UK universities have come under increased pressure to pay their staff the “living wage”, as data suggest that thousands of employees receive less than the voluntary minimum, which is based on the cost of living.
Ahead of its Living Wage Week, the Living Wage Foundation highlighted that only about one in five – 34 – UK universities was an accredited living wage employer.
Its analysis of Office for National Statistics earnings data, released to Times Higher Education, indicated that as many as 6 per cent of directly employed university staff were last year paid less than the living wage set by the foundation, which is now set at £10.20 an hour in London, and £8.75 an hour in the rest of the UK.
This would equate to about 40,000 employees, of whom two-thirds are women. The average pay of these workers was £7.95 an hour, 50p below the foundation’s UK living wage at the time and £1.80 below the London rate.
However, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said that this estimate was unrealistically high, being outdated and based on a sample of 1 per cent of sector staff. The lowest rate of pay on the national pay spine is £8.68 an hour, 7p below the foundation’s UK living wage, and Higher Education Statistics Agency data indicate that only 6,000 of 420,000 sector staff are employed on the lowest pay point.
Both sets of data exclude subcontracted staff, who are often among the lowest-paid.
The living wage has become an increasingly contentious issue in higher education pay negotiations in recent months, with unions calling for the introduction of a £10 minimum wage as well as a 7.5 per cent increase.
Ucea instead offered a 2 per cent rise, increasing to 2.8 per cent for staff on the 14 lowest pay points. In strike ballot results that were announced on 22 October, 69 per cent of University and College Union members who voted supported a walkout, but the required 50 per cent threshold was only hit at seven institutions.
Tess Lanning, director of the Living Wage Foundation, said that universities, “as civic institutions with a strong influence over their local economies and societies, should be showing leadership on this issue”.
The Unison union, which represents many higher education support staff, said that data it had been supplied with indicate that more than 10,000 university employees were paid less than the living wage.
“By not giving staff a decent income, university employers are putting people under unnecessary financial hardship. These are dedicated members of staff, and their pay should reflect their hard work,” said Jon Richards, Unison’s head of education.
A Ucea spokesman said that the higher education sector “has one of the highest proportions of accredited living wage employers in the UK”.
“We know that four in five higher education employers in London and three out of five outside [the capital] meet or exceed the Living Wage Foundation rates,” he said. “Higher education institutions recognise the importance of offering excellent wider employment packages with competitive rates of pay, and many follow the rate but do not seek accreditation as they do not wish to pass the responsibility for pay determination to an external campaigning body.”