Response to the Vice-Chancellor’s Announcement of a One-off Payment

Given the scale of the cost of living crisis, we welcome the announcement on 7 June of a one-off payment that many – but not all – of our colleagues at Oxford will receive. The payment is an implicit admission that many of you employed at a world-leading university are facing financial difficulties. This is because, even before the current crisis, your pay has not kept up with inflation and your pension (if you have one) has been cut.

You and your colleagues regularly work well in excess of your contractual duties. Across the UK, keeping universities going during the pandemic was only possible because you and your colleagues made significant sacrifices. In return for this, in national pay negotiations, universities across the country – including Oxford – have repeatedly refused to make sure that your pay keeps up with inflation. This year is no different. Employers have made a final offer of a 3% uplift in the same month that the annualised rate of inflation reached 11.1%. We hope that today’s announcement is a sign of growing recognition that this is derisory and unacceptable.

You and your colleagues deserve a pay rise. This one-off payment is not sufficient: as the Vice-Chancellor acknowledges in her email, it will not fully mitigate past and current changes. Even when the one-off payment is taken into account, you will receive lower real-terms pay this year than last. The payment announced today is a symptom of the underlying problem: you are not being paid fairly.

We would like to see the University make better use of its unique position and leverage to ensure a fairer lasting outcome in the national pay negotiations for all staff in UK higher education.

We also have concerns that the two-tier system at Oxford will mean that many talented and dedicated staff will not receive the payment. Colleagues precariously employed on casual contracts who have averaged less than 0.2 FTE – including those who together do much of the teaching at the University – will receive no payment at all. If you are employed on a casual contract and are eligible for the payment, you will likely receive a lower payment than staff on other contract types. If you are employed on a term-time only contract you are likely to miss the payment if your contract finishes at the end of June. We hope that the University reconsiders these terms and takes the opportunity to recognise that all staff at the University make a valuable contribution and that precariously employed staff are the first to be priced out of the city by the cost of living crisis.

Meanwhile, college-only staff will not receive the payment announced today. We await further information from individual colleges and/or the Conference of Colleges about whether they plan to match the payment.

Are you working too much?

Whilst pay has dropped in real terms by 21% over the past decade, workloads in HE follow a very different trend: More than 8 in 10 UCU members report a rise in their workload over the last two years.

Universities have for a long time relied on the goodwill of their employees to work excessive hours and to take on more work without increases in their pay. UCU estimates that academic and academic-related staff, on average work over two days per week more than their contracted hours. This unpaid additional workload amounts to an approximate total of £374 million per year in the UK.

Unsustainable workloads are found at almost all levels of the university structure. Indeed, UCU found that among the groups who reported the highest average weekly hours were both professors (56.1 hours) and teaching assistants (54.9 hours).

If in the UCU workload survey more than 1 in 4 respondents (28.8%) say that their workloads were unmanageable all or most of the time, and almost two thirds (65.5%) state that that their workloads were unmanageable at least half of the time, it’s easy to see that stress and work pressure are taking their toll on the mental health of HE staff.
The HSE reports that workloads and work-related stress cause significant harm. The latest Labour Force Survey shows that in 2016/17 stress accounted for 40% of all work-related ill health cases and that 49% of all working days lost due to ill health. This prevalence is even higher in the education sector.

We can, of course, rely on the employers’ non-binding offers to maybe gather more data on the issues of spiralling workloads, increasing stress and worsening mental health (and in the meantime, do a mindfulness course and a bit of yoga, to better cope with 60-hour-weeks?*)
Or we can insist on these issues that affect so many of us to be taken seriously, and with our pay and and equality claim, call for action – including a nationally agreed payment to recognize excessive workloads.

Disclaimer: There is absolutely nothing wrong with mindfulness and yoga. What is wrong is to abuse them as patches where the system is broken. Namaste.