The Four Fights dispute includes a national UCU demand on staff pay: an increase to all spine points on the national pay scale of £2,500.* That sounds like quite a lot of money, so why do UCU (and this Exeter Branch) consider it to be an entirely reasonable request?

Every Exeter UCU member can check their pay grade and spine point easily via the wonders of our Trent HR Self Service system. Fancy! But your particular grade/spine point are actually hiding something very important: whatever the University of Exeter is paying you, its real term value is likely to be significantly LESS than what you would have got for exactly the same work and level of experience in years gone by.

We asked Dr Robyn Orfitelli (University of Sheffield), one of our UCU national negotiators for Four Fights, to dig into the numbers and highlight the impact on Exeter staff at grades E-G (covering the majority of EUCU members). Dr Orfitelli’s results, illustrated in the three graphs below, are absolutely shocking. In effect, and without ever telling you, between 2008 and 2021 the University of Exeter has shifted this entire section of its pay scales DOWNWARDS. By an entire grade. It is unlikely the picture is much better above or below these grades either. The graphs below track pay from 2008 onwards, converting it into its 2021 equivalent. This is the only way to make meaningful pay comparisons over time given the impact of inflation (for more on methodology, see the ‘Explainer’ section at the end of the article.

“Help! I’ve been downgraded.” Now you know that this quote may very well apply to you.

Started at Exeter recently? It is unfortunate you weren’t able to get here 5, 10 or 15 years ago: the newer you are, the further behind your colleagues you are – with very little hope of catching up financially. “Help!
And if you have not been promoted in a while…well, maybe now you understand what that sinking feeling is. It’s you being rewarded less and less for your work. Every. Single. Year. “Help!
And even if you have succeeded in securing a promotion, you are still treading water in a pay structure where the value is continually draining out of each spine point you climb to.

Now, this is not actually just an Exeter problem: every Higher Education employer has been at it. Our pay is negotiated annually at a national level, and year after year after year those pay negotiations have seen employers double down on below-inflation pay increases that have decimated pay levels twice over in fourteen years (the current offer, which UCU are disputing on your behalf, takes it to an average 20% reduction in the real value of what YOU are currently being paid for the work, responsibility and experience of your job level and description).

Dr Orfitelli is now crunching the numbers on the cumulative earnings loss for Exeter staff within these grades, across the same time period. We will share those numbers as soon as we get them.

So, who is ever going to help you? Or your colleagues? Or the next generation of HE staff?

The only help available is: UCU and its membership. It is up to every single UCU member to vote in these ballots and support UCU’s national negotiators’ in their fight to secure a better and fairer deal for all staff.

It is common knowledge that many UCU members feel uncomfortable about threatening strike action for a pay rise. You shouldn’t, but what we are asking for isn’t really a pay rise anyway once you take account of the longer term trends in pay. Instead, we are simply asking for employers – including Exeter – to go some way towards arresting the shocking decline in the value they are prepared to place on staff teaching, working and researching at their institutions.

Furthermore, fair pay underpins the other elements of Four Fights: it is a prerequisite for closing the gender, ethnic and/or disability pay gaps; it connects to casualisation and exploitative employment practices; and it intersects with the battle to improve workload and value staff contributions appropriately right across the board.

And, of course, if your pay is declining in value then any pension contributions (deferred pay) are declining in value too. So your financial situation is likely even worse than what has been outlined above. “Help!” indeed.

For all these reasons, it is absolutely vital that UCU members vote YES to strike action and Action Short of Strike (ASOS) in the Four Fights and USS ballots. We need to defend the right to fair pay, for ourselves and for future employees at Exeter and across the sector.

Remember to go to our main Vote 2022 page for further information on the ballots.

Every spine point on the graphs above has been adjusted to its 2021 equivalent value to take inflation into account when comparing pay rates across the timespan (£1 in 2008 = £1.42 in 2021). The dotted lines plateau because Dr Orfitelli’s model assumes pay keeps up with inflation exactly, but does not exceed it. On the plateau (or ‘sunny upland’?) you would receive exactly the same amount of money year-on-year in real terms. In order to focus on the impact within each grade the model also removes promotion from the equation, and only considers incremental spine points (i.e. the ones applied automatically). Adding either of these elements would not alter the fundamental pattern – but it would make the graphs more difficult to read!


* It is a national pay scale because Higher Education pay is negotiated via collective bargaining at a national level, between UCU and the employers’ representative body, UCEA.