Academics around the United Kingdom are voting in a ballot that may sound arcane but that could have an adverse effect on their pay and conditions for years to come. They are being asked by the University and College Union to say yes or no to plans for new national bargaining machinery.
This may sound bone-achingly boring and unimportant, but it isn't. If lecturers vote no – as some observers expect them to – it could mean the beginning of the end for national pay negotiation. And that could be bad news for many staff, particularly those in the newer universities and particularly those on lower pay such as researchers.
"If there is a no vote, and I'm not sure there will be, some universities will move to local pay bargaining," says Nick Rogers, director of human resources at Kingston University. "It would be small numbers initially but once a few break ranks and do something quite radical, others could follow."
Some vice-chancellors see the prospect of a no vote as an opportunity to escape national bargaining for local pay deals that will cost them less. "There are so many differences now between universities," says one vice- chancellor. "Scottish and Welsh institutions have less money to play with, some get a lot of NHS money, and some have a lot of part-time students who don't pay fees. That affects their ability to pay staff. Universities are in a box that they want to get out of and UCU is handing them the golden key to get out."
In the view of this vice- chancellor, a number of universities could well decide to go it alone and conduct their own pay negotiations locally as further education colleges do and as Imperial College London has done. However, local negotiations might be good for academics at the top 20 universities that are able to lever substantial sums of money for research, but won't be in the interests of many elsewhere.
To explain how all this came about, we need to rewind the clock. Two years ago, universities were mired in the worst pay dispute that higher education has ever seen. Lecturers were boycotting both the marking and, in some cases, the setting of exams, in pursuit of a big claim.
When the dispute finally ended after five long months – with a 13.1 per cent pay deal spread over three years – students breathed a big sigh of relief that they would get their degrees after all and academics ended up with a respectable pay rise.
Part of the deal struck between the university employers and the University and College Union (UCU) was that the cumbersome and old-fashioned machinery for negotiating pay would be reformed to reflect the fact that all employees are now on a single pay spine. It was agreed that the reform would be concluded by July 2007. All the other unions representing support staff – the cleaners, porters and maintenance people who are essential to the smooth running of a university – signed up to new arrangements. But the UCU refused, saying it wasn't sure.
Instead it held a special conference four months later, in November 2007, for its members to talk further about things that bothered them. In particular, they found it hard to stomach the idea of negotiating round a single table with representatives of the support staff rather than having their own separate forum. This is nothing new: the former Association of University Teachers (which has now merged into the UCU with Natfhe) took the same view.
But they were also worried about the fixed timetable for negotiations.
The university employers want a schedule where annual pay negotiations start in March, after institutions have been told by government how much money they have. Talks would take place in the spring and conclude by the end of May in time for a pay deal to be implemented on 1 August. This is new.
Its effect would be to restrict the union's timetable for taking industrial action and to make it difficult for them to disrupt exams as they did in 2006. But it would not stop them taking action.
In addition, the employers drew up a new procedure for resolving intractable disputes, which made clear that no union could take industrial action until the procedure had been fully exhausted. Such a procedure, say the employers, is normal in any industry, all higher education institutions have one at local level, and it was odd that higher education didn't have one nationally. Not everyone in the UCU, however, likes this change.
After the November special conference, talks continued on these issues and the union won some small concessions, which included the right to ballot during the disputes procedure and the right to have sub-committees to address some academic staff issues. The negotiators decided this was the best deal that could be achieved by negotiation and took it to the union's higher education committee. The employers expected it to be approved and for the matter to end there.
But that didn't happen. According to sources in UCU, the discussion at this meeting was acrimonious and the vote on the new bargaining machinery was tied at 15:15. Fingers were pointed at the negotiators and it was decided to throw the matter to the membership in a ballot and without any recommendation. "Basically, they had a difficult decision to make, so they booted it out to their members," says a representative of one of the support unions.
The 115,000 members of the UCU have until 27 February to vote in the ballot. One big question is the turnout. How many will bother to vote in a ballot that they don't really understand or see as important?
Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, has issued a letter with the ballot papers setting out the history of the matter and arguments for and against. The case against reiterates the demand for negotiations that are separate from the other university unions.
"Pay will be driven down to the lowest common denominator," it says.
That is how some "old" university academics see it but it makes the support unions see red, partly because they say it is wrong. Pay is not driven down in national bargaining. If anything, lower paid groups do better. But it also fails to take into account the fact that equal pay law requires equal pay for work of equal value. "We are disappointed about the elitism and snobbery inherent in such statements," says John Richards, head of higher education at Unison.
The employers' side is worried that UCU members are being encouraged to vote no and are being given no guidance about what that will mean. Hunt denies that. She says that she has explained the consequenses fully to her members. She also says that a no vote will mean that the union goes back to the employers to reopen negotiations. "We have to find a way through this so that our members feel confident that national bargaining is being done with their support," she says.
Professor Bill Wakeham, chairman of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) and vice-chancellor of Southampton University, is adamant, however, that there will be no more negotiations on the bargaining machinery. "There will be no scope for further negotiation, not least because we have an agreement with other unions and the majority of staff in the sector," he says.
"It would be difficult to find any room for movement. The worry is whether the membership of the UCU understands that."
According to Professor Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a member of the UCEA board, there would be no point in having more talks because union representatives have already said the deal they won on the new bargaining machinery was the best they could get by negotiation.
Inside the union there is concern that Sally Hunt, who came from the AUT at the time of the merger, is content to see local bargaining happen because it would be in the interests of academics at top Russell Group universities. Hunt denies this adamantly. "The union and I are completely committed to national bargaining," she says.
More generally, veteran higher education observers detect a similar approach between some of the Socialist Workers Party members of the union's NEC and the former AUT members.
"I am fearful that a really important decision for the union will be made by people voting in a very low turnout because it's been turned into an arcane debate," says Ebdon.
The dispute in brief
Why are academics voting?
Their union, the UCU, could not agree on whether to accept a deal that their negotiators hammered out for new bargaining machinery and a new disputes procedure, so they decided to put it to the members.
Why is this important?
All other university unions accepted the deal last July. If the lecturers vote no, some universities could decide to abandon national bargaining and go local.
Why is that so bad?
Some academics in the top universities might benefit but many wouldn't. National bargaining helps the low paid and contract researchers.
Is it likely there will be a no vote?
It is possible, particularly as some say that the union is encouraging members to vote no
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