On University Pay and Inflation

Despite of the relatively high Covid19 incidence numbers, the UK is returning to some form of normality. The year is coming to an end and the Christmas Market is absolutely packed. We are also preparing for another 3 day strike followed by further industrial action on the Four Fights and the ongoing attack on our pension. A reminder, the Four Fights are Pay, Workload, Equality and Casualisation. In this post I would like to focus on the issue of Pay.

University pay is organised in grades from 1 to 10 and spine points 3 to 66 ranging from £17,338 to £103,709 in 2021. Progression within one grade is automatic until to top spine point of the grade is reached. There are also some discretionary spine points. My role as Research Software Engineer at the University of Edinburgh is non-academic and has been graded at Grade 7. This means that if I want to get to another grade I need to change my role. I was employed in 2009 at spine point 36 - the top of Grade 7. Since then I advanced one discretionary spine point. The lack of career progression is due to my choice of career and probably topic of a future blog post. Being stuck at spine point 36/37 is instructive and subject of this post.

The graph below shows pay before tax for grade UE7 from 2009 until 2018 in blue. The red curves show pay adjusted for inflation. I used the consumer price index as a measure of inflation. The spine point 36 is highlighted. The graph also shows the percentile points of the total income before tax distribution for the UK.

Income for grade UE7 from 2009 until 2018

The first point to note is that I am extremely privileged: In 2009 when I started my job 80% of people in the UK with a taxable income earned less than I did. During the following years university pay increased by 1 to 2% which is below inflation. By 2018 the difference between the actual pay and pay taking inflation into account is about £3500. This period is characterised by Tory austerity, so you might think that other sectors have experienced similar effective pay cuts. However, the national pay distribution catches up with the pay adjusted for inflation by 2018. This means that somebody on spine point 36 was in the 80th percentile in 2009 ended up in the 76th percentile in 2018. This is a demotion of 3 spine points.

Many people working at universities might not notice this so much because they get their automatic increment to the next spine point within their grade or they are promoted to another grade. However, promotion reflects the fact that employees are gaining more experience over time or that their jobs have changed.

So, if you take the view that a salary reflects the value of work then another way of looking at the pay development is that the work required for a particular role is less valued today than 10 years ago. This particularly affects younger people who need to deal with ever increasing rents and property prices. At a time when workload has been steadily increasing, in particular during the last year when we had to adjust to new ways of working during the pandemic, this is frankly insulting.