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It seems that the University management were prepared to dock 100 percent of pay, life insurance, and pension contributions for all staff taking part in the University and College Union’s (UCU) proposed refusal to mark exam papers this term. The threat, issued by the University’s Human Resources department, was emailed on April 4th at a time when faculty members were unable to adequately respond. As students sink deeper into debt in order to pay for a tripling of course fees and rising campus rents, a spotlight ought to be shined on the inequity of university pay and conditions.
Described as the “ultimate sanction” for universities around the country, the UCU marking boycott was proposed after six separate strikes had failed to bring employers to the negotiating table and comes at a time when it has been said that University staff have had a 13 percent pay cut in real terms since 2009. Meanwhile, it seems that Lancaster University Vice Chancellor Mark E. Smith accepted a 13.8 percent pay rise last year, taking his total salary to approximately £239,000. UCU assured students that an escalation of industrial action was “not a decision taken lightly….as we work hard to minimise the impact on students.”
The dispute does raise questions about why, in addition to lectures, young teaching assistants in many universities are on temporary, low-paying contracts, whilst cleaners and support staff are bundled off to outsourcing companies that don’t even provide sick pay. Is there a rule for those at the top and a different one for the rest? All the evidence points to a resounding “yes” as far as I am concerned. University management refused to disclose the minutes from their remuneration committees, which decide why chancellors are awarded these inflation-busting rises whilst general staff have had to deal with the worst suppression of pay in higher education since the second world war. This lack of accountability over vice chancellor pay clearly shows a lack of conviction on management’s side.
Government ministers are surprisingly critical of current levels pay for heads of universities. Business secretary Vince Cable has said: “Whilst universities are independent organisations with many sources of income, they do benefit from public subsidy. I’m sure taxpayers would expect some degree of restraint in the salaries of top managers of universities at a time when public sector pay is still under pressure.” Along with universities minister David Willetts, Cable warned: “We are very concerned about the substantial upward drift of salaries of some top management. We want to see leaders in the sector exercise much greater restraint as part of continuing to hold down increases in pay generally.”
Many of us can see how universities are routinely implementing cost-cutting measures by restraining pay, laying off teachers, or increasing workload plans. In the meantime, resources are seemingly concerned only by improving the marketing department, making dodgy financial investments, and vainly lauding construction projects. And throughout it all, students are left to pay a high price for their university education. We have also learned that UCU has just agreed to postpone its planned boycott of marking after employers made a two percent pay offer for next year. However, the two percent uplift may not be enough to placate unions forever, and they are undoubtedly seeking a ballot to determine their next course of action.
It is unworthy of British universities to tolerate these huge pay differentials. If further industrial action were to take place, it would be a major disaster on the part of management. Disruption to education should be a major concern to higher education institutions and all staff should be fairly rewarded for their contribution to academic life. Right now, I believe that the University is failing miserably to uphold these standards. As students, we should insist on nothing less, and I would urge you to make this view very clear on this year’s national student satisfaction survey and to support your departmental staff if the dispute is escalated. That would certainly show management where our priorities lie.