‘Record’ number of UK universities put pay rises on hold

Employers opt to defer increases as finances squeezed but majority tell THE they are paying up

August 1, 2023
Metallic painted human statue to illustrate ‘Record’ number of UK universities put pay rises on hold
Source: Alamy

More UK universities have signalled that they are unable to pay staff wage increases due this month, although some cash-strapped institutions have managed to come up with the money.

The University of Kent has become the latest to delay pay rises as it grapples with a £12 million deficit. The University of Wolverhampton has also put uplifts on hold for the second year in a row.

Writtle University College is another institution delaying the increase, according to staff, and higher-paid workers at the University of Gloucestershire will have to wait longer to receive the full amount.

After staff received an interim payment of 2 per cent or £1,000 in February, all institutions that participate in national bargaining have been instructed by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) to pay the second part of the increase in August, taking the total rise to between 5 per cent and 8 per cent.

But employees at Kent are not receiving the August increase, with the university activating a clause in the negotiations that allows it to defer for 11 months.

A spokesperson said the university’s “expectation remains that all pay increases for next year will be deferred to 2024-25, although we are still discussing the details with staff and trade union representatives”.

Kent said this was due to “cautious assumptions we are making in our budget planning in response to rising inflation and the impact on the sector of the fixed tuition fee level” but added that if performance exceeded expectations the university would “look to use additional funds to support pay awards for staff at lower grades as a priority”.

At Wolverhampton a spokesperson said the pay award will be paid to staff in June 2024, adding: “We do not anticipate being in a position to pay this earlier, but we will continue to review this and commit to implementing the new rates earlier if our budgetary situation allows.”

Interim vice-chancellor John Raftery said that although it had been a “difficult decision”, the deferral had “without doubt made a contribution to helping secure the financial health of our institution”.

Ucea has consistently warned that the sector-wide increase it implemented without the agreement of the unions earlier this year was at the limit of what the sector could afford. In June, Ucea’s chief executive, Raj Jethwa, suggested that “half a dozen” universities were not paying the uplift in full but declined to name them. It is understood that the number of institutions not paying is the highest ever.

Despite its financial problems, the University of Brighton has told staff that it will honour the increase. Vice-chancellor Debra Humphris said paying it “recognises the valuable contribution that every one of our employees makes to the university, as well as the ongoing impacts of a nationwide cost-of-living crisis”.

Another struggling institution, Birkbeck, University of London, said it too intended to implement the remaining part of the increase “despite the pay award being at the limit of affordability”.

Having previously announced that it would defer the award, the University of East Anglia said it has now decided to pay the first part to staff on its lowest three pay grades on 1 August, as opposed to 1 January next year.

Also taking a staggered approach is Gloucestershire, where staff on grade 8 and above will receive their pay rise in three instalments. None of the executive team would receive an uplift, a spokesperson said.

Phil McNaull, a former finance director for Heriot-Watt University and the universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen, said the pay rise was proving challenging because staff costs could amount to 60 per cent or 70 per cent of some institutions’ expenditure and those with an annual surplus of 1 per cent or 2 per cent would see this wiped out by an increase in salaries.

The risk, he warned, was that universities paying wage rises now could be making redundancies in a year’s time as staff costs become unaffordable.


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