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Higher Education Pay Disputes and Industrial Action

It has recently been announced that University pay for academic and senior professional staff in UK universities has fallen by 13% in real terms since 2009, despite students’ tuition fees having trebled over the same period. The University and College Union (UCU) assert that a consequence of this is that pay for academic and senior professional staff ‘will fall still further behind the cost of living’. In response to this, members have pursued industrial action in order to attempt to secure fairer pay offers. Should we support this industrial action?
I think that there are four types of reasons that can be offered in defence of supporting the strikes, though I am unsure of how decisive any of these are, even in combination. The first reason is the one most explicit in the UCU’s literature. It relates to the fact that academic and senior professional staff ‘are being asked to work harder and take home less money to their families year after year’. This is thought to be particularly objectionable given the vast pay increases witnessed by Vice-Chancellors and Principals. This reason is a poor one. The vast majority of academic and senior professional staff in universities live very comfortable lives, getting paid generous salaries for work that they in general enjoy doing. In essence, I simply struggle to understand how an academic who earns an annual salary of £30,000+, which is comfortably above the average in the UK, can have that much of a complaint against being asked to work harder and take home less. 
A second reason relates more specifically to the pay of junior academic staff and graduate students. These people, who typically take on the brunt of teaching, are notoriously under-paid. Perhaps this provides an argument in defence of supporting the strikes. I am not convinced by this argument either. My sense is that junior academics and graduate students are in general very talented people who have many more opportunities open to them than most. I appreciate that getting by can be tough, but when they complain about the state of their pay my gut reaction is to say ‘Well, if you don’t like it, do something else!’. To those with some familiarity with contemporary political theory, I am tempted to say that academia is in an important sense just like an expensive taste.
A third defence relates to the pay of non-academic members of staff including, for example, the pay of cleaners, porters, administrators, etc. There is a much stronger cases in defence of protecting further their interests. The problem with this, though, is that, as far as I can tell, this is not one of the aims of recent industrial action. Notably, for example, the UCU represent only academic and senior professional staff in UK universities and much of their literature discussing these issues makes no reference to the pay of non-academic members of staff. It is not clear, therefore, the extent to which the strikes will further this goal.
The fourth reason is suggested by this statement made by the UCU: ‘If the pay cuts don’t stop and the universities do not start to invest some of the amassed money into tackling the issue of falling pay, the quality and reputation of our higher education system will suffer’. On this reading, the justification for industrial action is not (principally) self-interest; rather it is partly out of a general concern to protect quality in higher education. (The fact that those on strike stand to gain financially from doing so is simply a convenient coincidence!) In order for this justification to prove decisive, it must be both that quality in education is (strongly) correlated with the pay of academic and senior professional staff, and that this would be the best (feasible) use of the money. Both of these claims can be doubted. 

As someone who considers themself on the political left, I am generally sympathetic to the use of industrial action. However, in this case, I am yet to be persuaded. What do you think?

Tom Parr

Tom is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Essex. He is interested in all areas of value theory, as well as playing darts and drinking Carling.



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  1. Tom I am sympathetic to your point that academics should realise how privileged they are, but I'm not convinced that this means they should not go on strike. Specifically:

    1. I think you're not looking at the political economy of this. From your account, pay cuts are a good thing because they are an egalitarian measure to bring academic pay closer to the national average. Of course that's not the motivation of the university administrators pushing the cuts. They want to push wages down as much as they can get away with in order to, for example. pay for the high visibility infrastructure projects that bring in rich donors.

    Furthermore I disagree with the idea that just because some people are paid less (or have worse conditions) elsewhere that means they should be lowered here. That is exactly the kind of neo-liberal rhetoric that wants to get rid of good public sector pensions and wages because "why should they make more than the private sector?". The consequence (and indeed the aim of those pushing this rhetoric) is that everyone's wages and conditions end up being lowered, everyone except of course a smaller and smaller elite.

    Academics refraining from strikes will therefore not lead to a more egalitarian society, it will only form part of a wider trend towards the erosion of working conditions across society for the benefit of an elite.

    2. You say that "if you don’t like it, do something else!" This is not a question of liking it or not, but whether young academics can survive (or at least live decently) on their wages. If they cannot, then the likely consequence is that only those who have external support (i.e. rich parents) will be able to bridge the gap between graduate study and finding a permanent job. Hence creating a further hurdle for people from poorer backgrounds getting into academia.

    Low wages are much less of a worry if you a young promising academic, likely to get a permanent job after a year or two. It is much more of a worry if you happen to be a single-parent and have no guarantee that even if you somehow make it through a few years will still get a permanent job.

