USS / pay

Can the University of Manchester afford to pay staff more?

UCU’s Four Fights demands – for better and fairer pay during a cost-of-living crisis and for more secure jobs with workloads that do not exploit us – are just and reasonable. We all have better things to do than strike, but we face a straightforward choice: make this stand or give in and accept further exploitation of our goodwill by an employer who, despite their warm words, does not really seem to value or care about staff.

We also have to question whether our employer is being honest when they claim the University of Manchester cannot afford to pay staff more. We certainly have to question the way they massaged inflation data last year in order to downplay the impact of the looming cost-of-living crisis. And we have to take with a pinch of salt claims that they “do understand how important levels of pay are to colleagues” (Staffnet, 31st January).

In this briefing paper, we set out:

  • Why we believe our employer is being less than honest when they claim the University cannot afford to pay staff more.
  • The impact of the cost-of-living crisis on staff on lower grades.
  • How our employer misinterpreted Office of National Statistics (ONS) inflation data last year in order to downplay the rise in cost of living, and falsely claimed the support of the ONS.
  • What we want our employer to do now to help settle the dispute.

Could the University afford to pay staff more?

When the pandemic broke in 2020, our employer issued grave warnings that student recruitment could plummet, leading to a possible 15-25% loss in total income. Then they used this supposed crisis as an excuse to, first, threaten mass compulsory redundancies and coerce over 600 staff into giving up their jobs, and then renegotiate and water down the University’s Security of Employment and Voluntary Severance policies.

In fact, student recruitment exceeded targets in 2021 and 2022 and, instead of a huge deficit, the 2020 Financial Statements show the University increased its operating surplus from £5.228m, equal to 0.5% of total income, in 2019/20 (obviously a difficult year) to £61.427m and 5.6% in 2020/21. That 5.6% was the third highest operating surplus in the last ten years, largely due to the decline in staff costs as a percentage of total costs from 57.5% in 2019/20 to 54.8% in 2020/21.

These figures do more than show that the University’s finances are in a much better state than you might think from our employer’s descriptions of them. For they also show that, instead of the 0% pay rise we had in 2020/21, the University could have paid staff an additional 1.5% in pay and still generated a surplus of £52m, which at 4.7% of total income would still have been the fourth (instead of third) highest percentage in the last ten years.

These figures show the University is not poor and can afford to remunerate staff more generously. However, our employer prefers to invest in buildings and equipment rather than in staff. What’s more, they claim the University’s investment plans need operating surpluses of 10%.  A 10% surplus has not been generated for at least a dozen years, if ever – the highest found in the Financial Statement available online was 6.7% in 2010/11. All this goes to show how little they value the staff who carry out and support research and who teach and support our students

The cost-of-living crisis and University staff

Suppressing staff costs will clearly make it easier for the University to achieve this 10% target, but at what cost to staff as cost-of-living crisis bites? CPI inflation rose in the year to January 2022 to 5.5% and by Easter it is expected to go over 7%, like in the USA, as National Insurance and energy prices rise.  Galloping inflation and meagre pay increases affect staff on the lowest pay grades the most, but do our highly well-paid senior management really appreciate this? Are their claims to “understand how important levels of pay are to colleagues” anything more than warm words?

True, high inflation hits everyone, but it hits those on lower incomes hardest. For someone earning the median university salary of £33.8k, 5% inflation is equivalent to a real income loss of £1860. That can mean paying heating bills, food, clothing children, a mortgage etc. becomes truly difficult. Although for someone earning £260k, like the President and Vice-Chancellor, the loss may be much larger, equivalent to £14.3k, their adjusted gross income is still £245.7k. That is not difficult to live on. Staff on the lowest dozen salary points earn less in a year than the President and Vice-Chancellor and other senior colleagues earn in a month. Do the university leadership really appreciate the hardship caused by declining real wages?

Has our employer been honest about inflation?

In August 2020, at the height of the uncertainty surrounding the Covid pandemic, we accepted without fuss a 0% pay rise. Last August employers imposed a measly 1.5% pay rise at a time when CPI inflation had risen to 3.2% and everyone knew a cost-of-living crisis was looming because the Bank of England and economists everywhere were forecasting rising inflation as Covid restrictions eased and the economy expanded.

However, in June and July last year, when pay negotiations were ongoing, the President and Vice-Chancellor and Director of Personnel, in messages to Senate and staff generally, misinterpreted inflation data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in a way that that downplayed rising inflation and suggested UCEA’s 1.5% pay offer was adequate. Not only that, but when their (to put it mildly) unusual analysis was pointed out, instead of correcting their claims, the President told Senate in October that she had phoned the ONS which supported their analysis of inflation data.

We wrote to you about this on July 15th last year, pointing out that the President and Vice-Chancellor’s claim in her 1st July Staffnet update that UCEA’s 1.5% offer was “higher than the average inflation (CIPH) over the past year (~1%) but lower than the most recent inflation (2.1% last month)” was highly misleading. This ~1% average was based upon analysis submitted to Senate by the Director of HR claiming that 1.5% was “significantly above the average measure of inflation (CPIH 0.98%) over the last 12 months to May 2021”.

