UK university staff get £1,000 bonuses over cost of living

Unions say one-off handouts will do little to deter members’ appetite to strike for better pay deals

September 26, 2022
Members of UNITE, UNISON and UCU protest as mentioned in the story that they are about to strike
Source: Alamy

Growing numbers of UK universities are paying staff one-off bonuses to help them cope with the rising cost of living, but unions say they will do little to deter members’ enthusiasm for strikes.

The University of Greenwich has become the latest to announce that staff will receive a £1,000 payment in addition to their regular salary this month to help with energy bills, which are set to increase to £2,500 a year on average in October.

Manchester Metropolitan University has handed most staff an additional 2 per cent rise for the year, while the University of Leeds awarded £650 bonuses to lower-paid members of staff in July.

“We recognise these are difficult times for everyone and are taking action where we can,” a spokesman for Leeds said.

Earlier in the summer, the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick and Ulster all announced that they would pay staff an extra £1,000, while the University of Manchester paid £500 and the University of Aberdeen paid £750. It is understood that about 30 universities are considering making similar payments or have already done so.

Aberdeen said at the time that the payment reflected “the high value we place on the contribution of our colleagues to the success of the university, as well as our responsibility to support them”.

The bonuses come in addition to the 3 per cent pay rise for most university staff that was implemented in August by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) despite lack of agreement with the higher education unions. Better-off institutions have been able to reward staff in a move that some claim has undermined the collective bargaining process, with universities that are struggling financially unable to reciprocate.

Despite the payments, Unison members – many of whom are among the lowest paid because of their roles as cleaners or catering staff – are beginning strike action at 16 universities in an attempt to secure a larger pay rise. Universities such as Leeds and Manchester Metropolitan that have offered bonuses are still among those affected.

The head of education for Unison, Mike Short, said anything that helps staff cope with the devastating cost of living pressures is welcome” but added that the one-off payments were “masquerading as proper pay increases” and represented “a cynical response” when workers needed rises to be part of annual earnings to ensure “financial security over years, not months”.

Meanwhile, the University and College Union is also balloting its members on whether to stage further walkouts and has also been critical of one-off payments.

Roger Seifert, emeritus professor of industrial relations at the University of Wolverhampton, said the bonuses would probably be seen as a “shallow ploy with no real impact” on the underlying issues the sector faces and were therefore unlikely to deter those intent on going on strike.

“Some might take the money, but even they will remain unhappy with their lot,” he added. “In general the pressures on wages remain – inflation at 10 per cent and no signs of reducing before next summer; a history of low wage deals; a lack of investment across the board; and senior managers immune from any pay restraint.”

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

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