A 10 per cent UK pay rise would risk the livelihoods of many post-92 staff

The ‘sector’ may be able to afford more than the current offer, but many individual universities cannot, says Peter Sloane

February 8, 2023
UCU rally in London
Source: Tom Williams

Tomorrow will be the second of 18 strike days planned by the UK’s University and College Union for February and March.

Under the inspiring banner of #UCUrising and with the biggest mandate in the union’s history, academics are fighting on four fronts: to reinstate pensions benefits; to close gender, race and disability pay gaps; to end casualisation; and to achieve an inflation-level pay rise of about 10 per cent.

After receiving notice of the 18 strike days, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) increased its previous offer. But UCU general secretary Jo Grady immediately rejected the proposal, claiming it would “do little to protect our members in a cost-of-living crisis”. Moreover, the latest offer is not “at the limit of what a sector with over £40 billion in reserves can afford”.

But the word “sector” here is deeply problematic, as is the implied intention to force employers operating in an unstable and unequal market to stretch to “the limit” of affordability. However laudable the aims of the strike (especially real action to close discriminatory pay gaps), the repeated claims by the union about a “sector” and an “employer” are, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, a wilful misrepresentation of the reality of the current higher education environment in England.

In the past 24 months, catastrophic redundancies have been announced by the universities of Leicester, Roehampton, Wolverhampton and East Anglia, as well as the University of London colleges of Goldsmiths and Birkbeck, all citing plummeting student numbers and increasing operating deficits.

During the same period, many (but not all) universities in the buoyant Russell Group have seen rocketing student numbers, rapid expansion, capital investments and record surpluses. So, while it is accurate to say that the industry in toto has combined reserves of £40 billion, it is dangerously disingenuous to use that as a rallying call.

Since the removal of student number caps by then chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in 2014-15, there is no mechanism to ensure equitable revenue distribution across English universities. In this sense, there is patently no singular “limit” to what individual universities can afford. A comfortable limit for UCL, with an operating surplus of about £90 million, will undoubtedly be unaffordable for City, University of London, with an operating surplus of about £1 million. The question remains, then, to borrow the UCU’s phrase: how best to “protect our members”, given that those members are in radically different situations?

There are several possible solutions. Raising tuition fees is one – but this would force risk-averse working-class and under-represented students out of higher education, undoing years of vital access work. Even more drastically, we could allow institutions to set their own pay scales – but this would compound existing inequities and create a tiered system.

The only other option is to negotiate a pay rise that does not jeopardise struggling institutions – perhaps allowing wealthier universities to copy the model of Oxbridge and the big London universities by offering “living allowance” top-ups.

UCU members frequently send their thoughts and prayers, or “solidarity”, to colleagues faced with compulsory redundancy, while simultaneously insisting that any offer below 10 per cent is unacceptable. An offer closer to that figure will inevitably be made by Ucea in the coming weeks – certainly by late spring exam periods. Those securely employed at expanding universities will see their wages increase, but there will without question follow swift and widespread job losses at more vulnerable universities, predominantly across the already threatened arts and humanities.

We would all love a 10 per cent pay rise to help with increasing living costs. But any settlement should not threaten the livelihoods of colleagues or programmes, especially those catering to working-class, first-generation and otherwise historically marginalised, deprived or excluded students. This would, in effect, return England to a pre-92 situation in which only the wealthy attend university and the working classes are pushed into industry (which would, at least, conveniently fill the post-Brexit gap left by migrant European workers).

Department closures at post-92s would also represent a significant loss to class diversity at the academic level given that Russell Group universities almost exclusively recruit from within, and almost every Russell Group academic has passed through Oxbridge. Given all this, it is actually hard to see how a single bargaining body can “protect” the interests of those calling for significantly higher wages and those whose positions will become untenable if that is achieved.

A radical solution would be to have separate unions representing the interests of staff at longer-established universities and those many more staff at newer institutions, with Ucea mediating those needs. That is, in essence, what is happening now, only with one union and disparate needs there is unlikely to be a settlement that protects the poorest students or programmes.

