Members of the University and College Union have voted overwhelmingly to accept a 2 per cent increase for the next pay round, which takes effect from this August. The offer came after a protracted struggle by academic and academic-related staff (such as librarians) in the universities and other higher education institutions.
That fight had been for the previous year’s claim, where the employers had imposed a 1 per cent rise. In response, lecturers and other staff began a series of one-day and two-hour strikes, backed up by a work to contract. Action began in October last year, and preparations were in place for a marking boycott to begin after Easter.
Since 2009 pay in universities has fallen short of the cost of living by an estimated 13 per cent, leaving those at lower grades on very low wages. This is potentially damaging to Britain’s higher education system. The case for a decent pay rise to maintain numbers of highly qualified staff and sustain the reputation of Britain’s universities hardly needs stating.
Given the case for a much larger rise, some members viewed the vote with concern. But 2 per cent for the coming year exceeds other offers across the public sector for 2014/2015, and it would not even have been on the table without the sustained campaign of the past year. And the employers have been responding to industrial action more aggressively than in other disputes, with many docking a full day’s pay for a two-hour strike and threatening the same if staff refused to mark.
The consultative ballot came without a recommendation either way by the UCU executive. In the end members voted to accept in large numbers – 83.7 per cent of those voting – and they clearly feel they need to move on. Pay is not the only issue facing university staff. When asked what concerns them most, they often cite the erosion of working conditions and reduced pension entitlements and job security. But a fight for pay is often the best preparation for tackling those other issues.
Meanwhile, the dispute has led to an overall rise in union membership. Branches have become better organised and more prepared to take on their employers locally in defence of members’ rights and conditions, which remain under threat.
It’s not as if the universities don’t have the money. Higher education financing has changed rapidly since tuition fees were introduced by Labour in 1998 and progressively hiked up to their current maximum of £9,000 by this government in 2012. Latest estimates from the universities’ own statistical records show that the sector has over £1 billion in operating surpluses.
Many institutions have been building up cash reserves as student fees have risen, and the number of students being admitted is rising steadily – up by 7 per cent last year. The proportion that the sector as a whole spends on staff shrank to 55 per cent of their expenditure In 2011/2012 from 58 per cent in 2001/2002. ■