Pay must be sustainable for institutions rich and poor, v-cs say

In THE survey, university leaders rebuff unions’ calls for double-digit pay rises as some stress current offer is already unaffordable

February 14, 2023
Protesters hold UCU strike placards during a rally to illustrate Pay must be sustainable for institutions rich and poor, v-cs say
Source: Getty

Vice-chancellors are holding firm in resisting demands for an inflation-busting pay rise for UK university staff, with even those who admit they may be able to pay more adamant that whatever is agreed must be affordable for the sector as a whole.

As sector unions continued with 18 days of nationwide strike action after rejecting an offer of wage rises of between 5 per cent and 8 per cent, Times Higher Education asked institutional leaders whether they would be prepared to go beyond what the Universities and Colleges Employers Association had put on the table.

The leader of a large post-92 university and the head of small, specialist institution both responded to say the latest offer was “at the limit” of affordability and they would struggle to pay the salary bill as it was, let alone go further.

The vice-chancellor of a medium-sized modern university said they might be able to pay a “fraction more” but recognised that many others could not, as tuition fees in England remain frozen and the Westminster government looks unwilling to provide further financial support.

They said they feared more sector jobs could come under threat if the pay offer went higher. A number of institutions have already announced plans to make redundancies, with annual accounts revealing several are in deficit.

UCU has made the £40 billion worth of reserves held by the sector a cornerstone of its campaign for higher wages and better working conditions. More than 30,000 of its members voted in an online poll held by the union on the latest offer, with 80 per cent rejecting it. General secretary Jo Grady said staff had “seen through” vice-chancellors’ “pleas of poverty”.

But doubts have been expressed about the ability of all institutions to afford the union’s call for a pay offer of 2 per cent above inflation – equivalent to about 13 per cent. One member at the crisis-hit University of East Anglia said they felt the union was increasingly only representing richer institutions that are in surplus and they were having to take to the picket lines to demand a substantial pay rise in the knowledge that their institution could not afford salaries as they stand.

Nottingham Trent University has taken the rare step of opting out of the national pay review process altogether for the past two years and has therefore avoided strike action. For 2022-23, it instead awarded staff a minimum uplift of 3.5 per cent – slightly higher than the national 3 per cent – as well as a one-off payment and additional leave. Talks on 2023-24 are yet to begin.

But vice-chancellors who spoke to THE were still supportive of collective bargaining. The head of a large Russell Group institution and an executive at a university with a sizeable endowment both said the settlement needed to be sustainable for all and therefore they were fully supportive of the current offer.

Leaders said they were taking steps to support staff outside the national negotiating process but pointed out that the average wage for a staff member of £54,249 costs universities in the region of £75,000 each, once pensions and national insurance contributions are factored in.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said the institution was in “complete support” of Ucea’s position.

“It has negotiated in good faith and, in the financial circumstances many institutions find themselves in, has put a good offer on the table…For the sake of students, whose education is being disrupted once again, I hope that the unions will bring their action to an early end and accept this reasonable settlement,” he said.

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Reader's comments (13)

Vice-chancellors are all earning a hefty wage. They could each take a significant pay cut and share that cut with staff. We CANNOT keep going in the way things have been for the past 10-12 years with underinflation cuts.
Not really a viable solution. Let's say the average VC makes £350k. Let's make an assumption that they have 7500 staff in an average institution (and bearing in mind, salaries will typically increase/decrease with scale) If they gave up ALL of their salary, this would be less than £50 per head per annum. You would also have a great deal of trouble attracting the best colleagues to take on a role where the pitchforks come out every time there is an economic downturn.
My institution has far fewer staff than that (approx 2000), but never mind. I am making a serious point. It is important to attract the best at all levels. This is no longer an attractive profession given the 20% or so loss in real earnings since the financial crisis; at the same time, VCs' salaries continue to rise (and not in line with any transparent performance measures).
My institution has far fewer staff than that (approx 2000), but never mind. I am making a serious point. It is important to attract the best at all levels. This is no longer an attractive profession given the 20% or so loss in real earnings since the financial crisis; at the same time, VCs' salaries continue to rise (and not in line with any transparent performance measures).
Is it the academics fault that English HE (and let's face it, it is mainly England where the problem lies) institutions have been washing money down the drain with fancy new buildings they did not need? Instead, they forgot the bottom line - staff are the biggest investment needed. Too many VCs think staff are the problem, rather than the solution.
Over the last couple of years, my university spent about 20 million pounds on an unnecessary and poorly thought-out IT project. It also spent unspecified millions on a new building that had to be knocked down before completion. We also have a VC with a large and costly entourage whose role seems to be spending money on re-organization and other ways to interfere in our work. Scrap half of that and we have plenty of money to restore the 20%+ reduction to our wages since the Tory assault on workers.
Why are pay rises that are lower than the rate of inflation described here as "inflation busting", exactly?
If it's "unaffordable" to keep pay and pensions at just the same level after inflation, then this is a problem with the system, not us. It's unsustainable to keep cutting staff pay (in real terms). It will destroy higher education.
I know people in other sectors having their hours any pay cut because anything else is unaffordable, as for pensions along the lines of the USS, these went a decade or more ago because of sustainability concerns. UCU quoting a sector wide surplus is a very real threat to the finances, and future of the future of some HEI's who just do not have the cash and where UK fees have not been increased (again). Perhaps more will follow NTU example and opt out of unrealistic negotiations for the sake of their long term employee relations and the future of their institutions. I doubt any can actually afford to pay 13% more in real terms plus the additional tax and pension contribution costs that would incur. Its not a perfect world and polarising on this is not going to help anyone in the long term.
Best way forward is to cut all PVC and VC pay down to that given to a professor. VCs are only managers and do not have to do the high skilled thinking and research involved in producing 4* research so should not be paid more than a professor, let alone 6 times a professor salary. Get rid of all grace and favour mansions for VCs and make them have all meetings online instead of travelling the world first class for any trivial excuse and staying in 5 star hotels. Surrey VC lives on a 600 acre farm in a manor house and is driven around in a student fee paid for S Class mercedes benz and even had his St James's Club membership paid for on the university credit card, that is where all the money is going.
Slash the spend on VC, PVCs, Deans & Deanlets; cull the HR bods and the similarly large numbers of Comms folk; make sure the EDI fad does not grow staff in the way HR & Comms have over recent decades. Spend savings at the chalk face on undergraduate teaching and improving conditions for the casuals/adjuncts we have grown dependent on to deliver T.


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