UCU Rising - the case for university staff strikes

higher education

Tristan Snowsill


December 1, 2022

The University and Colleges Union (UCU) is in dispute with university employers, with demands being made over pay, working conditions, equality and pensions.

Tens of thousands of university staff, myself included, are taking industrial action against universities, including strikes (24, 25 and 30 November) and action short of a strike (working to contract, refusing to reschedule teaching cancelled due to strike action).

Let’s examine one of the central claims: that university staff should be paid more. It turns out to be linked to all the other issues in any case.

University staff wages have failed to keep pace with the cost of living:

(Note that this graph shows pay for “point 28”. Nearly all universities use a common pay scale, although they are free to decide where on that pay scale each of their job grades lies.)

Universities will sometimes deflect from the fact their cost-of-living pay uplift does not in truth keep up with the cost of living by pointing out that many of their staff also get automatic increments (i.e., they automatically rise up the pay scale each year).

This deliberately conflates two different mechanisms which serve explicitly different purposes. The cost-of-living pay uplift is there because the cost of living changes over time. The automatic increments are there because staff become more valuable over time as they gain skills, become more efficient, take on important roles within the university, and acquire institutional memory.

This conflation and the failure of the cost-of-living pay uplift to keep up with the cost of living has two important effects:

  1. Starting salaries for academic posts are now much less attractive than they have been historically
  2. People who are not eligible for automatic increments (disproportionately women, part time workers, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities) are hit hardest

If we look at hourly pay, the picture looks pretty bleak. The provisional results from the 2022 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings show that the median hourly pay for “Higher education teaching professionals” was 2.7% lower than a year earlier (this obviously doesn’t reflect all of the staff involved in the dispute: many university staff are paid to do research only, are in professional services, e.g., human resources, or have specialist roles, e.g., university librarians). Whether this is caused by unusually high rates of retirement among senior professors or an increase in unpaid work hours is not clear. Either suggests significant workload burdens.

The same survey showed that in the private sector hourly pay has increased by 5.7% in the past year. Not enough to keep pace with inflation, but still healthier than pay in the university sector, and there has been a long-running trend of private sector pay growth outstripping public sector pay.

Of course, gross pay is not the only thing to determine take home pay. Pension contributions represent a significant outlay for university staff. In April 2016 the contribution rate for staff increased from 6.5% to 8%. In 2019 the rate increased again to 8.8%, then 9.6%, and finally to 11% in October 2021.

All the while, the value of that pension was also eroded, with members seeing their projected retirement income slashed.

Universities will soon realise that they will struggle to recruit entry-level staff unless wages rise. Individual universities will move where their grades sit on the salary scale – the marketisation of higher education will prevail.

Workload is already extremely high, it is unrealistic for universities to think they can continue expanding student numbers without also increasing staff numbers, and they will not be able to do that if their salary offer remains as low as it is. Any universities which genuinely lack the funds to pay their staff more will need to restructure or risk collapse. Whether the government would step in will likely depend on which university (and which government).

But the issue of pay equality will not be solved by the market – the university sector must together address the cognitive dissonance between knowledge that pay disparity is unjust and unjustified, and the reality of individual employers who have little appetite to even be trailblazers, let alone advocates for widespread reform.