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Why the universities strikes are about more than just a ‘measly’ pay offer

It's not just the money, it's the direction our marketised universities are taking - enormous rewards at the top combined with a race to the bottom approach for all other staff, and a system of fees that is exacerbating inequality. It's wrong and we oppose it.

Academics and support staff in UK universities are taking their third full day of strike action on Thursday as part of an increasingly bitter campaign for ‘fair pay’ that is likely to escalate to a full-scale refusal to mark student work in the summer term.

Many staff are outraged that while they have been offered a 1% pay rise, a pay cut in the light of inflation running at 2.7%, university vice-chancellors continue to reward themselves generously. VCs received an average increase of just over 5% last year although there were some notable exceptions. Sir Keith Burnett at Sheffield University received a 39% increase taking his salary up from £269,000 to £374,000 even though Sheffield still refuses to guarantee a living wage to its staff; Craig Calhoun, director of the London School of Economics, saw his pay grow 61% to £435,000, more than three times that of the prime minister. Indeed, all but five of the over 140 vice-chancellors in the UK are now paid more than David Cameron. Perhaps he needs to join a trade union.

While ordinary staff have seen their pay decline by 13% over the last five years – even the employers’ association UCEA grudgingly admits that ‘real earnings levels have been eroded since 2008’ – operating surpluses, fuelled by tuition fees, are growing rapidly. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the sector has seen a surplus of over £2 billion in the last two years while funding body HEFCE notes that university finances are ‘sound overall’ for the next few years and that institutions are set to gain handsomely from a projected 40% rise in income from international students to nearly £4 billion in 2015-16. 

In this context, the employers’ refusal to budge from what the leader of the National Union of Students described as a ‘measly pay offer’ is infuriating university staff. The anger, however, extends far beyond the stinginess of the employers and connects to a wide range of concerns felt by many who work in higher education about the direction the sector is taking.

First, that vice-chancellors think it is legitimate to accept substantial pay increases is less a sign of individual avarice (of course there may be exceptions) than a sign of their willingness to comply with a marketized conception of higher education where businesses ‘naturally’ reward their leaders and attempt to hold down the pay of everyone else.

Second, the dispute is serving to crystallize the many anxieties affecting staff on campuses. A recent survey of university staff carried out by Times Higher Education found that staff are actually more likely to be troubled by the lousy performance of senior managers, by growing insecurity and by their exclusion from institutional decision-making than they are by poor pay alone. Of course, this is less likely to be the case for those more than 4000 cleaners, porters and hourly-paid staff who are still paid below the Living Wage but it does signal that managerialism, casualisation and a lack of accountability are all key issues that sit alongside remuneration as a motivating force behind the current action.

Third, the dispute is connected to the wider restructuring of higher education in the UK. We are told that university employers cannot afford to give staff a decent pay rise (despite money in the bank) because of the volatility unleashed by the government’s reforms of HE that, it was argued, were necessary to meet the challenges of austerity. But the government’s introduction of tuition fees and loans to replace central funding was never primarily about saving money. It was mainly designed to massage the public accounts and to demonstrate its commitment to use competition and private finance increasingly to structure what used to be seen as public services.

The cost has indeed been huge – not simply in terms of massively increased debt for those who do get to study but also the widening of social inequality. Since 2010/11, for example, part-time undergraduate numbers have fallen by some 40% with a 27% drop in postgraduates. Even the official regulator, HEFCE, admitted that these decreases ‘are likely to have implications for equality and diversity’ and to have a disproportionate impact on non-traditional students, mature students and men from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is at the same time that young people living in richer parts of the country are between six and nine times more likely to go to selective universities.

The pay dispute therefore has to be seen in this wider context: of a neoliberal restructuring of university education that is set to reward the wealthy and to target the poor and to introduce competition, market forces and private actors into the delivery of higher education wherever possible. This has provided the employers with a perfect excuse to hang on to their surpluses: to cope with an unpredictable future and to save their money for a rainy day.

It may seem strange to some that what appears to be a relatively privileged group of workers is so determined to campaign for fair pay. This underestimates both the low pay that is endemic in the sector and the disillusionment with the direction that universities are taking. The pay dispute should be seen not as a simple battle over a few hundred pounds but over the broader future of an education system which is being ravaged by the ideological desire of successive governments to make it function just like any other private institution.

Students are currently organizing against the next phase of the sell-off of the loan book and are increasingly being criminalized for their protest activities. Those who work in universities ought to join with them and to deliver two simple messages: that staff are not a ‘cost’ to be lowered but a group to be properly rewarded, and that universities will fail in their mission to deliver a public education if they are governed, as they increasingly seem to be, as ‘cost centres’. 

About the author

Des Freedman (@lazebnicis Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘The Contradictions of Media Power’ (2014) and co-author (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) of ‘Misunderstanding the Internet’ (2nd edition, 2016).


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