Another way would be for the UCU to be more ambitious in its goals, to address the causes and not just the symptoms of a failing funding model. That is, it could campaign for the return of student caps to redistribute revenue across the “sector”. This might be a hard cause for the UCU to rally members around, but if it really takes solidarity seriously, it would be a good next step.

Peter Sloane is senior lecturer and programme director in English at the University of Buckingham.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (19)

Your argument ignores the fact that failing to address the pitiful pay offer, declining pension benefits and working conditions will also compromise the sector, which will find it increasingly difficult to retain and recruit staff. The market rates for professional services staff (who never seem to get a mention) are much higher outside of the sector, particularly in functions such as IT or Accountancy. The most highly skilled research academics will surely be tempted to move to the private sector and will those wishing to enter academia put up with the comparatively low starting salary and insecure temporary contracts ? The funding model does need to be addressed but the strikes tomorrow and beyond are critical in ensuring our salaries are not eroded further and to ensure the sector has the skills it will need to move into a digital age.
Shilling for management? I would accept even parts of your argument if you did not make sweeping statements like 'almost every Russell Group academic has passed through Oxbridge' which even a cursory consideration would prove inaccurate (at best).
That’s right - and because I said that it is no longer true that universities are facing redundancies, that colleagues are under immense stress, that students are unevenly distributed. And, absolutely, those VCs have bought me off and I am ‘shilling’.
Not sure what P Sloane wants here. Surely an end to sector-wide bargaining and therefore a two tier system. Private providers are a good example not to follow. Unencumbered with costly pension schemes they are also paying their staff lower pay rises.
Firstly, it isn't true to say "Jo Grady immediately rejected the proposal". The proposal was put out to consultation, and union members overwhelmingly rejected it, with 90% of people responding to the consultation voting to reject it. That includes many of the members at post-92 institutions. Remember that colleagues at post-92s are already likely to earn less than those at RGs and so the cost of living crisis hits them harder. This piece above nods to the dispute being about more than just pay, but then precedes to completely ignore that fact afterwards. I for one would have been far more likely to have voted to accept the offer if there had been some movement on the non-salary aspects of the dispute, like an agreement to include working conditions in the collective bargaining agreement, or an agreement to end all use of zero-hours or rolling non-permanent contracts. I for one would happily forego a 10% pay increase in return for a 10% reduction in workload facilitated by hiring 10% more staff. That would allow wealthier institutions to help their employees in a way affordable to the less well off ones, at the same time as soaking up some of the staff being released by the shrinking of some institutions. Finally the author suggests three ways out of the current situation: an increase in tuition-fees, an end to national bargaining, or a pay rise that is affordable to the worst off in the sector. They conveniently leave off reversing the change that cause this problem in the first place - that abolition of the student caps. While you might argue that this requires government action that is unlikely to be forth-coming, so does fee increases. And there is no reason by universities could impose voluntary limits. Perhaps RGs would agree to self-imposed caps in return for post-92s green-lighting higher pay increases. The author seems to want it both ways: either we believe the market has no place in education, and so should institutions should collaborate to make the system work. Or we believe in the market. In which case an business, in a market, that can't afford to pay its staff a living wage, is not a going concern and doesn't deserve to survive.
Great response, thanks. But, I think I did mention the caps: “That is, it could campaign for the return of student caps to redistribute revenue across the “sector”. This may be a hard cause for UCU to rally members around, but if it really takes solidarity seriously, it would be a good next step.” Did you read this far?
A key point is made by the last commenter - you can't have it both ways. We operate within in a botched market system - designed to develop competition in the sector but without the levers to make that work. In what other market do you have a fixed (low) price for the commodity provided and set the wages of the whole sector based on the performance of its weakest participants. The fact that no-one who designed this saw it coming is extraordinary. Unresolved, this limbo will lead to the decimation of the sector - and it's already severely damaged. It's unsustainable to prop up the overall underfunding within the UK sector by continually suppressing wages - academic staff are already "at the very limit" of what they're prepared to accept. (Raj/UCEA - that last line was just for you - did you get it?).
