LECTURERS AND academic staff were on the verge of a stunning victory at the start of this week. Delegates to the Association of University Teachers (AUT) conference were meeting this week to assess a revised pay offer from university bosses which has conceded on every point of the union's claim.
'It's a tremendous climbdown by the employers,' says Malcolm Povey from the AUT at Leeds University. There are some points of the offer that need clarification. But there is no doubt we are winning. I've been flooded with e-mails from people contributing to the rank and file paper University Worker. There's huge excitement at what our action has achieved. My branch voted to keep up the action till we know the gains in the deal are guaranteed for all sections.'
The offer discussed at the AUT conference this week could mean average pay increases of 12.2 percent for lecturers and academic-related staff in the 'old' universities (that is, ones which were not polytechnics before 1992). But the employers dispute this.
It also rejects university bosses' drive towards locally determined pay, which is connected to furthering the market in higher education. Another big win is that the offer does not lengthen the time it takes lecturers to rise to the top of their pay scale. 'Many of us couldn't believe it was true when we saw how far the employers had backed down,' says Geoff Abbot from Newcastle University. 'These are not soft public sector managers. Universities are run like businesses, and the vice-chancellors are among the most ruthless bosses in Britain.'
The AUT's advance comes after the most successful strike action the union has ever held four weeks ago. That was followed by a boycott of assessment and administration work.
The government denounced the strike as 'opportunistic' because it coincided with action by students over tuition fees. It said there was no money available. The university employers' body also arrogantly dismissed the action, believing the boycott would fizzle out.
But the strike-in which every pre-1992 university in the UK was out for two days-marked a turning point. 'It has transformed the union,' says George Paizis, a lecturer at University College London. 'We had meetings at department level to organise the boycott. It was uneven across departments. But it was solid enough to frighten the management.'
AUT members have suddenly discovered a power they did not know they had. About a third of their workload is now administration and assessment. That means boycotting it has a big impact. It is also immediate, as more courses now depend on ongoing assessment rather than just exams at the end of three years.
The spread of 'just in time' exam schedules where plans are made at the last moment also strengthened lecturers. And universities are vulnerable because they compete against one another just like businesses.
Leeds University, for example, feared having to make hefty payouts to students who sued over the disruption to their degrees. The AUT conference was to discuss the details of the offer this week. 'It is essential we do not let our guard down,' says Malcolm Povey. 'The employers have been known to withdraw offers before, and we should not allow any ambiguous wording in the deal.'
The offer does not cover the post-1992 universities. There, unfortunately, negotiators for the Natfhe lecturers' union have recommended acceptance of the kind of offer the AUT struck against. 'However, news of an AUT victory should greatly encourage activists in Natfhe, who are arguing to fight over pay,' says Gareth Jenkins from the Greenwich University branch of Natfhe.
One thing is certain. Industrial action and strikes by over 40,000 university staff have won a very important advance over pay.