STUDENTS and low-paid staff in universities and colleges have united in condemning plans to offer differing minimum wages for people of different ages.
News last week that the Low Pay Commission would recommend a minimum wage of Pounds 3.60 for people aged 21 or older, Pounds 3.20 for those between 18 and 21 and no minimum at all for 16 to 18-year-olds has outraged many involved in higher education, which has some of the lowest paid staff in the country.
A spokeswoman for the public sector workers' union Unison said while the union supported the principle of a minimum wage, few people in the sector would see their salaries rise if it was set at Pounds 3.60, although many earned only a few pence more.
Unison was hoping for a minimum of between Pounds 4.40 and Pounds 4.60.
Sandra Siddons, a catering assistant at Nottingham University, who earns just Pounds 3.83 per hour after working at the university for 17 years, said she had expected a minimum wage to be more than Pounds 4. "I don't think its good at all and it is especially bad for someone having to support a family," she said.
At the annual general meeting of the union's higher education sector last month, members reported that students were increasingly taking on low-paid university jobs to pay their way through their studies. The fear is that students could do the same work as older people for less money.
Latest figures compiled by the GMB union found 1.9 million people between the ages of 16 and 20 were working, half of them students.
Young students tend to earn more than non-students of the same age. At 18, they earn on average Pounds 3.38, compared to an average of Pounds 3.25 for non-students.
Steve Pryle, who organises the GMB young members' bureau, said: "For students, Pounds 3.20 is going to make very little difference and in reality is going to make things considerably worse."
He said very few employers in Britain now refused to pay the adult rate at 18, but an adult minimum wage starting at 21 could change this.
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students said: "We see different rates for 16 to 18-year-olds as patently unfair. There should be equal treatment for all those who are working."