12.3% inflation means this dispute over pay is off the scale

With inflation now in double figures (12.3% RPI and 10.1% CPI), it’s clear that this is a major crisis for this government and the economic system that they’re trying to control.

For universities, it’s also a major crisis, as if the effects of a decade of marketisation and tuition fee led competition had not already created major winners and losers. For universities struggling to recruit more students, just to stay afloat, the fact that everything will cost more when the income is falling, is a disaster that may tip some over the edge.

When the Covid pandemic first hit, many of us expected universities to be in serious trouble, as students couldn’t face the prospect of borrowing thousands, just to sit in their sealed rooms watching Teams lectures. As it happened, many students opted for a limited university experience given the alterative of spending time at home, and the expected disaster didn’t materialise.

The situation now is arguably more dangerous to those universities at the wrong end of the league tables, as competition for students picks up where it left off pre-pandemic. This time though, there’s a major inflationary crisis imposing its implications everywhere.

Working people demand and expect more than the 3% to 8% that we’ve been offered, when inflation is several times that, but the Vice-Chancellors will inevitably say that even finding the 3% is pushing the boundaries of what’s “affordable”. This University made a deficit of £10million last year, which is not a disaster in itself, but coming after successive years of deficits, this is a problem. The cost of non-pay expenditure is not subject to what the University can get away with, but in the hands of often monopoly suppliers of software, chemicals and materials, applying their own inflationary uplifts, to maintain their own profitability.

So, fundamentally, at least in English universities, our wages are falling because tuition fees have plummeted in real terms and universities have not generally had many options to overcome this, other than growing student numbers (especially international ones), by encouraging applicants to come here, rather than over 100 other potential universities promising the same things done better. The baby boom of the early 2000s has helped, but it’s now massively overshadowed by the inflation crisis. Last year’s £9,250 fee is currently worth £8,237, or to put it another way, you would need to recruit 112 new students to replace 100 graduating students, (and hope that none of them drop out!) to keep income at the same level.

The problem we have is that we can’t just say, oh, ok then, we’ll accept massive cuts to our income, potentially with life-threatening consequences in some cases, just because the University is struggling financially, just because this government has not funded universities properly.

We have to campaign for more and we have to be clear that whilst our dispute is with the University of Brighton (because the anti-trade union laws have forced us to make it so), our argument is also with the government, and over adequate funding of higher education.

If we take strike action, our demands will be a pay rise in line with inflation, and if the universities claim they can’t afford that, then let’s have a look at the accounts and see what’s manageable, but we’re gearing up for a generalised fight to maintain higher education as a viable public service for all.

UNISON, unlike the leader of the “opposition”, has always stood for abolition of tuition fees and for education at all levels to be funded from general taxation. It’s been pointed out elsewhere that the crisis of inflation has come after a long period of booming profitability. Big businesses have been raking it in, with profits not falling from the sky, but the result of the hard work of millions of people. These millions are now apparently not to be paid properly, because that will exacerbate the problem, which we can’t possibly have caused. (Businesses could lower their prices, but that would affect their profits and the system says that profitability has to be the main reason for their existence.)

The real reason for the current crisis is the inherent instability of the system, that demands production primarily for profit – to maximise shareholder wealth. Successive governments have treated public services as useful appendages to big business, with higher education providing skilled workers and cheap research, funded by taxation, but with the added twist that now graduates are saddled with colossal debt, often for large parts of their life. Many public services have been flogged off, often for a fraction of their value, to investors who’ve realised that providing healthcare etc. with a guarantee of supply is more lucrative than the risky business of investing for the future. This is the nature of productivity problems – not lazy workers.

Those with the capital to make short term profits have been the winners of the last period, making vast profits at our expense.

A more sensible system would control what happens by making sure there’s genuine democratic control and ownership of necessary public services.

So, all this is a roundabout way of saying that we have to fight for a better deal, whether that’s a re-prioritisation of what the University spends its money on, or a change to the funding model. University income has to match inflation, but we don’t want to see students saddled with more debt. We want free education and properly funded universities. Let’s hope the “opposition” can campaign for that as well, but if it can’t or won’t, working people will have to fill that gap.

If we manage to secure a legal strike mandate at enough universities, we’ll campaign for a pay rise our members will accept, but underlying all this is the way in which higher education is organised. That means, we don’t expect to hear from Vice-Chancellors and Principals about how disappointed they are in us, that we’ve decided we can’t live on 9% less money. We expect all those who care about higher education to support us and campaign for universities to remain financially stable with properly rewarded employees.

If you’ve not voted yet, please make sure you do.

You can request replacement ballot papers by 5pm on Thursday 18th August by calling 0800 0 857 857 for free.

All ballots must be returned by post by 26th August, so probably need to be posted by Tuesday 23rd.

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