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Living Wage: The battle has just begun

At a time when university budgets are decreasing and the need for greater academic resources are of greater priority, this proposal might very well find itself being used by university officials as a means to justify ideologically driven expenditure decisions

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Those who campaigned for YUSU to pay all its staff a 'Living Wage' will be likely be jubilant this week. As the only referendum motion to be passed this term, the campaign has successfully laid foundations for radical changes. Despite victory, this 'radical change' may not necessarily be what the campaigns supporters had in mind. Though the principle of a university-wide 'living wage' should certainly be welcomed, the potential implications of the policy should also be acknowledged, particularly for future generations of students.

The brief proposal document drafted by YUSU already outlines some of the potential consequences. These include possible price increases for student services, a reduction of on-campus operating hours, and further 'efficiency savings' elsewhere. While the document is brief in its analysis, other universities that have implemented such wage increases have seen reduced travel, catering and recreational services. In addition, the paper notes that with the wage increase may come consequences in terms of staff ratios; employing less students and laying off existing full time staff being a fairly likely outcome. While the figures will be reviewed, even the most ardent supporters of the cause acknowledge this potential cost.

More daunting, is the potential for this policy to become embroiled within a political sphere. While YUSU estimates the cost of implementation at £50,000 per year, other universities including Durham and LSE have predicted a far higher figure. Despite a strong moral argument that higher costs are worth paying in exchange for better pay and living conditions, the major obstacle in the implementation lies in contracted staff; where YUSU has no direct say over what these workers can be paid, lobbying for a 'living wage' may instead result in lay offs, under the guise of 'long run efficiency savings'. Indeed, it might even result in more work in the University being outsourced and contracted to private companies.

At a time when university budgets are decreasing and the need for greater academic resources are of greater priority, this proposal might very well find itself being used by university officials as a means to justify ideologically driven expenditure decisions. Whether it's hiring low-cost staff for shorter periods of time, more outsourcing or cutting essential university services, the realities of implementing this policy might result in less social justice and equality- particularly if job losses are involved.

At the same time, passing the Living Wage motion might also make it more difficult to hold university officials accountable. Without heavier scrutinising of its financial decisions, we could very well see the policy being used as a diversion- a superficial way to divert attention from questions relating to value for our money, or where our tuition fees are going. In fact in passing this motion, students themselves could be blamed for the depreciation in the quantity and quality of on-campus services, leaving high salaried staff, consultants and their clever accountants in the clear.

Don't get me wrong; I voted in favour for the motion, and I'm pleased with its resounding victory. But we can't afford to be too optimistic. The only way in which this proposal will work is if the university's finances are made more available to the student body, and those making expenditure decisions are more heavily scrutinised. Though the outcome of the referendum signals a clear moral victory, the real battle lies fundamentally in practical implementation. Ultimately, true 'value for money' can only be attained through an ethical distribution of funds, working in favour of students and staff.

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1 Comment

christopher perry Posted on Wednesday 30 Sep 2020

This is excellent and well thought through and what Nouse was founded for. Many excellent reforms over the past 50 years have had unforeseen consequences and the writer is merely pointing out that in a recession moves by unions or goverments or whoever will mean robbing Peter to pay Paul if the total pay pot is not increased. At York in 1964 all the catering services and portering staff were University employed and the services were far better than those I have seen recently at Kings Manor and on Heslington East and the staff now do not have that feeling of loyalty to the University because it no longer employs them. They work AT the university not FOR it. Soon we will have students themselves contracted studying for the University but not FOR or IN it. You wait and see

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