Lecturer salaries start at pounds 17,000 or so, about the same as starter salaries for schoolteaching. The difference is that a schoolteacher can begin work in his or her early 20s after completing training but university lecturers cannot get that first job until they are in their late 20s at the earliest, because they need a PhD and years of post-doctoral experience to qualify. Professors start on pounds 35,000 a year.
The 24-hour strike is likely to have token impact. But further action to disrupt examinations could affect students. That's because the AUT is pursuing a campaign of disruptive action next month, involving weekly one-day boycotts of exams and assessed coursework, including meetings of exam boards. The four dates in June will be chosen by each local AUT association.
Similar one-day boycotts will hit the teaching appraisal system and administrative work for the research assessment exercise, as well as admissions procedures for next year's entrants. From 14 June lecturers will boycott administrative work on quality issues, and on designated dates they will unplug phones and refuse to deal with e-mails connected to the administration of their universities.
"It's intended to be quite measured," says the AUT general secretary David Triesman. "It'll make life rather more inconvenient in the universities. There will have to be some rescheduling, not of exams themselves, but of exam boards. That will slow things up. The intention is not to do anything irreparable but to demonstrate that we're quite capable of doing it and to give the vice-chancellors time to come back with a more serious offer."
The reason Triesman believes the universities can afford to pay academics more is that four years ago they spent 64 per cent of income on staff salaries and they now spend 58 per cent. "They've got money they've diverted elsewhere," says Triesman. "That's a choice. I think they could choose to change their priorities."
The university employers rejected that notion. Their spokesperson, Declan Leyden, said that money for the universities was earmarked for specific purposes. "That is how we're funded," he explained. "There would be no way money could be diverted from one purpose to another."
University employers wasted no time in condemning the militancy, pointing out that only 11 per cent of academic and related staff voted for the action. "It's not fair to punish our students and those applying now to go to university," said Declan Leyden. "They have worked very hard for their future. Industrial action will damage higher education unnecessarily. None of the other university unions, who have been made the same offer, have threatened to take this action."
The other lecturers' union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, has, however, joined the fray. Last week it said a survey of its members, who are mostly in the "new" universities, showed overwhelming support for strike action. Natfhe has a different pay cycle from the AUT. It has not yet been made an offer. But when it is made an offer it will move to a strike ballot unless offered substantially more than 3.5 per cent.
"Academics are angry," says Tom Wilson, head of Natfhe's universities department. "Their pay has risen by only 5 per cent in real terms in 17 years. When our pay talks start, vice-chancellors must come up with a better offer than 3.5 per cent. Or they will face a wave of strike action across all universities, old and new."
Vice-chancellors from new universities deplored Natfhe's copycat response. "I think it's unfortunate that Natfhe is making this kind of statement before it's even had a meeting with the employers to discuss its pay claim," said Coventry's vice-chancellor, Mike Goldstein. And Professor Gillian Slater, of Bournemouth University, took issue with the notion that the universities had spare money. "The 3.5 per cent pay offer should be seen in the context of most universities receiving only a 2.5 per cent increase in funding, if that," she said.
So, the future in universities is one of growing unrest. Action already approved will be escalated if it doesn't elicit a higher offer.
Behind all the macho talk and action lies the long-awaited report from the committee of inquiry into academic pay and conditions chaired by Sir Michael Bett, a senior civil servant. Initially, this was to be published last October but the date has slipped repeatedly, partly because of illness in the secretariat but also because unions and employers have found it so difficult to agree on anything. Another meeting has now been scheduled for the end of May, and publication is expected next month.
Academics are determined to show they are not waiting for Bett. They also want to drum up as much noise and disruption as possible in advance of Bett, so that the Government pays the recommendations some heed when they finally come out.
The inquiry is expected to recommend a substantial pay increase for all higher education employees averaging about 10 per cent spread over three years. Those at the top end of the scale - professors - should receive proportionately more, it says. So should junior lecturers, clerical and research staff - with the lowest-paid academic staff, usually researchers in "new" universities, perhaps getting as much as 45 per cent more. Both groups are considered to be badly paid relative to comparable staff elsewhere.
The universities are adamant that they cannot fund such a pay rise over and above normal annual pay increases. They also say they cannot find the money to bring the pay of women in higher education into line with that of men - unless, of course, they receive extra cash from the Government. Research undertaken for the Bett inquiry found that women's pay lags behind men's at almost every level, and women are less likely than men to be promoted. One estimate is that it would cost pounds 700m to put right the sex discrimination and give the university sector the pay boost it deserves.
The Government is thought to be more vulnerable to pressure on equal opportunities than on pay generally. Certainly, the unions and employers are expected to play the equal opportunities card, arguing that universities will be wide open to being sued under the Equal Pay Act unless they are helped. Complainants could argue, for example, that university secretaries, who are 99 per cent women, do the same kind of work as lower-grade administrative staff and should be paid the same, not less as at present. Women lecturers could use similar arguments to claim equal pay with their male colleagues.
Legal opinion suggests that universities would lose lawsuits in the United Kingdom and Europe and would end up having to shell out large sums of money that could by found only through redundancies and a complete halt to new building. Ministers may shun the feminist label but they are unlikely to relish the sight of British universities being dragged through the European Court of Justice - and then having to get rid of staff to pay for their humiliation.
On the subject of a general pay hike for academics to overcome the historic shortfall and to iron out anomalies, the Government is not expected to give way without extracting substantial concessions. One is performance- related pay, an issue that has infuriated the teaching profession and could anger academics. (The matter is expected to be dealt with in Bett). Another is abolition of scale posts and a single salary spine, to release higher education from the dark ages that have seen a proliferation of bargaining groups - academic, academic-related, technical, manual and clerical - and ossified grading structures.
The issue of a single salary structure linked to job evaluation divided the Bett Committee. The AUT was strongly opposed; Unison, representing clerical and manual workers, was in favour; so were the employers.
Because of the dissent Bett is believed to have come up with an "interim" recommendation. This provides for an overarching national joint council to set minimum terms and conditions for all higher education staff. Two bodies would feed into it: one for academics; the other for all remaining staff. The second body would contain academically-related staff including librarians, research officers and secretaries as well as manual employees.
Although that proposal gives the employers two negotiating groups rather than the one they wanted, it is a step towards what is known as "single- table bargaining", dealing with all groups in the sector together. The Government may insist it be taken to its logical conclusion in return for more money for pay in academe.
In the meantime, universities are hunkering down for a season of prolonged industrial turmoil. Most vice-chancellors agree that the action beginning next week will have an effect. "It will puncture any complacency that vice-chancellors may have about the strength of feeling about pay on campuses," says Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University. "The pay problem is getting worse and is affecting recruitment in some subjects, particularly business and management, computing, electronic engineering and economics."
If the Treasury can be given evidence of a failure to recruit in those areas and if university staff are prepared to compromise on some key issues, a deal could be struck.
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