  2. You're first response seems off the mark to me. I agree that the motivation behind the cuts is not a benign one, but its not clear to me in what way the intentions of university administrators should bear upon the matter. The question is 'Is there a good justification?' not 'Do they give a good justification?' The answer to the question that we care about is that there might be.

    Similarly, the point about pensions seems off the mark. The claim is not that academics do better than others (as is the case in the pensions example), it is that academics do better than they would do in a more just society (as is probably not the case in the pensions example).

    I do see the force of your second point, though. I'd be interested to see the empirical evidence, if there is any, on how graduate teaching pay affects the numbers of academics coming from poorer backgrounds. My sense is that other factors (such as prior education and the availability of scholarships and grants) will prove much more decisive, though.

  3. Tom, thanks for the thoughts. I was hoping to put to you an idea that sits somewhat away from the kind of arguments you consider here, something more along the lines of structural power and change. I think you are right that a strong case can be constructed about the wages of non-academic staff at universities and even if UCU does not represent such individuals, I wonder if the situation of these groups, perhaps at least their bargaining power, is improved by a social movement that pushes for changes elsewhere. I guess such an argument would need empirical support, but it seems to be an idea common in the history of industrial action that there is a chain effect of this kind, that there is greater strength in united campaigns. Do you see much mileage in the thought?

  4. This is not about whether motivations matter morally or not. This is about intentions revealing the underlying political/economic forces driving the lowering of wages. Not understanding those forces means that you inadvertently end up supporting the neo-liberal agenda of lowering wages and weakening labour conditions and job security. It fails to recognise that administrators (and companies generally) will not be satisfied with pushing down wages until they reach a "just" level. They will keep lowering them until individuals won't (or indeed cannot) work for that pay or they are stopped by collective action.

  5. Worth noting that at least the first few strikes (as far as I know) were joint strikes with UNISON and Unite members also taking part.



  6. Hi Tom, I am a little puzzled by what you say about the first two arguments. What does it matter for deciding whether you have a complaint for being made worse off: only whether you were, initially, better off than the average or, also, who makes you worse of and what kind of general distribution results from the fact that you are being worse off? The latter issues seem very pertinent to me. Consider the following two (stylised!) cases:
    (1) a just and efficient state introduces higher taxes on all university employees who make (significantly?) more than the national average, and then redistributes the revenue to the worse off members of society.
    (2) management introduces measures that in fact increase inequality in pay both within the university and in the larger society.
    To me it seems that those who get lower salaries in (1) don't have the same grounds for complain at those in (2) (for reasons you explain in your post.)

    Strikes are about a case like (2), not (1). (Sure, in an ideal world we should probably all be striking for a lot more equality society-wide).

    And I just don't see why – other things equal – should one think it is legitimate to be made worse off by a private agent in a process that increases injustice. How much better off one is in the first place, compared to how they ought to be, is completely irrelevant.

  7. Tom, in your response to Bruno you write that 'academics do better than they would do in a more just society'. What makes you think so? More generally, how do we judge whether one does better, worse, or just about the same as one would do in a just world?

  8. Hi Tom, let me throw in a few more thoughts (a bit random maybe, but in order to see more clearly where you are getting at):
    1) do you see academia as one big category, or could there be different categories? Is it the same kind of "expensive taste" to do research on Shakespeare's early sonnets and on a cure for breast cancer?
    2) does it matter for your argument whether or not, in a perfectly just society, there are universities with decently paid academics? Do they have departments for research on Shakespeare's early sonnets and on cure for breast cancer, or only the latter?
    3) do you think there is any point in thinking about the justice of specific incomes, for specific tasks, at all, or do you think all that matters is the overall distribution? If it is the latter, do you accept arguments about attracting certain people into certain jobs (i.e. from a purely functional perspective, given that these people might not be sufficiently motivated by a sense of justice (or whatever else) to do the things they are talented for, but which take an effort, for the same salary as others)?

  9. Thanks for your post, Tom. Setting aside the question whether and how campaigns for better pay in academia may contribute to achieving greater social justice overall, how would you react to the suggestion that fair pay represents a moral concern that is best understood as independent of more general concerns of social justice? I suppose this partly relates to Lisa's third question. One may think, for example, that the question of fair remuneration arises from a perspective that is 'internal' to a given industry and concerns the way in which benefits and burdens are distributed among different actors in that industry. Following this line of thought, it may be argued that even employees with salaries that are way above the societal average can have a legitimate (pro tanto) complaint if their salary appears disproportionate to their productive contribution or disproportionate in relation to the salaries of other participants (e.g. senior managers, or university presidents for that matter). The concept of exploitation may provide a useful frame of analysis for this kind of scenario. As far as action-guidingness is concerned, the question, of course, would be how such an internal concern fares in relation to potentially competing concerns of general social justice – ideal and non-ideal theory may lead to different answers to this question – but at least the concern itself could be spelled out in a morally coherent way.

