The vice-chancellors staunchly resist calls for an anti-inflationary pay rise for UK university staff, with even those who concede they may be able to pay being more adamant that anything agreed must be affordable for the sector as a whole.
When industry unions went on strike nationwide for 18 days after rejecting an offer of pay rises of between 5 and 8 percent, the Times Higher Education asked institutional leaders if they were willing to go beyond what the university and college employers’ association called for put …. on the table.
The head of a large post-92 university and the head of a small, specialized institution both responded that the recent offering was “on the edge” of affordability and they were struggling to pay the payroll like that, let alone go further.
The vice-chancellor of one medium-sized modern university said they could potentially pay a “fraction more” but acknowledged many others could not as tuition fees remain frozen in England and the Westminster government appears unwilling to provide further financial support .
They said they feared more jobs in the industry could be at risk if the salary offer increased. A number of institutions have already announced plans for redundancies, with annual accounts showing some of them are in deficit.
The UCU has made the £40bn sector’s reserves a cornerstone of its campaign for higher wages and better working conditions. More than 30,000 of its members voted on the latest offer in an online poll by the union, with 80 percent rejecting it. Secretary-General Jo Grady said staff had “seen through” the vice chancellors’ “complaints of poverty”.
However, doubts have been expressed over the ability of all institutions to afford the union’s demand for a salary offer of 2 per cent above inflation – equivalent to around 13 per cent. A member of the University of East Anglia, which was hit by the crisis, said they felt the union was increasingly representing only wealthier institutions that are in surplus and they were having to go on picket lines to demand a significant pay rise, knowing that their institution could not afford the salaries as they stand.
Nottingham Trent University has taken the rare step of opting out of the national pay review process entirely for the past two years and has avoided strikes as a result. For 2022-23, it instead gave employees a minimum raise of 3.5 percent – slightly higher than the national 3 percent – along with a one-time payment and additional furlough. Talks about 2023-24 have yet to begin.
But vice chancellors who spoke to THE continued to support collective bargaining. The head of a major Russell Group institution and an executive at a university with a sizable endowment both said the deal had to be sustainable for all, and so they wholeheartedly supported the current offer.
Leaders said they were taking steps to support staff outside of the national negotiation process but pointed out that the median wage of a staff member of £54,249 costs universities in the region £75,000 each if pensions and social security contributions are taken into account.
Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said the institution “fully supports” Ucea’s position.
“She negotiated in good faith and, given the financial circumstances many institutions find themselves in, has put a good offer on the table… In the interest of the students whose education is once again being disrupted, I hope the unions will take their offer of action.” end early and accept this reasonable settlement,” he said.