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THIS year’s TUC Congress in Manchester meets as our movement celebrates its 150th year. It will be a week of healthy debate and the principles of those pioneers who met in the city in 1868 remain at the heart of all we do.
The self-proclaimed aim of that first meeting was to “speak together in unison.” That is a message that never gets old and one that University and College Union members will reflect on this autumn as members in universities and colleges are balloted for strike action over pay.
UCU members at 110 colleges in England and 147 universities across the UK are being balloted because they have had enough of lousy pay deals from their employers.
Deals which have seen their pay held down year on year, while those at the top have been making headlines for their inflation-busting pay rises, incredible pay-offs and ability to max out an expenses account.
No-one could accuse college or university staff of being greedy. In universities, staff have seen their pay decline by 21 per cent since 2009.
While college lecturers are paid £7,000 less than their contemporaries in schools and their pay has fallen by 25 per cent over the past decade.
The lean years have not seen everybody tightening their belts though. The pay and perks of university vice-chancellors have been front page news as details have emerged of grace and favour homes, bumper pay-offs and maxing out expense accounts.
Meanwhile, a third of college principals enjoyed annual pay hikes of over 10 per cent in 2016/17.
These excessive pay rises have been embarrassing for further and higher education and even prompted ministers to speak out. Universities Minister Sam Gyimah is the latest in a long line who has promised to clamp down on senior pay and perks.
While Skills Minister Anne Milton recently criticised college heads who were paid way in excess of the rest of their workforce and accused them of not valuing their staff.
However, we need more than strong words from ministers if we are to resolve this year’s pay disputes. It is disappointing that the government has refused a request from the Association of Colleges for extra funding specifically for pay rises, but that does not let colleges off the hook when it comes to sorting out pay.
After years of holding down staff pay, colleges would have been very foolish to rely solely on a plea to government to meet staff pay expectations. They cannot simply abdicate responsibility and must find the money from other sources. Staff will not stand for more excuses, especially after a number of UCU branches won improved deals just a few months ago after taking strike action.
Similarly, staff in universities have heard excuses about there not being the money for pay rises too many times. Over the last five years universities’ surpluses and reserves have increased, yet staff pay continues to fall in real terms. Universities also refuse to tackle the high levels of casualisation in our institutions, the gender pay gap or the stress brought about by high workloads.
These are issues that will be discussed in Manchester and which unions will rightly put at the forefront of their work for the coming year.
For UCU members the battle over pay has already begun and we invite the employers to come back to us with a fair pay offer if they want to avoid disruption later this year.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of UCU.
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