  10. Bruno: Though I am (of course) sceptical of the neo-liberal agenda, my thought is that it may unintentionally involve some justifiable amendments. We should be careful not to oppose neo-liberalism on dogmatic grounds and, instead, be sure that we objects only to those parts of it that are unjustifiable (which, of course, happens to be most, though perhaps not all, of it!). If academics had their wages pushed down significatly such that a genuine injustice was to arise, this would be a different case and one in which I'd be much more sympathetic to industrial action.

    Anca: It's a good question and one that I've no satisfactory answer to. If I'm honest, I'd assumed that it relatively uncontroversial that many academics do much better now than they would do in a just society. This might not be true of academics earning salaries of 30k (although I in fact think it is), but I think it is more clearly true in the case of those academics earning salaries of 40k+ (which would put them pretty near the top of the income distribution). Do have a simliar sense on this question or not?

  11. Thanks both. Yes, I think there certainly could be some mileage in this idea, empirical evidence pending. Even if correct, though, I think it would be helpful if we were clearer about this being the motivation for supporting the strikes. My sense is that this motivation doesn't play a significant role in the reasoning that most academics (perhaps outside political theory!) give for their support of the strikes. And, this is important because it means that the kinds of changes that we are interested in are unlikely to feature centrally in strike negotiations.

  12. Thanks, Anca, this is helpful. I'm not sure, though, to what extent the higher education pay disputes are like case (2). The UCU's principal objection is not to the increased wages on VCs (that is, I don't think the strikes would end if VCs agreed not to accept pay increases); rather, it is to not receiving a pay increase. In this sense, the UCU is not at all concerned with the inequality between academics and larger society. This is the core of my objection.

    On the second point, its not obvious to me that we're talking about 'a process that increases injustice'. The very point that I'm denying is that it is an injustice. If you have X but are not entitled to it, then I'm not sure that you can have a complaint if I take X from you, even if I'm not entitled to X. Rather, the just owner of X is the one who has the complaint (against you for having X, and now me for failing to redistribute it to you).

  13. That's really interesting, Lisa, and they're questions that I haven't thought about enough. I'm instinctively against treating the two occupations too differently. This in part reflects (i) my scepticism about desert as a normatively significant concept, and (ii) the fact that I believe that lots of medical research is over-financed. We may, though, want to treat them differently for incentive reasons: I take it that we do want some people to research cancer and incentives may be necessary for this (whereas I'm not convinced that we want Shakespeareans in this way also). However, its not clear to me that there's a shortage of people wanting to research cancer and I'm not worried that this will happen if wages continue only to increase at 1% a year.

  14. Thanks, Tom. You write that 'its not obvious to me that we're talking about 'a process that increases injustice'.' I was assuming – maybe incorrectly, this is an entirely empirical claim – that the failure to address the fall in academics' pay is part of a process of widening the wage inequalities, nation-wide.

    But what really puzzles me is what you say in the second para above. Do the rich in an unjust society have a complaint against Robin Hood? Maybe not. Do they have a complaint against someone who robs them and uses the stolen money on a project that fails to improve justice in any way? Of course they do. (So my issue is not with the agent of justice, really.)

  15. What do you think the complaint consists in? Is it that they no longer have the good or is it that those truly entitled to the good don't have it? If the former, then I don't see the force of that claim. What's the reason or argument underpinning that complaint? If the latter, then issues of hypocrisy and standing arise. It's not always that case that I can blame you for failing to do X if I similarly failed to do X (because I may lack the moral standing to do so).

  16. The complaint cannot be that the post-robbery distribution is less fair that the initial one, of course. But the fairness of distributions is not the only normative consideration around, is it? One may complain about procedures and about relational issues (in the case you discuss in the initial post exploitation is with considering, as Florian notes.)

    However, assume there is no principled complaint at stake. Consider this situation: I owe more than my fair share and you, who also have at least your fair share, want to take the excess away from me. I know you will not use that to improve distributive fairness. Whether or not you succeed, the resulting distribution will be equally unfair and by assumption there are no other moral considerations at stake. Why shouldn't I then try to hold on, by legitimate means, to the thing you try to take away from me? (Indeed, why shouldn't I try to take your excess away from you?)

    Note I don't believe that strikes in higher education are well modelled by the above example, for a number of reasons. (Do you?) But even if they were, I don't think they'd be objectionable.

  17. There is an interesting article in the Guardian that is somewhat related to this discussion: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university
    What is points towards, though, is that what matters is not only fairness in pay, but also (maybe even more?) other characteristics of jobs, in academia and elsewhere.

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