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Why university staff should reject their new pay offer

UCU and EIS members in higher education are currently voting in a ballot whether to accept the employer’s “full and final offer” in the pay claim. I’ve voted to reject it, and to continue industrial action as soon as possible. I’d argue others should do the same.

The offer, for 2014/15, is a 2 per cent pay increase, with an extra £30 for those on the lowest point on the pay spine. It is significant in that it breaks through the 1 per cent limit being imposed on public sector pay, but it is nowhere near good enough. It doesn’t address the pay-claim for 2013/14 – which is what university staff have been taking action over – that’s still at 1 per cent. Current RPI is at 2.5 per cent – 2 per cent doesn’t even match that, so is still likely to represent a reduction in real-terms.

It also does nothing to catch up for the pay cuts in previous years. Over the course of the dispute the figures have become depressingly familiar: as a result of repeated pay freezes and below inflation increases, pay in universities has suffered a real terms pay-cut of 13 per cent over the last five years. In contrast, university vice chancellors enjoyed a 5 per cent pay rise last year. Five vice chancellors earn over £400,000, while university workers I’ve been on the picket line with tell of the difficulties in being able to afford anywhere to live even within 20 miles of Cambridge University.

Although the 2 per cent offer is pitiful, that wouldn’t have even been made without workers in universities going on strike. It shows that it possible to make gains through industrial action. The question now is can we win more through continued action? I think we can, and we have to try. The employer’s claim that there is no money in the sector has shown to be false – if they can offer us 2 per cent, we should be pushing for more.

Of course none of this is mentioned in the letters threatening a lockout some universities have sent to their staff. They make it sound as if the strikes over the last year have just happened because people like going on strike, not because of attacks on pay, pensions, working conditions, the gender pay gap, casualisation, cuts, the continued damage neoliberalism and austerity are doing to universities.

The management threat to dock the entirety of people’s pay for participating in the marking boycott, just days before they made their pay offer is, in part, an attempt to bully people into accepting it. They know the vast majority of university workers can’t afford afford to loose all of their pay. But, as Jonathan Neale writes, they’re actually giving us two options – either we come out on all out strike in response to them withholding 100 per cent of our pay, or we give in.

The consequences of giving in, of losing, will give a green light for government to be able to do whatever they want to higher education. I’m sceptical that UCEA will offer anything on the questions of the gender pay gap and on tackling casualisation if we withdraw the threat of industrial action. Further, its been clear that this fight, while nominally over pay, is about far more. Its about resisting the attacks on education and the Tories’ austerity agenda. It’s about saying we reject a higher education system run as a business, where ‘the market’ is the determining factor in what happens, where for profit companies are welcomed in, where staff are outsourced, where students are ‘consumers’, where research can be compartmentalised into neat two year boxes.

Solidarity is crucial over the coming weeks. The strikes by Unison, Unite, UCU and EIS members since October have won high levels of student support. Students have been a visible and lively presence on picket lines at many institutions, building on the staff-student solidarity that has developed over recent years. In support of the marking boycott an excellent #IbacktheBoycott video has been produced. The National Union of Students has voted to support the marking boycott and any future industrial action. Last month a further 6 per cent cut to teaching budgets in English universities was announced. The interests of students and university workers are the same. Both of us face a management who are keen to drive through a programme of marketisation and privatisation in universities.

We can’t afford, both financially and if we still want to have a higher education sector to work in, to not fight for more than 2 per cent. We should be rejecting this pitiful offer – they offered it because of strike action in the first place and we should continue to take action until we win.

Amy Gilligan is a researcher and academic supervisor at the University of Cambridg

Image credit: homestudio / 123RF Stock Photo

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