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Fair pay in higher education – why I went on strike today

Fair pay in higher education – why I went on strike today

Today I sacrificed a day’s pay to stand on a picket line in the rain as part of an on-going dispute over pay between the University and Colleges Union (alongside Unison and Unite), and the Higher Education employers. The dispute comes after the failure of negotiations between unions and employers, and is one that the unions have not entered into lightly. The headline of the dispute: University staff are offered a 1% pay increase (which is a pay cut of 13% in real terms over the last 5 years), whilst the Vice Chancellor and other senior management enjoy an increase of up to 8%. There is an estimated surplus of £1 billion in the higher education sector so the money is there. Hardly fair is it?

Performance-related pay?

The pay awarded to Vice Chancellors has attracted much media attention lately. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Professor Don Nutbeam, receives a salary of £333, 515, with a £19,000 increase this year, making him one of the highest paid vice chancellors in the country. It has been pointed out that if the Prime Minister took a second job as a brain surgeon he’d still earn less than Professor Nutbeam. Notably, some other Vice Chancellors have rejected their pay increases this year. A recent report revealed that more than half of UK universities pay some of their staff less than the living wage and over a quarter have more than 100 staff paid less than the living wage. This is one of the largest pay gaps in the public sector. In the context of senior management pay of hundreds of thousands of pounds this is quite sickening.

To his credit, Professor Nutbeam has made the effort to come out of his office to talk with the strikers at our previous one day disputes, to listen to our point of view and to respectively put his view forward. He wasn’t on campus this morning, but Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Wheeler dutifully came out for a chat in the rain. ‘What’s occurin’?’ he asked (well, not quite in those terms) to which we again summarised the headline facts of the dispute, to which he proceeded to pick holes in our figure of 1% by saying that – taking increments into account – the pay offer is nearer 3% (this estimate is disputed by UCU). He then reiterated previously made claims that staff costs are still too high as a proportion of turnover, higher, apparently than the national average. He also told us that the University now receives less from the Government for capital expenditure projects (a reduction from £20 million per year to £5 million per year). Hard times it seems and perhaps Southampton isn’t one of the cash richest of Universities in the country. But student numbers are up on previous years, and the University actively recruits students from China who they can charge more in tuition fees. What he didn’t address, however, was the disparity between the paltry 1% pay offer and the 8% granted to the VC and senior staff. You could argue that perhaps such a relatively higher pay increase is justified in terms of performance.

But Southampton University has slipped in the Times Higher Education Global University Rankings from 90th in 2010 (when Nutbeam had just become VC) to 146th in 2013. Professor Wheeler didn’t acknowledge this either. Later this year we as academics will be judged on our performance in the results of the Research Excellence Framework, where under achievement will be rewarded with funding cuts, ‘re-organisation’ and probable redundancies. If performance is the yardstick for pay and security then the Vice Chancellor seems to be exempt to the criteria that the rest of us are judged on.

“We are lucky to have jobs”

Some University staff are angry and frustrated at the pay offer, whilst others have just passively accepted it. When I handed out a leaflet to a woman crossing the picket line she politely declined it and said that “We are lucky to have jobs”. She is right, we are lucky and I tell myself everyday how fortunate I am to have a good job that I generally enjoy. But we should not blithely accept the political rhetoric that we should just accept the crumbs we are given and not complain because times are hard (a situation not of our making, but let’s leave that for a discussion another day). If we feel our remuneration does not reflect the value of our work we should demonstrate.

More for less

There is ever increasing pressure on University staff to deliver more for less. Some lecturers have crippling teaching workloads on top of which they are expected to seek funding for, and produce, world class research. They work evenings, weekends and don’t even find time to take annual leave. These are hardly the layabouts that media rent-a-gob Katie Hopkins (who probably knows zilch about higher education) has branded them. My role at the University is pretty much full-time research and even I find it a struggle to find the time to successfully bid for research funding (and as an aside, we find ourselves uncompetitive when bidding for research grants because of higher overheads compared to other universities, which begs the question of when we do successfully receive research grants where does this inflated income go? – it doesn’t seem to be spent on fair pay). Some might say that pay increases are low across the public sector as a whole so what’s so special about University staff? The answer is ‘nothing’, we are not special – we *all* have a right to fair pay and a living wage. But given the relatively healthy financial state of the higher education sector, and the disproportionate pay increases to senior University management, to be told that there isn’t the money just doesn’t wash.

The bigger picture – the knowledge economy

Industrial disputes are very much in the public consciousness at the moment. As I type there is a high profile dispute taking place between the RMT union and the London Underground management, over the proposed closure of all station ticket offices with the potential loss of up to 1,000 jobs. Understandably there has been outcry over the disruption this strike will bring to millions of commuters – though some opinion polls report that Londoners are, in the main, in support of the strikers. There is also anger at the knock-on effect to business and the economy during this particularly difficult time, with various estimates bandied around of how many millions of pounds the strike is reputed to cost per day.

Likewise, the current dispute between the Unions and the Universities is also controversial for the disruption it will bring to students (though, note, Southampton University Student’s Union have voted to support the strike) and the knock-on costs this will have. But the wider issue is the damage to the ‘knowledge economy’ – the contribution that education can make to the vitality of state, society and economy. Poor pay in higher education will dissuade people from choosing to work in the sector (a ‘race to the bottom’), or may even encourage them to work abroad where pay is higher (a recent report found that UK academics are paid less than lecturers in other English-speaking countries). Likewise, how will we attract the talent and expertise of people in other countries to come and work at Universities here? People come from all over the world to study and work in Southampton, enriching the social and cultural diversity of the city and the surrounding area, not to mention its economy. The result of all this will be a stagnating, under-performing higher education sector incapable of providing skilled graduates vital to the UK workforce and the prosperity of the country. A false economy if ever there was one.

The future?

So, will today’s strike have achieved our objective of engineering a fair pay deal? Who knows? The dispute looks set to continue. But we shouldn’t be fobbed off with disputable figures about the affordability of a decent pay increase, nor should we accept the rhetoric that taking industrial action at this current is irresponsible. There may be more unpaid days stood outside on the picket line with leaflets, but hopefully not in the rain.

This blog initially appeared on The Boy from Tiger Bay, and is republished here with permission.