This 0.98% (~1%) figure had been obtained by taking the average of twelve monthly inflation ONS updates. However, as was pointed out to the President and HR Director at the time, it appears nowhere in published ONS data because it is not recognised as a legitimate measure of inflation. In other words, its use was spurious and designed to mislead staff into thinking the 1.5% offer was fair and in line with inflation, which it was not.

A further attempt to set the record straight was made in Senate in October, when the President and HR Director were invited to acknowledge that the 0.98% (~1%) average was misleading and that the 1.5% pay rise in August pay packets was well below inflation, which had risen to 3.2% with further rises forecast. However, in response, the President and Vice-Chancellor closed down discussion by stating that she had phoned the ONS who had confirmed that the University’s averaging process of inflation updates over a year was the “correct process for pay increases.” When asked afterwards with whom she had spoken with at the ONS, her PA replied that the conversation had been a “private” one and declined to reveal the ONS source.

This was surprising on at least three counts. First, as pointed out above, the 0.98% (~1%) average of twelve monthly updates does not appear anywhere in published ONS data and is not recognised as a valid measure of current inflation by economists. Second, the ONS is the organisation entrusted with providing Parliament with statistical data and is always careful to remain impartial and not take sides. It is extremely unlikely, therefore, to tell an employer, or a trade unionist for that matter, in the middle of a pay dispute that their (in this case atypical) analysis of inflation is correct. ONS employees, from top to bottom, do not say anything to anyone – journalists, employers, trade unionists – without it being carefully checked and recorded. There are no “private” conversations with the ONS. Thirdly, Freedom of Information requests to the ONS and the University revealed that neither has any record of such a conversation having taken place.

In January, members of Senate were sent a follow-up note that sought to rewrite history by claiming the 0.98% (~1%) average inflation figures referred to the rate of inflation when UCEA made the 1.5% offer. However, careful reading of their statements and subsequent email correspondence shows that is not what they were referring to – or they would have said so at the time.

The sole reason for concocting the 0.98% (~1%) measure of inflation – an “average” not found anywhere in official statistics – was clearly to understate the rising cost of living and present UCEA’s 1.5% offer as an adequate and fair pay rise. In the propaganda game played between trade unions and employers, we can perhaps understand the motivation. What we have more difficulty in accepting is the blanket denials that followed and the unsubstantiated claim that the ONS supported such claims.

What we want our employer to do now to help settle the dispute

We would like to believe the best of people, including our employers. We would like to believe that we can count upon them to treat staff honestly, fairly and with respect. However, it is difficult to do so when we see them concocting misleading inflation data to persuade staff a pay offer is good and then erroneously claiming the ONS supports their unique and strange analysis.

Regrettably, these are by no means the only examples that reveal our employer’s true view of staff. On many occasions, the President and Vice-Chancellor has questioned the need for the incremental pay scales that reward loyalty and experience, instead stating that increments which move staff towards the full “rate for the job” at the top of the scale can be counted as substitutes for cost-of-living pay rises. As mentioned above, she claims operating surpluses are too low and need to be increased, and has declined to support UCU calls for them to be invested in staff rather than buildings and physical infrastructure. The Registrar meanwhile has told the trade unions in a meeting that he believes 20% of staff do not pull their weight, and in 2020, hundreds of staff were pushed out of their jobs, and the University’s Security of Employment and Voluntary Severance policies were attacked and watered down. More recently, unlawful if not illegal pay deduction threats have been used to deter union members from taking lawful industrial action.

Nationally, unlike over USS where UUK and UCU are meeting, there have been no talks between UCEA and the trade unions since October, because UCEA decided the 2021/22 New JNCHES negotiations were ended when employers imposed the 1.5% pay rise. This also means there have been no talks about national framework agreements on pay equalities, workloads, and casualisation, despite the progress that was made in 2019/20 and the fact that many, moderate and pragmatic, employers would be willing to negotiate on these issues but are prevented from doing so by more hardline ones.

Sadly, the University of Manchester has the reputation of being one of the most intransigent and hawkish of employers. We want this to change and for our employer to stand up and be counted amongst those more moderate employers who are willing to negotiate meaningfully with UCU to find a way out of the seemingly perpetual cycle of disputes we have found ourselves in in recent years.

As Chair of the Russell Group, our President and Vice-Chancellor is one of the most influential leaders in UK higher education. Especially given the current crisis in political leadership in this country, we expect honesty and a real recognition of both the contribution staff make to the University and the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on them and their families – not spin and empty words.

As we reluctantly embark on yet another round of strikes, we therefore ask our employer to:

  • Acknowledge their error in informing staff last summer that inflation was only 0.98% (~1%) when in fact it was already over 2% and rising, and that the ONS has not, in fact, confirmed that the University’s analysis behind those 0.98% (~1%) inflation figures was correct.
  • Acknowledge that the University can afford a pay rise above the 1.5% imposed in August 2021 and press UCEA to return to the negotiating table.
  • Join with more moderate employers who wish to settle the current HE dispute by writing and making publicly available letters to UCEA and the Russell Group saying that the University of Manchester can afford a 2022/23 pay rise in line with expected inflation in August 2022 and wishes to see real progress on pay equalities, excessive workload, and casualisation.



To ensure everyone’s safety, picketing on Monday 21 February 2022 has been cancelled, and the joint rally had been moved online. Please check the calendar for further details.

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