Brush up act on pay

February 25, 2005

Don't reserve the big salary hikes for vice-chancellors, says former university cleaner Marg Longman

Some years ago, I remember pinning a copy of The Times Higher's vice-chancellors pay survey on a notice board in Bristol University's Senate House.

The vice-chancellor of the day had just received a huge increase on an already huge salary.

Manual workers among the university's support staff - the cleaners, caterers, gardeners, porters and security - had got a much smaller rise on a poverty wage.

We were totally undervalued.

Things are getting better at Bristol. After years of knocking on the door, we work in partnership with the management, our voice is heard and I think we have had some good settlements.

I started at the university in 1976 when I got 98p an hour to clean student houses.

Looking after students isn't easy. If they have a party, we have to clean up the vomit, faeces and broken glass. Even in the lecture theatres they throw cups and leave mess all over the place.

We have to have people to do the jobs that others do not want to do.

But for years we could not recruit cleaners to Bristol - the wages were too low. Things have improved. Now the lowest grade, which a huge number, mainly women, are on, is paid £5.59 an hour.

I think we are the first university to have gone above £11,000 for the lowest full-time pay, which was a recommendation of the Bett report on campus salaries in 1999.

But it is still not a significant amount, especially with so many working part time. People cannot really support a family on this wage without benefits from the Government. We have a long way to go.

Our new vice-chancellor says he is more of a people's man. He met with the joint unions committee in his shirt sleeves.

We now meet with management fortnightly. You can get progress without going through grievance after grievance, tribunal after tribunal, strike after strike.

There was always a culture of "them and us" in universities, but that is changing at Bristol. This is not the case in many other universities, though, where there is often no consultation or urgency in tackling pay and conditions.

Most people here respect us and the academic unions have always been our best supporters during past conflicts.

It is all right Tony Blair saying education, education, education, but his Government should make sure that there is enough money to upgrade the wages received by all staff in universities.

Individual institutions have many demands on their budget. So Blair needs to insist that more money is directed towards the lowest paid as is happening in the National Health Service.

We know the vice-chancellor has a hell of a job to do that can be very pressured and he needs to be paid for that. And we know that cleaners will be at the bottom of the single pay spine.

But when the middle managers tell us they have not got any money to give us a good rise, it does not go down well to see the vice-chancellor get a huge hike.

We understand that the university needs to get the best academics to maintain standards, but we cannot see a few massive increases while poverty wages are kept at the same level.

Why can't the vice-chancellors be dealt with in the same way as everybody else, and get the same 3 per cent rise as their staff? They start on a substantially higher amount as it is.

Marg Longman is convener and branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union at Bristol University.

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