Share gain as well as pain, unions argue

Share gains as well as pain and dip into surplus to improve 1% offer, say unions. Jack Grove reports

August 29, 2013

Universities have been delighted at the prospect of near-record enrolments this year. But now that success may bring additional bottom-line consequences as pressure grows to increase this year’s pay offer to staff in light of the rosy financial picture brought by booming student numbers.

With UK undergraduate acceptances for the 2013-14 academic year up by 7 per cent so far and the final numbers expected to come close to 2011-12’s record recruitment figures, unions have called on employers to improve their below-inflation final offer of 1 per cent made in May, when 2013-14 enrolments remained uncertain.

Donna Rowe-Merriman, head of higher education at Unison, said that employers’ reasons for holding more than £1 billion in surpluses as contingency funds could not be justified as the sector’s financial health improved.

“If there is money to pay for iPads, tuition fee waivers and other [recruitment] incentives, then there should be money to pay a living wage for the sector’s lowest paid staff,” Ms Rowe-Merriman said.

“Our members have suffered a squeeze in income over several years, but if the sector now has a degree of certainty it should address the issues of low pay and fair pay for staff.”

Ms Rowe-Merriman said that higher education employees should share in this year’s success after having accepted successive below-inflation rises in recent years.

Last year’s 1 per cent deal followed three settlements of less than 1 per cent.

“Rewarding those who have contributed to the sector’s success by addressing incomes is entirely appropriate,” Ms Rowe-Merriman said.

Unions are consulting their members on whether they wish to accept or reject this year’s final pay offer, with ballots reaching a conclusion in September.

However, this year’s healthy student numbers may influence the vote as members decide to hold out for an improved offer, some observers believe.

Last year’s ballot on industrial action, which received only lukewarm support and led to the acceptance of a 1 per cent offer, was heavily influenced by 2012’s poor recruitment figures, observed Paul Bridge, deputy head of higher education at the University and College Union.

“Members formed a view based on what was happening around them,” he said. “However, what is shaping this year’s negotiations is not so much [the strong] recruitment, but the record surpluses that have been stacking up,” he added.

But a spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said that the current offer “remains a good and appropriate offer” in current circumstances, in which “institutions face a continuing challenge to achieve financial sustainability”.

“In the current economic and funding environment, higher education institutions have no choice but to deploy more of their own resources and reserves to maintain essential estates and service provision for students and staff,” the Ucea spokesman said.

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