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University pays staff poverty wages – and spends £3 million on wine

King's College, CambridgeLast year, the University of Cambridge spent almost £3 million on wine. It also employs a total of over one thousand people paid under the living wage.

King’s College, the university’s most recognisable institution, has both the highest expenditure on wine, and the highest number of employees paid under the living wage. While the college’s fellows sip Merlot, those who serve it remain at risk of in-work poverty. In fact, the lavish £50,000 spent on free wine for lecturers would be more than enough to cover the cost of raising all full time worker’s pay to the living wage.

The living wage – £7.65 an hour outside of London – has been a major debate and campaign within the University of Cambridge. The university has an endowment of £1.65 billion, making it Britain’s biggest university – and it continues to claim it cannot afford to pay staff enough to live on.

But we miss the point if we see the debate simply in terms of university finances – as surely there can be no argument in favour of paying less than the wage one needs to live a decent life. These are people who empty students’ bins, clean their toilets, and, most importantly, who students know and speak to on a daily basis. And yet students across the country are being encouraged by their universities to see it as simply a matter of finance.

It’s great that people are talking about the living wage – and they’re talking about it all the more in Cambridge now the colleges’ wine expenditure has been exposed. But people should be talking about it regardless. Institutions shouldn’t be embarrassed because they spend more on wine than it would cost to raise their employees to a living wage. They should be embarrassed because they are ignoring their duties – at a time when having a job no longer ensures freedom from poverty.

Chris Clarke is a Porter at Cambridge’s King’s College, and believes the living wage is an issue of “basic fairness”. “I just think it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “[King’s] College seems to think that it does pay over the living wage – when you take into consideration pensions, car parking and the like. But that’s not really the issue.”

And he’s right. Employers need to remember that free parking and pension schemes are no use when you don’t earn enough to put aside for a pension, or to afford petrol. Likewise, what good is a free library pass when you have to rush from part-time job to part-time job just to make sure you have enough to live on?

On an issue as sensitive as pay, it can be hard to determine who should take the initiative in campaigning for a more just system. You cannot build such a campaign without a central role being played by the staff themselves, but often they do not have the security to campaign without jeopardising their jobs. So in universities, Cambridge included, the onus must remain on students. Most of us have a £9,000 per year financial stake in the university, but again, that’s not the point: we have a moral obligation to make sure our universities live up to the values of fairness and justice which they so often preach. Our voice as a student movement is more powerful than we realise. And we need to use it to hold the colleges and the university that we are all members of to account.

The choice made by Cambridge colleges to prioritise wine over wages is a powerful symbol – but the issues at stake in our living wage campaign are more fundamental. For every day that our universities stall, give excuses and claim it’s all a matter of practicality, that’s another day of someone they know not being paid what they are worth.

Daisy Hughes and Barney McCay are student co-ordinators of the living wage campaign at King’s College, Cambridge.

One Comment

  1. Robert says:

    Is the living wage a law then, did New Labour bring this in without telling us.

    Also go out side of the London bubble and labour are not even promising anyone a living wage they hope companies will do it, but how many will.

    The Tories have now given the min wage a big boast with a £1 rise across the board which is virtually the living wage.

    But to be honest labour still hires people to work for nothing interns are still not paid in all sectors and you know something New Labour ordered the wine in parliament to be increased by £4 million with most bottles costing upwards of £400 for guests of courses.

    Does parliament pay people the min wage or the Living wage I cannot find out.

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