THIS WINTER university lecturers are limbering up for industrial action. The talk is tough - one-day strikes and boycotts of exams and admissions - but the big question is whether the macho words will be matched with action.
There is no doubt that academics have cause to be especially grumpy about their pay, which has been whittled away by 36 per cent since 1981, according to the Association of University Teachers.
At the same time their workload has increased as more and more students have been crammed into the system and the government has insisted on academics being held to account. That is why AUT general secretary David Triesman says his members have been "systematically cheated and defrauded". Warming to his theme, he adds: "We paid for the last expansion and we're not going to pay for the next one." His worry is that the Government will expand higher education student numbers by 100,000 in the next three years without giving academics a financial reward.
But there is another reason why academic misery may plumb new depths this year. The Bett committee, named after its chairman Sir Michael Bett, first civil service commissioner, has been looking at the pay and conditions of staff in higher education. This independent inquiry was established on the recommendation of Lord Dearing who specifically said the inquiry chairman should be appointed by the Government. That way Chancellor Gordon Brown would have to meet the recommendations. It is also precisely why the Government refused to appoint the chairman. So, the expectation is that ministers will ignore Bett if it comes up with expensive proposals, knowing that there are precious few votes in higher education and no problems in recruiting and retaining academic staff.
The AUT is nonetheless concerned about what the Bett report will contain. The report is expected to be ready in April, but there is precious little consensus from the warring groups around the committee table. In particular, the AUT fears a proposal on job evaluation tied to a single salary structure, covering all groups from porter to professor, vice-chancellor to cleaner. That is what the university employers want. (The AUT favours an independent pay review body.)
The other lecturers' union NATFHE, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, is less antagonistic towards job evaluation, though it is against it being linked to a single salary structure and local pay negotiation. By contrast, Unison, the public sector union representing mainly clerical and manual workers, is in favour of job evaluation because it believes it will bring rewards to its members.
Peter Humphreys, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, says: "We do support a professional job evaluation being used in higher education. We are in favour of it being used to assess jobs on a single spine. We think this is the most fair and objective way of approaching these matters and it is widely used outside higher education."
Such talk makes the AUT see red. "You can't start organising academics' work lives on the same basis as boiler maintenance people," says Triesman. "I'm afraid our people won't get proper acknowledgment for the capacities they bring to the job and that as a consequence they will be undervalued and underpaid."
University lecturers are concerned that job evaluation might reward generalists who do a lot of different tasks, particularly those with responsibilities. By the same token, they say, it could penalise the lone researcher, say, a cell biologist focusing on a very narrow area. "The real problem is it doesn't measure the highly specialised jobs our members do and, second, it measures what they're doing at only one point in time, not what they're doing from one year to the next," says Triesman.
Last month the AUT voted to boycott job evaluation after an impassioned speech from their president Chris Bannister, who teaches town planning at Manchester University. Calling it "pure quackery" and "mathematical jiggery pokery", Bannister said job evaluation was alien to the collegiate view. "Administrators in finance or estates and services departments will more easily be able to score well than those, for example, in the registrar's department concerned with student affairs. What will this do for collegiality?"
The audience was invited to consider the case of two eminent and senior members of a physics department, two Fellows of the Royal Society, both considered by colleagues to be on a par. One was a theoretical physicist; the other an experimental physicist. The likelihood was that the experimental physicist would have a larger budget and more staff. Thus, this job would be evaluated more highly and end up being better paid, he claimed.
The employers adamantly deny that job evaluation will have such effects. For three years now they have been running a pilot project called HERA (Higher Education Role Analysis) at six higher education institutions. The aim has been to develop a job evaluation scheme tailored to academic life and reflecting the value placed on research and teaching. And the pilot has shown it can be done, says Pam Hampshire, HERA manager. The employers have concentrated on assessing the skills people in universities need to carry out their jobs. They have quite deliberately looked at the whole job, not at what academics are doing at a moment in time, she explains.
"Other job evaluation schemes concentrate on more traditional factors such as how many staff you supervise or the size of the budget you manage. We're trying to get away from that approach and look at the skills you need to manage staff or to spend your resources."
Liz Allen, national officer of NATFHE, is, however, sceptical about some of the employers' reassuring noises. There are good arguments for job evaluation, she says, but she has real concerns about whether it can be applied to such an incredibly wide range of staff and whether it is objective.
Unison, however, likes the idea of a system which measures the worth of each job irrespective of where they are in the system. "We believe our people have been unfairly treated for a long time in the current grading system which involves lots of different negotiating committees and grading structures," says Elaine Harrison, head of higher education at Unison. "The existing grading system discriminates against our members. We have been pursuing cases of equal pay for work of equal value because of that."
Not all vice-chancellors are unqualified cheerleaders. At the University of Central England, vice-chancellor Peter Knight has used job evaluation for many years - but only for administrative staff. He believes job evaluation for all is a waste of time "about as useful as building the pyramids".
Mike Goldstein, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, thinks job evaluation is necessary because universities have to defend themselves from equal pay actions and also because jobs are changing. But he adds: "My concern is the cost of it all. By all accounts the implementation of job evaluation is very laborious and time-consuming. My guess is that job evaluation will probably come out of the Bett inquiry but whether we all adopt the same scheme remains to be seen."
Q. What is it?
A. A way of measuring the worth of each job in an organisation by breaking it down into its component parts and assigning a score so that jobs can be compared with one another and employees paid accordingly. It ranks jobs by complexity and importance to the organisation.
Q. Why is it needed?
A. Because higher education is thought to be in the dark ages. There is a proliferation of bargaining groups - academic, academic-related, technical, manual and clerical - as well as ossified grading structures and a lack of fairness and equity which leaves universities wide open to claims under the Equal Pay Act.
Q. So why doesn't the AUT like it? Is it against equal pay?
A. No. The AUT doesn't believe you can evaluate academic jobs in this way. The union has its own agenda. It wants an independent pay review body to boost the pay of academics and thinks job evaluation and a single salary structure will not achieve this.
Q. If it is introduced, will academic unions rush to the barricades?
Q. Will universities come to a halt?
1999 PAY CLAIM
BRIGHT YOUNG graduates who get jobs in higher education are incomparably worse off than their colleagues who enter almost any other walk of life, according to lecturers' unions. For a start, young academics don't get their first permanent job until the age of 32 or 33 on average. By then, they have a PhD and two periods of post-doctoral research. Their pay as junior lecturer is, on average, pounds 17,000-18,000 a year - about the same as a 21-year-old graduate starting work. And there isn't much to look forward to: after a decade of experience, they can expect to be earning pounds 27,000. If they make it to the top job of professor, their starting salary is pounds 35,000.
The AUT is asking for a 10 per cent pay rise this April as a first installment on the 36 per cent shortfall since 1981. NATFHE's claim is for 15 per cent. The unions believe that university employers have the money to pay them more this year. Pay for academic staff has just kept ahead of inflation for the past 18 years but it has lagged behind average earnings. Last year, academics were awarded 2.9 per cent in a staged deal. That was less than what was awarded to civil servants, doctors and teachers.
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