One of the key arguments that UCU members at Goldsmiths will have to address in relation to the current ballots on pay and pensions is the claim that “the money isn’t there”. Nationally, we are faced with the consequences of government’s ideological hostility to arts, humanities and social sciences subjects. This is exacerbated by a 5 per cent drop in the number of 18 year olds for the next few years and the sheer uncertainty of Brexit. Locally, we have failed to meet our recruitment targets and are set to record a large deficit which is potentially very serious given that we do not have property portfolios and endowment billions of, for example, Oxbridge institutions.
So this can’t be the right time to take action, can it?
There are a number of different ways of responding to this argument. The most obvious is that if we do nothing now to oppose increased pension contributions and falling pay, we risk seeing further damage done to USS as a defined benefit scheme and a double whammy for members who face higher contributions and a shrinking pay packet (in real terms).
This action has been imposed on us by the determination of USS to restructure the scheme (through a notional deficit) and by the failure of our employers, UCEA, to reward staff properly when the sun was shining and tuition fee income was flooding in. Just because the sun doesn’t appear to be shining now doesn’t mean that we can sit back and hope everything will be ok. If we do nothing, the USS will be further weakened as a stable source of income both for existing and future members; if we do nothing, this means that we are effectively accepting that stagnant pay, growing casualisation and systemic pay gaps are inevitable. We cannot afford for that to happen.
But we also need to point out that this is not a bankrupt sector (financially speaking). From 1995 to 2018, buoyed by a 50% increase in undergraduate numbers, university income across the country has gone up from £10 billion to £38.2 billion – a 382% increase while the proportion of income spent on academic staff (we don’t have a figure for professional services) has fallen from 58% to 54%. These are not UCU figures but data from the House of Commons Library!
Moreover the higher education sector has had surpluses every year bar one since 1994. The most recent report on the sustainability of the sector produced by the Office for Students found that “the sector overall is currently in reasonable financial health”. The report predicts a sector surplus (of around £1 billion) each year from 2016/17 to 2021/22 (apart from 2018.19 with a £300 million surplus). It notes that institutions expect to increase their numbers and argues that from 2021, the number of 18 year olds “will begin a sustained period of increase, which could present opportunities for providers to increase recruitment.”
Of course this relatively rosy picture hides an extremely uneven situation in which some institutions have enormous surpluses while others are regularly in deficit; while some institutions have very small reserves and no endowments to speak of, 46% of all endowment cash is dominated by Oxbridge alone.
Goldsmiths, as a relatively small and specialist institution, is more vulnerable than most. But Goldsmiths has also expanded enormously in recent years with income growing from £83 million 2011/12 to £126 million in 2017/18 on the back of a growth in student enrolments from around 7000 in 2012 to10,000 in 2018. Goldsmiths has actually performed reasonably well, achieving surpluses most years in this period. This growth allowed the College to invest a huge amount of money – some £66 million – in fixed assets in this period (much of which was certainly needed and has improved the student experience). But it’s worth noting that, according to figures produced by an independent accountant for GUCU, the increase in fee revenue has regularly outstripped a proportionate increase in teaching staff numbers – a situation that puts huge pressure on allstaff to deliver the education promised to students.
We will be told frequently by SMT in the coming months that expenditure on staff has increased significantly in the last year. This is certainly true and it is partly down to our own campaigning. We have won an increase in London Weighting and a series of vibrant campaigns have seen the College agree to bring both cleaners and security staff in house. Those are costs surely worth paying. The College has also faced a hit on NI costs and – as we all know too well – additional costs on pensions which is precisely at the heart of one of the issues we’re balloting on.But the key fact is that the proportion of expenditure devoted to staff goes up and down. It’s cyclical. Indeed, it hasn’t systematically gone up as, according to Goldsmiths’ annual accounts, payroll costs were, for example, 61.6% of income in 2012, 60.4% of income in 2016 and 59.5% of income in 2018.
The College needs to invest in its staff and we recognise that this will cost money. But our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. Everyone on campus will benefit if staff are compensated properly, if we get rid of the gender and ethnic pay gaps and if we reduce the College’s dependence on insecure contracts. This will lead to a more settled academic and professional community.
These are hard times for many people and of course many of the issues we face are beyond the control of our SMT. But they are also in a position to make choices – and those choices will have a significant impact not only on our working conditions, but on the future shape of our institution and the sector beyond. We hope that they will recognise the long-term value of investing in staff; that they will not take any panic measures in response to the deficit we face this year; that they will support staff in pressuring UUK and USS to stop their mismanagement of our pensions (and save themselves increased contributions in return); and that they will take action to address some of the most pernicious pay-related inequalities that we face.
It’s never a great time to take industrial action that impacts on students and puts enormous pressure on individual members. But we don’t have a choice: we cannot hold back our demands until there are more 18 year olds clamouring to go to university (though this will come); we cannot ignore the harm being done to our pensions; we cannot pretend that casualisation is harmless; and we certainly cannot pretend that structural pay inequalities based on ethnicity and gender are acceptable in 2019 (not that they ever were!)..
Please vote YES YES in the ballots.