By Sean Meleady

Due to the impact of Covid-19, the University of East Anglia faces an expected £35 million shortfall. One too often neglected aspect of the crisis is the impact it has had on non-academic staff, with UEA having proposed a blanket pay freeze for all its 3,712 staff, alongside offering optional voluntary redundancies and delaying incremental raises for long service.

Justifying the pay freeze, UEA bosses cited concerns about the expected decline in the numbers of international students in particular. Like the vast majority of English universities UEA currently charges UK and EU undergraduate students £9,250 a year, whilst international students are charged up to three times that rate. Postgraduate students are charged between £4,400 and £19,950 a year, depending on their course.

However, trade unionists resisted these proposals. Public service union UNISON’s branch secretary, Amanda Chernery-Howes, and workplace representative and communications officer, Dylan Brook Davies, organised regular meetings with UEA management, which included the Vice Chancellor, David Richardson. They also met with representatives from the University and College Union (UCU), who predominantly represent academic staff, as well as Unite the Union. These unions pressured management into looking at alternative cost-cutting measures, such as utilising unused parts of the international travel budget, a voluntary reduction in working hours scheme, and an optional pay reduction scheme. 

In late August UNISON were successful in persuading UEA bosses not to implement a pay freeze for the lowest paid staff on campus. All affected UNISON members, along with members of the UCU and Unite, were balloted on these proposals, and voted in favour of ensuring that low-paid workers avoided pay freezes, in order that staff on the highest salaries should bear the brunt of any pay cuts. 

Brook Davies highlighted the difficulties faced by UNISON workers at the start of the pandemic and paid tribute to the way they were able to keep the campus open when students and academic staff were largely absent: 

“Many of our members work short hours at UEA and have second or even third jobs which may have been lost during lockdown. UNISON members were at the front and centre of keeping campus running – cleaners, grounds staff, and IT still had a presence, which made certain that UEA was able to continue functioning in a safe and cohesive way.” 

Brook Davies explained further that, “The impact of a pay freeze would have been dramatic,” amounting to “a real terms pay cut.” He argued that, “At a time where a disastrous government are driving the cost of living up and quality of life down, to force the most financially precarious workers at UEA into a real terms pay cut would have been catastrophic for those members, and would have revealed a moral vacuum on the part of university management … Neither UNISON, UCU, nor Unite were able to condone a pay freeze which would disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in our community.” 

The Sportspark, where many UNISON members work. Credit: N Chadwick

“Of course, what UEA and all universities across the UK need is action from the government.”

Cherney-Howes also paid tribute to UNISON staff at UEA and the vital importance of the collaborative work with Unite and UCU: “UNISON UEA branch, along with UCU and UNITE, worked hard to negotiate an outcome which would ensure that all the lowest paid staff members at UEA would receive their pay increments as normal. Of course,” she added, “what UEA and all universities across the UK need is action from the government to protect higher education and the vital contribution that they make to our economy and society.” 

A second national lockdown poses fresh challenges for many of the university’s lower-paid workers, with the Sportspark, where many UNISON members work, having had to close. Though the full impact of this latest lockdown on non-academic UEA staff remains unclear, what is for certain is that the role trade unions play in protecting their members remains critically important.

Featured image credit: Nick Efford

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