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Standing up for our University (Staff)

last modified Jan 22, 2019 03:06 PM
GU Vice President, Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar, speaks on the importance of supporting our staff.

Standing up for our University (Staff)


Good teachers (and staff) are crucial for a good education of students. They are essential cogs in the wheel of higher education today, diversified and demanding as it is, and therefore their satisfaction with pay and benefits is important for the advancement of the education of students. In the UK, the student population almost doubled, growing from 984,000 to 1.87 million, between 1992 and 2016 [1]. To tackle these burgeoning numbers, higher education has become a large employer in the United Kingdom, with British universities employing 131,136 people in 1999, which rose to 270,000 in 2016. As per Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were 284,060 staff-members in 2016/17 employed on full-time contracts, while there were 135,650 in part-time contracts in 2016/17 [2]. 

The Cambridge branch of the University and College Union (UCU) recently released a report[1] criticising the increased casualisation of employment at the University [3]. The report highlights two key issues: the lack of fair-pay in hourly-paid teaching and the insecurity of those employed through the Temporary Employment Service (TES), which has employed 2573 staff in the last three years. While TES workers are usually temporary workers, their work does not reflect the temporariness of the employment, with even cases of nine-ten months’ employment reported. Added to this are lower levels of legal rights and protection, a lack of opportunity for career progression and an adverse impact on mental health and the quality of life. Interestingly 65% of TES workers are women and 15% are BME, making it also a cause of concern, with regard to the attainment of equality [4].

Hourly paid teaching is ubiquitous across the various departments and Faculties of the University. This includes supervisions, lectures and laboratory demonstrations, some of which are undertaken by members of the Graduate Union. The current pay-structure disregards the time spent in preparing for the task at hand or aspects such as correction of student reports. In the 2017 UCU survey of graduate students, supervisors for the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), Architecture, Classics and Music required an average of 4-5 hours of preparation for each hour of supervision, whilst Psychology, Education and Engineering required an average of 2 hours. In 2018, 56% of staff performing assessment and examination work and 39% of supervisors highlighted that their effective hourly rate after taking into account preparation time, was less than the 2017/2018 Real Living Wage[2] of £8.45. As per the 2016 UCU Survey and the 2018 THE Survey, 38% academics work over five hours at the weekend [5, 6]. According to these surveys, staff who are on 0.3 Full Time Employment (FTE) and under contracts work 190% of contracted hours. College supervision rates have also fallen behind inflation, with the average pay for university staff dropping in real terms by 11.8% (CPI) and 17.8% (RPI) since 2009.

It is interesting to note that Cambridge University has had soaring capital expenditure in projects such as the North-West Cambridge Development project [7]. Currently it has about £1 billion in bond debts, part of which it seeks to pay off with the North-West ‘Affordable’ housing solution that has no long-term cap on rent, as it stands. The university has been providing Market-Pay Supplements (MPSs) but to a very few people: only 180 men and 70 women in 2017. There seems to be an over-reliance on this kind of pay due to depreciation in real wages. As per the UCAM Gender Pay Reports, there was a 20% gender pay gap at Cambridge [8].

The response by the University has been encouraging but still needs to be backed up by clearer positions and associated actions. In their letter to Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the University and College Union (UCU) and Unison Union highlighted that in his email to staff on 3rd September 2018, Professor Toope acknowledged the concerns of Cambridge University staff over the deterioration of their pay, noting that he have agreed to implement the 2% increase in salaries proposed by Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), but also stated that he recommended and continued to support a higher increase in basic pay than the 2% currently on the table [9]. The Unions felt that this needed to be backed up by better implementation. The important point of interest was that in real terms, the 2% pay `increase’ was just another pay cut and that since 2009, wages for staff at the University of Cambridge had risen by only 9.5%, while

  1. Cumulative inflation in the Consumer Price Index had been 24.6%
  2. Average house prices in Cambridge had risen by nearly 90%
  3. University of Cambridge workplace nursery fees had risen by 35%
  4. Pension provision had been eroded in most HE schemes

Across the Higher Education sector nationally, the Unions noted that the real-terms pay (by CPI) has dropped more than 12% since 2009. To recover some of this, in this pay round the Higher Education (HE) trade unions called for an increase for all staff of 7.5%, and at least £1500. They also called for action to address the spread of precarious contracts and pay inequalities. However the ballot for industrial action by UCU narrowly fell through last year. On the national scale, the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) was set up by the University and College Union (UCU) and Universities UK (UUK) following industrial dispute over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which is a pension scheme in the United Kingdom with over £50 billion under management. In their report, the JEP gave four definite areas where change was needed [10]:

  1. A re-evaluation of the employers’ attitude to risk.
  2. Adopting a greater consistency of approach between valuations across years for the pension scheme.
  3. Ensuring fairness and equality between generations of scheme members by smoothing future service contributions.
  4. Ensuring the valuation uses the most recently available information and factors such as market improvements and new investment considerations.

Universities UK (UUK) came out firmly against the increased Deficit Recovery Contributions (DRCs), which came at a cost of cost of 3.9% of total salaries, that the USS Trustee demanded recently, after their November valuation. All of these contributions have been supported by cuts in salaries and benefits of staff.

Given the importance of a good teaching staff and environment in the university, we must stand up and side strongly with our teachers and staff. Many of our GU members themselves are involved in teaching in the university. Regardless of whether the UCU strikes do happen after their recent ballot closes on 22 February 2019, my personal opinion is that we must stand up for this cause, atleast in spirit if not in action. At the same time, as a Union for the students, the GU must take any and every step possible to help mitigate the negative effects of the strikes on students, particularly our GU members who are one year masters students. This includes information dissemination, awareness building and campaigning for better provisions to help students who miss out on critical teaching hours, which they pay for with exorbitant fees in place. Nuanced and multi-sided as the topic is, I believe that the Graduate Union Council and Executive Committee, along with its wider membership, can use the renewed call for strikes by the UCU to think on some critical aspects of the central goal of the Graduate Union: to help advance the education of all postgraduate and mature undergraduate students in the University of Cambridge, both in the short and the long term, and how they cater to the needs and interests of the various people involved therein.



[1] Office for National Statistics, “How Has the Student Population Changed,” 20 September 2016.

[2] Higher Education Statistics Agency. Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2016/17.

[3] University and College Union. ‘Stamp out Casualisation in Cambridge’. Report, 2018.

[4] Kiran Khanom. ` Cambridge UCU calls for end to Cambridge’s ‘gig economy’ contracts and unfair pay’. Varsity (News Report), 2018.

[5] University and College Union. `UCU Workload Survey 2016’. Survey, 2016.

[6] The Times Higher Education. `THE Student Experience Survey 2018’. Survey, 2018.

[7] University and College Union (Cambridge). ‘Pay and Equality Meeting’. Presentation, 2018.

[8] University of Cambridge. `Gender Pay Gap Report 2017’. Report, 2017.

[9] University and College Union (UCU) and Unison Union. `Joint UCU and UNISON letter to the VC on Pay and Equality’. Letter, 2018.

[10] Joint Expert Panel. ‘Joint Expert Panel Report’. Report, 2018.



[1] This report is the product of three surveys carried out by Cambridge UCU: a 2018 survey of 108 Temporary Employment Service workers, a 2018 survey of 140 hourly-paid staff and a 2017 survey of 513 grad students. It also makes use of information obtained through Freedom of Information requests, and was produced with support from two other Cambridge University trade union branches: Unite and Unison.

[2] The Real Living Wage, calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, is higher than the National Living Wage, which is calculated by the UK government.