Students back the UCU marking boycott. Image: Vimeo
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The student fight for all university staff to be paid a living wage

I believe it’s important that students uphold the employment standards that we would want to see for ourselves.

This academic year, there has been a resurgence in student protests on campuses across the country. One key demand – voiced at the “cops off campus” protest in London in December 2013 and in a series of occupations – has been for all university staff to be paid a living wage, currently set at £8.80 an hour in London and £7.65 elsewhere. As a final-year student, about to enter the workplace, I believe it’s important that students uphold the employment standards that we would want to see for ourselves.

The voices of students and staff are being ignored while tuition fees continue to rise and courses are closing. Last year, for example, 24 universities shut down all specialist language degrees.

Some of the lowest-paid university staff are on zero-hours contracts and earn the minimum wage of £6.31 an hour. At the same time, a survey of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading research universities, revealed that its vice-chancellors got an 8 per cent pay rise in 2012-2013, receiving an average of £318,500 last year (once pension payments are taken into consideration).

At the University of Birmingham, where I study, it took two occupations, two injunctions against students, five disciplinaries, five suspensions, several picket lines and a handful of court hearings before the university’s senior management grudgingly agreed that the living wage would be paid to all staff from August this year.

Despite this success, university staff have had a 13 per cent cut in pay in real terms since 2009. A marking boycott that was due to begin on 6 May was called off when staff were offered a 2 per cent pay rise for the next academic year. It had been organised by the University and College Union (UCU), which had initially demanded at least a 3.6 per cent rise from employers. The Times reported that some universities had warned staff that their pay would be docked by 100 per cent if they participated in the marking boycott. This could help explain why 84 per cent of UCU members voted to call off the boycott and accept a smaller increase, even though the 2 per cent pay rise will still leave staff wages declining in real terms.

It is important that staff know their students support them in their fight for fair pay. In true millennial fashion, students took to the internet to back the boycott. A YouTube clip called “UK Students Back UCU Marking Boycott” was circulated on Twitter under the hashtag #IBackTheBoycott. In the video, students outline the wider impact of wage disparity in higher education, including an increase in the gender pay gap and the extra strain placed on PhD students, which can lead to mental-health problems.

The living wage and a 2 per cent pay rise for staff are steps in the right direction but they are not enough. Students’ education will suffer if they are taught by overworked and underpaid staff. A few missed lectures or delays in getting essay marks back is a small price to pay.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.