The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Stretching to make ends meet – The struggle for a Living Wage at Nottingham University.

Inequality in Britain is on the rise. Deteriorating employment conditions and low wages are one of the main reasons. In this post, I will report on the LivingWage/Anti-casualisation campaign at Nottingham University, demanding a living wage and secure employment for all employees at the university. The campaign group consists of a broad alliance of the three trade unions on campus, Unison, Unite and UCU, together with Nottingham Citizens as well as the Labour Students society, UoN Feminists, Socialist Students, the Young Greens, the Left Society and the Palestinian Society.

Precarious employment and poverty wages at Nottingham University

The quality of education is closely linked to fair working conditions of members of staff. All University employees should enjoy stability and continuity of employment. And yet, despite a surplus of £25 m in the years ending 31st July 2014 and 31st July 2015, the University of Nottingham has not so far committed to becoming an official Living Wage employer.

Stretching to Make Ends Meet video by Notts TV

The Living Wage is an hourly rate set independently and updated annually in November by the Living Wage Foundation. It is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK, ensuring that employees enjoy a ‘minimum income standard’. The Living Wage is currently £8.25 an hour outside London.

‘My wages here just cover my Council Tax and rent. I’m paid on Thursdays at the end of the month, by Saturday I am already overdrawn again. I cut down on all bills as much as possible, I use the car only to go to work, all my expenses have to be tightly calculated. I depend on bargains when shopping for clothes and food, things on half-price, the sales. I don’t go out, I simply can’t afford to go out’ (Cleaner, Personal Testimony).

There are now more than 2,000 accredited Living Wage employers across the UK including universities such as Kings College London and the London School of Economics. The re-branding by George Osborne of the National Minimum Wage to a National Living Wage left millions of people struggling to make ends meet as, at £7.20, it is still well below this independently calculated rate, and doesn’t apply to young workers.

‘Management is never satisfied. We are not allowed any breaks or take drinks, not even water. We are even banned from talking to each other during work. We are nobodies. They don’t regard us. Staff morale is very low’ (Cleaner, Personal Testimony).

Launch of Living Wage campaign at Nottingham University, Nov 2015

During the course of 2015, the campaign estimates that several hundred employees at the University of Nottingham were paid below the Living Wage between November 2015 and August 2016. Using the headcount of staff on each pay point, the campaign roughly calculates that the maximum cost to the University in 2015-16 of raising the pay of all staff to the current level of the Living Wage (£8.25 ph) would be under £1 million. This represents only 4% of the University’s surplus in 2014/15 and only 0.32% of finance spent on staffing.

‘I am on a 16 hours contract. I now have extra nine rooms to clean plus staircases without extra time and pay. We even have to share keys and are constantly searching for them, which adds extra time pressure. We are not supposed to talk to each other, but how can we work as a team without communication?’ (Cleaner, Personal Testimony).

It is appreciated that the University increased wages for its lowest paid workers to £8.25 as of 1 August 2016, but ultimately this means that workers will be on the Living Wage only for three months until November, when the Living Wage is again being re-calculated and increased. The campaign asks the University to commit to becoming an accredited Living Wage employer. Members of staff need to be on the Living Wage for the whole year, not just three months in order to make ends meet.  

Casualised employment at the University: infrastructure before staff?

As it was reported recently in the Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty and his report on practices at Coventry University, horrendously exploitative working conditions are not only to be found at Sports Direct. In Higher Education too, a 'Sports Direct treatment' of workers on casual and precarious contracts is widely present (The Guardian, 27 September 2016).

‘Working as a Teaching Associate is not easy. It means constant worry about paying rent, bills and living expenses. It involves endless stress about where the next short-term contract will come from’ (Casual Teacher, Personal Testimony).

Lobbying of Council at Nottingham University, Feb 2016

‘Casualisation is bad for staff and bad for education, yet it's endemic in our colleges and universities’ (UCU, Stamp out casual contracts, accessed 12/01/2016). Research and teaching staff on casual contracts undermines the quality of education. These practices are widely spread in Higher Education in the UK and the University of Nottingham is no exception in this respect. The campaign also addresses teachers and researchers on insecure contracts.

‘The uncertainty of ‘permanent’ contracts that -in reality- are fixed-term contracts linked to end-of-funding is devastating. The lack of personal control is asphyxiating, it is unbearable. And now, what am I expected to do? Shall I make my research track record even more inconsistent? Shall I desperately jump to another ‘permanent’ contract and just wait for a better opportunity? Like a rat deserting a sinking ship? Like a rat. I have children and a mortgage and a contract ending after Christmas, but who cares?’ (Casual Researcher, Personal Testimony).

In December 2015, the local UCU association carried out a survey of researchers at Nottingham University. For 86% of respondents, lack of job security was a reason they had considered leaving HE.

Stretching to Make Ends Meet event at Nottingham University, Sep 2016

Large parts of teaching at Nottingham University are carried out by casually employed teachers including postgraduate students as well as fully qualified academics who are employed for part of the academic year (fixed-term contracts) or for teaching particular modules, often working only on the basis of a letter of engagement without guaranteed hours.

‘Sometimes, I would do my cleaning job in the middle of the night, take a quick sleep in the bath, then drive to do a full day’s teaching at Nottingham’ (Casual Teacher, Personal Testimony).

The University has embarked on an ambitious investment project on infrastructure of £580 million from 2014-2020. At £96.5 million per year this is clearly above the Russell Group average annual capital investment of £62.4 million. While there is plenty of money for buildings, little is made available to put casually employed members of staff on proper contracts.

The campaign calls for the University to agree in formal, collective negotiations with the University and College Union improved working conditions for casually employed staff members. 

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

5 October 2016

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