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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 May 2006, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Counter-claims dog university row
Members of the employers side, UCEA
The employers said the dispute could damage students' careers
Both sides of a bitter higher education pay dispute have put their cases to a select committee of MPs.

Employers and the unions each accused the other of acting "irresponsibly" in the row, which threatens to disrupt thousands of graduations this summer.

Lecturers' unions, the AUT and Natfhe, have rejected a 12.6% offer over three years, and are boycotting exam marking.

A higher offer would mean job cuts, say employers, but the unions say there is enough money to support their claim.

The AUT and Natfhe are pushing for a pay rise of 23%, to make up for declining relative earnings during the last 20 years.

If they want us to increase the offer that is going to mean the loss of jobs. It is as simple as that
Dr Geoffrey Copland, UCEA chair

The boycott of exam and coursework marking began in March and the AUT is also refusing to set exam papers.

Each side was questioned by the Education and Skills Select Committee on Wednesday.

Committee chairman Barry Sheerman - who told the meeting he was a former AUT member - said the MPs had "no intention of becoming [conciliation service] Acas" but wanted to clarify the situation on behalf of concerned parents and students.

The Universities and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA) told MPs the unions' tactics had been "designed for maximum impact" and were "irresponsible".

UCEA's chief executive Jocelyn Prudence said the offer made was final and at the limit of affordability.

UCEA chair Dr Geoffrey Copland said: "If they want us to increase the offer that is going to mean the loss of jobs. It is as simple as that."

Pay docked

Part of the disagreement between the two sides surrounds how much cash is available from the introduction of top-up fees, but the unions have also pointed to an increase in government teaching grants.

Earlier Mr Sheerman said the committee had had a long-standing interest in the issue of academics' pay, and that the dispute had created a "serious situation".

There have been fears a protracted row would discourage overseas students - who bring in about 4bn a year to British universities - from taking up courses.

What on earth were the employers thinking of leaving it until one week before the exams were going to be set ... to engage in the start of negotiations?
Sally Hunt, AUT

The employers said the dispute could damage students' career prospects, but Dr Copland said the extent to which students would be unable to take exams had been exaggerated and only a "very small number" would be affected.

They also defended some institutions' decisions to dock pay from staff who refused to set exams or mark students' papers, saying they were justified in penalising people who did not fulfil their contracts.

Head of universities at Natfhe, Roger Kline, said the unions had made an early pay claim in October so as to avoid the kind of situation now happening.

He said balloting members over the current offer would create a further three-week delay and was unnecessary.

"We have an offer we are extremely confident would be rejected," he added.

'Cobbling exams'

AUT general secretary Sally Hunt said they had requested further talks with employers, but had received no formal response - something the employers later disputed.

She said the unions believed the 12.6% offer represented a real increase of less than 11%, and members had "overwhelmingly endorsed" their approach to the dispute.

"They expect their employers to treat them with some dignity and respect," she said.

The employers' claim that lecturers' pay had increased by 20% since 2001 was dismissed by the unions, who said basic awards were around 13%, with other increments often not applying to the majority at the top of the current pay scales.

Ms Hunt said the unions had merely employed "effective industrial actions".

"We did not want to be in this position.

"What on earth were the employers thinking of leaving it until one week before the exams were going to be set, knowing full well what was going on, to engage in the start of negotiations?"

AUT president Steve Wharton also told MPs universities were being irresponsible by "cobbling together exam papers" from previous years in order to ensure exams could go ahead.

See students preparing for exams

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