As three Higher Education Teachers’ Unions plan to strike this Thursday, Michelle Abbasipour investigates the reasons why; and what this means for UWE.

On Thursday 31st October, members of three unions, Unison, UCU (University and College Union) and Unite will be striking at 150 Higher Education sites throughout the UK in protest at the 1% pay increase proposed by the Government for 2014.

In typical fashion, there are two opposing versions of what is predicted to happen on Thursday with the Unions insisting that all of their 119,000 members will be striking, causing universities to come to a “standstill” whereas the Government and UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association) are declaring that only 5% of the workforce are striking – an average of 40 employees at each site. As only 31% of union members turned up to vote on the strike and just 60% of them voted to take action, then the “standstill” predicted by the unions might be a little farfetched.

The three unions have decided that “enough is enough” with regards to their members’ wages and pay increase, and that this strike action is necessary to encourage the Government to rethink their plans and to increase their pay in 2014 “in line with inflation”. This is the first time that these three unions have ever worked together to strike, so they must mean business.

The official rate of inflation as of September 2013 is 2.7%, with the Retail Price Index calculated at 3.2%. This indicates that in twelve months, the average cost of household expenses in the UK has risen by 3.2%. If an employee’s pay only increases by 1%, then there is a deficit of 2.2% for each worker in the household and a shortfall in the household income. With 5.6 million employed people in the UK living in households which are under the poverty line, it is easy to see why people are angry about the rate of pay increase.

Having said that, in 2012, all public sector staff in the UK received just a 1% increase in their wages and even private sector employees enjoyed only a 2% pay increase and these workers have not taken any action in protest at this. It is unclear why the Higher Education sector feels more aggrieved about this than any of the other workforce areas. Indeed, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) states that on average, public sector workers earn £11 more per week than their private sector counterparts.
On the other hand, the 1% pay increase in 2013 cost 97% of manual staff and 90% of clerical staff £311, with 72% of managerial, professional and technical staff losing £417. So since 2008, Higher Education employees have suffered a 13% pay cut in real terms.

A recent study showed that, in 2012, the highest-paid university workers in the UK were paid on average 18.6 times higher than that of the lowest-paid university workers. The report highlighted the huge variations between universities, with some lowest-paid workers earning 60 times less than the highest-paid employees.

It is well documented that the majority of people in the UK are struggling to pay their basic living expenses and that the rate of inflation is higher than the rate of pay for a lot of employees. However, as in all sectors, the distribution of funds for workers’ wages in Higher Education seems to be a big part of the problem, rather than the amount of funding available in the first place. There are eleven members of staff at UWE who earn in excess of £100,000 per year whereas a basic wage for an employee in Higher Education is £13,486 per year (which is calculated at just above the minimum wage of £6.31 per hour).

Our tuition fees, in which the majority of students at UWE pay £9000 per year, made up 36.1% of UWE’s total income of £220m in 2012, with the remaining funding provided by Funding Council grants and other sources. In terms of expenditure, £122m was paid in staff costs which was 58.6% of the University’s total budget.

There are mixed views of students on campus with regards to the strike. Some people think that a fairer distribution of expenditure would solve the problem, whereas others feel that an increase of 1% is better than nothing for the employees.

With regards to the action at UWE. The university have released a statement which can be viewed here (http://info.uwe.ac.uk/news/uwenews/news.aspx?id=2667) and implies that there will be little disruption to the majority of students. You are advised to check on Blackboard and MyUWE as often as possible in the run up to Thursday but services overall are predicted to be largely unaffected. Not all members of staff are members of a union, so it’s best not to assume that your lecture has been cancelled.

You can vote online for the strike here: http://www.uwesu.org/news/article/uwesu/Strike-Action-Vote/