Thanks all for these replies, much appreciated. However, describing some of the victims of marketisation as the ‘weakest’ is part of the issue, as is the ongoing willingness to recognise that the word sector is misleading. It’s also worth pointing out that the offer from UCEA was rejected immediately, a fact evident on UCU Twitter feed, and that the email ballot came weeks after and just prior to new dates being announced.
#7 Reply is just not true. UCEA's 'final' offer was made on 26 Jan and the consultative ballot opened as soon as it was possible afterwards
@pslone_1 I do apologise, you are correct. I was under the impression I had read the whole piece, but I must have missed the last paragraph. I have to disagree with your interpretation on what happened over the pay offer. I believe we are talking about two separate pay offers. UCEA made an offer shortly after Christmas that was indeed rejected without membership consultations. The offer that was put to members was made on the 25th of January and went out to consultation on the 30th. New dates had been long announced at this point, and action started on the 1st of Feb (two weeks notice must be given of action). It is true that the other unions that are party to the negotiations rejected the offer, so I'm not sure what would have happened if UCU members had voted to accept.
And of course there was no movement on the other key issues, which is a legitimate reason to reject. I suspect we all want the same things. I just have no real idea of why the union keeps voting against or at least not giving full support to lobbying for caps return. But, thanks for your responses, I’ve appreciated them.
We need to cut down the excessive bureaucracy. Academics can input and release marks no need for loads of bureaucrats and just give the academics more autonomy and get rid of excess bureaucracy. The number of silly negative value added bureaucratic jobs in the sector is mind boggling. Sack them !
But academics moan constantly about doing administration.
But academics moan constantly about doing administration.
Yes, but the assumption is that ps staff actually reduce that. It's not that they're not hard working, it's that they often have jobs solely dedicated to pointless policies. If I'm responsible for something on my own (like posting assignments online or whatever) I can just do it. Instead I send a bunch of emails and have cross checks etc...
This a very inconsistent argument. If the goal is to avoid inequality, then creating a two track bargaining and pay system would be the worst option. It would turn post-92 schools into a true second class. As other commenters have pointed out (#6) it's just an absurd system to begin with. I don't think VCs even know what their job is. They're running businesses or public institutions? But in any case, if a uni fails, it's ultimately the government that lets it. Even if bad decisions are made by VCs, it's an institution that belongs to the state and community. Secondly, as you say, the key word is "sector". And it can't go on with low wages. New academics will stop doing PhDs, no one will move to the UK, and fields that have high paid industry jobs will hemorrhage accademic staff. That's going to hurt post-92s first, exacerbating inequalities. One possibility is a better cost of living adjustment allowance, not related to prestige but listen. Currently our London allowance is only £4k which is nothing against the backdrop of soaring housing costs here. Lastly, I'd like to see some evidence that "almost every Russell Group academic has passed through Oxbridge". We have people in our dept from all over the country and indeed world. This isn't even true for the majority.
Not a two track pay system, two bargaining bodies with whom UCEA have to agree. Still nationally set single pay scales but three not two negotiating partners. But yes, I agree with most of the other points.
Re #7 - thanks for the replies - I did find this article interesting - esp the point about UCUs difficult position with their members at "financially-challenged" institutions. However - IMO - if you're worried about calling those institutions "weak" and prefer to call them "victims" then: (1) I can assure you the architects of this wouldn't agree - from their point of view, they are just culling inefficient businesses with market logic - this idea is baked-in to the system they have created. In fact, it is seen as an essential feature of the market operating correctly and is planned for (see Ofs provisions for market exit for example). (2) you are failing to appreciate where I'm coming from regarding the scale of the problem - the entire UK HE sector is falling to pieces (including its "strongest institutions") eg #15. The best solution - IMO - would be for the govt to face up to the fact that this experiment has been a complete disaster, and to fund universities properly (with student caps).
All good points. However, I’m pretty sure the government is happy to see parts of the sector collapse and to reduce the percentage of 18yos getting degrees or academic qualifications beyond GCSE in some cases. Maybe I’m paranoid, but if we knew we were exiting Europe and losing migrant labour, not a bad strategy to also close off education for many and use them to fill labour gaps. Either way, my position is that we have to assume government is hostile to HE for all, and invested in defunding.