King’s College London management recently announced the pay rises its workforce could look forward to come the new academic year. Basing itself on the outrageous 2% UCEA (Universities and Colleges’ Employers Association) offer, over which UCU is currently balloting its members for industrial action, King’s announced that staff at the lower end of the pay scale would receive an additional 3% pay rise. This leads our dear administration to self-congratulatorily write that there will be “many staff seeing increases in the region of 5.5%.” Lest our knees grow weak and our stomachs fluttery at their newfound generosity, we should look at the facts at little more closely.
Let’s look at where those glorious 5.5% actually come from. 2% are in line with the UCEA offer against which UCU is balloting, and another 0.5% (on average, as estimated by KCL management) come from a rise in the “London Weighting”, an additional pay-out which essentially recognizes that living in London is more expensive than in other parts of the country. This does therefore not necessarily correspond to a higher standard of living, but simply reflects the rising costs of doing so in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Lastly, the 3% for which King’s management praise themselves so highly comes from an incremental automatism that “serves to reward and recognise the acquisition of the skills, knowledge, and expertise that comes with experience in a post“. Staff are moved up one level every summer, but this year they have been moved up a mind-boggling two! KCL is simply accelerating an automatic process slightly and passing it off as a grand gesture. Furthermore, this does nothing to mitigate the plight of new lecturers, since they are unable to profit from such a levelling up, and it is unlikely to be repeated next year. They will continue to begin their careers at real wages 21% lower than their peers of earlier times.
Crucially, to progress on the pay scale one needs to first of all be on it, and Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) are not, nor do they receive the London Weighting. This leaves them out of these “bonuses” and with the meagre 2% pay rise, a pathetic offer which does nothing to mitigate their precarious living. This is scandalous. Faced with another potential strike, King’s is cynically trying to buy off the more secure layers of its workforce and drive a wedge between them and the precarious GTAs. The aim is clearly to undermine worker solidarity and maybe avoid the strike completely.
Aside from leaving precisely the most insecure workers to their insecurity, even this offer falls far short of what is required and what our lecturers deserve. Since 2009, their pay has fallen by 21% in real terms. So, even if lecturers across the country were to be consistently offered a 5% pay increase (of which around half would immediately be swallowed up by inflation), this would fall far short of mitigating in any meaningful way the damage done to their livelihoods during this decade of austerity. In short, it would still amount to a pay cut from a historical perspective.
Moreover, the crisis of casualisation remains entirely unrecognized. Approximately 60% of academic staff are on casualised contracts. Inevitably, this makes them the backbone of our university experience. They lead our seminars, make time for us during office hours, and increasingly offer advice on any other concern as life under capitalism becomes ever more unbearable. This essential work is not being rewarded by universities, instead they remain on insecure contracts long after the start of their employment. It is not rare for academics to receive their first secure contract well into their thirties or forties. Is this how we reward the teachers and researchers working for the good of society?
All of this, of course, comes as Vice Chancellors across the country are sitting pretty on the student fees they extort from us. While staff are told that there just is not enough money to finance their pay now and their retirement in the future, while students pay astronomical rents for run down accommodation, while an unaddressed mental health crisis is wreaking havoc among us, while all this is tearing apart our happiness and health, our dear VCs have miraculously discovered the means to award themselves consistently inflation-busting raises on their 6-figure salaries. In fact, in the 2015/16 academic year, 23 VCs received 10% raises, which, on the basis of an average VC pay, could just about finance one lecturers’ wage for a year.
The increasing precarity of university workers’ lives, and the luxury enjoyed by their bosses are in no means contradictory. When we are told to “tighten our belts”, this has without exception meant that we need to suffer so that the ruling class may live lavishly. As capitalism wheezes in deathly agony, the money to grant us a decent living is nowhere to be found if the people at the top are to continue to enjoy first class flights and five-star hotel rooms.
That’s why the offer at hand, and any other King’s or UCEA could make, is insufficient. It is also why working conditions have worsened, and it is why none of the larger problems of university life will be addressed. On a capitalist basis, we can no longer meaningfully improve our lives, and any concessions granted will be taken back at the next opportunity. We should content us with the scraps from their table no more. We deserve better.
This offer shows that King’s management is scared to their bones. Coming on the heels of the most militant university staff action in history, the bosses are desperately grasping for ways to nip this new movement in its buds. More than anything, that is why the offer must be rejected, and all lecturers should vote for the strike. We will not retreat when the enemy is running scared; we will charge on with renewed vigour instead. Rather than being divided by this despicable manoeuvre, KCL staff must unite and fight not just for a goal that falls far short of what they deserve either way, but with public sector staff across the country to build a public sector strike that will have as its aim to topple the government and bring Corbyn to power on a socialist programme. This is the only way that the cuts of the past can be reversed, and our victories secured for the future.
by Anthony Oakland, KCL Marxists