced themselves from the whole exercise, first by resisting any idea that the Bett committee was an ersatz statutory pay commission and by merely "facilitating the appointment" of its chairman, and subsequently by making it clear they would not pick up the bill.

The university leadership, still dominated by the "old" universities, continues to hope that the Government will mellow and accept the outcome of Bett as compelling evidence of continuing underfunding in negotiations around the next comprehensive spending review. They were never very interested in Bett's detailed recommendations; for them it has always been a political exercise, pure and simple

The "new" universities were more sceptical about the inquiry. Less in awe of the old influence culture of Whitehall corridors and London clubs, they saw Bett as a dangerous exercise which the unions could use to reimpose allegedly restrictive practices.

Of course, their claim to have broken the mould by negotiating their way out of rigid local authority pay structures and introducing a "human resource management" paradigm into universities is largely spurious - like most articles of faith.

With such contradictory expectations, Bett was destined to disappoint. For some staff, big headline increases are recommended, for others very little. The unions understandably will highlight the former and forget the latter.

The report itself does not seem to be able to make up its mind between regulation and the market. On the one hand it recommends uniform, albeit simplified, structures; on the other it appeals to the market to set actual pay rates.

But the exercise has exposed two big issues. The first is that, if the Dearing report, by legitimising tuition fees, "solved" higher education's funding crisis, Bett has "unsolved" it again.

Even before appetites were whetted by Bett, universities were confronting an alarming funding gap: salaries (the bulk of their expenditure) increasing by more than 5 per cent while income was rising by only 3 per cent. The 1 per cent "efficiency gain" promised by Dearing had been doubly busted.

When the effects of Bett are taken into account, the gap-gain may double again - raising the prospect of unsustainable rates of reduction in higher education funding, which the Government believed it had banished.

The number of institutions in financial difficulties will soar. Maybe, when it can no longer be concealed, the vice-chancellors' strategy of genteel blackmail will pay off, and the Government will find extra resources. But probably too little and too late.

The second big issue is that the nature of academic work is being transformed. The Bett report hints at this transformation but no more. Linear careers - structured round professional values, pursued in stable, even autonomous, institutions and bolstered by annual pay rises - are being eroded, sadly, but inexorably. In their place is a stew of opportunism... sorry, entrepreneurship.

Careers, like groceries and even modules, are now mixed-and-matched. As a result inequalities of life-chances yawn wider.

For universities, as critical and liberal institutions, these changes present a fundamental challenge. If they resist these new realities, pay will fall even further behind - but if they embrace them without modification, they risk selling out.

It may not matter that the Asdas, or even Marks & Spencers, come and go in a frenzy of flexible post-industrial, late-capitalist restructuring - but universities..?

The writer is Vice-chancellor of Kingston University