By a NATFHE conference delegate
THE further and higher education lecturers’ union, NATFHE, met for its last conference on 27-29 May. On 1 June NATFHE merges with the Association of University Teachers to form the University and College Union (UCU). The backdrop to the conference was the bitter dispute in universities which started with a national strike in March, followed by a marking boycott and work to rule.
When higher education minister Bill Rammell, addressing the conference, had the cheek to say that the employers’ offer was “very substantial” he was heckled and slow handclapped.
Lecturers have been lied to and cheated by both government and employers.
Desperate to push through top-up fees against the opposition of NATFHE, AUT and the National Union of Students, the Government tried and failed to win support from unions with all sorts of hints about pay. Thus in 2004 Tony Blair said: “The shortfall of teaching funding has badly hit the salaries of academic staff, which have shown practically no increase in real terms over two decades.”
Alan Johnson, now Secretary of State for Education and then responsible for getting top-up fees through Parliament was more specific: “University vice-chancellors tell us that, in general, at least a third of that money [from fees and extra funding] will be put back into the salaries and conditions of their staff.” He has since distanced himself from this suggestion, since top-up fees are now safely established.
Universities will get an extra £3.5 billion from increased funding and fees. The unions claim for 23% over three years is costed at a third of this. The claim was lodged by both unions over eight months ago; the employer refused to talk till March and then would not talk unless the action was called off. They made an offer to the union not taking action, UNISON, which is worth 10% over three years — barely above inflation, an insult considering that university vice-chancellors gave themselves an average rise of 24% over the last three years when less was available.
The marking boycott is now really biting; the Higher Education conference heard that members were grimly determined to stick it out till Christmas and beyond if necessary. A delegate from Northumbria University told how a mass meeting of members had voted to walk out on indefinite strike in response to the threat to suspend law department lectures for sticking to the boycott. One day before the strike was due to start the university withdrew the threat. Defeating this calculated move by the employers to break a strong NATFHE branch was vital.
Conference heard from the negotiators that in ACAS talks the day before the employers had withdrawn a new offer and now refused to even put an offer on the table. Most delegates felt that the more anti-union employers were aiming to humiliatingly defeat the unions in the hope of damaging the UCU at its birth.
Conference voted to stand firm, and push the newly formed UCU to escalate the action unless a substantially improved offer is received. Delegates also wanted to see the formation of a lay membership committee to plan escalation and lead the dispute in UCU. All this is particularly crucial since the AUT has is pledged to ballot on any improved offer.
For report on conference debate on Israel boycott see here
• For student solidarity with the lecturers, see www.free-education.org.uk