Jonathan Grant is director of Different Angles and a contributing editor of Wonkhe

There has been a welcome increase in the number of universities that are paying a living wage, including those that have declared themselves to be “civic”.

However, it is still the case that the majority of HEIs are not accredited with the Living Wage Foundation, that a quarter of civic universities are not paying the living wage – including three that have developed a civic university agreement.

Only when all universities pay their lowest paid staff a living wage can the sector be considered to be truly civic.

How civic is civic?

When asked in a poll by People First in 2021, What benefits do you think local universities bring to Greater Manchester?” 55 per cent of respondents chose “creating jobs and employing people”, second only to “training future professionals to work locally in key areas e.g. as teachers, doctors, nurses and engineers” (with 59 per cent of respondents).

The impact universities have as an employer on their locality is often an overlooked aspect of their social mission. As I demonstrated last year in a piece on Wonkhe, only a minority of universities in the UK are accredited living wage payers and this was also the case for the 59 HEIs that signed a “statement of intent” to be a civic university following the publication of the UPPs Truly Civic report in 2019.

This piece sparked some criticism with two main complaints. The first was that accrediting (or even paying) a living wage was not a good indicator of an institution’s “civicness” and the second was that universities were on a “journey”, implying that suggestions of civic washing may be premature or counterproductive.

On the first point I am willing to accept that there are other indicators that could be used to monitor and evaluate universities’ civic agendas. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that a university has a strong record in local graduate outcomes but does not pay the living wage. As such it could argue that it is delivering on its civic agenda.

A real living wage

However, for me at least, paying a living wage is an entry level hygiene factor to being civic and thus I maintain, especially in the context of a cost-of-living crisis, that paying and being accredited in paying the living wage provides a robust assessment of an institution’s commitment to its local population. The counterpoint seems unpalatable: that institutions are claiming to be civic whilst simultaneously deciding not to pay a living wage to their lowest paid colleagues such as cleaners and security staff.

A living wage is the amount that someone needs to live in dignity. The Living Wage Foundation calculates this to be £10.90 an hour (£11.95 in London). This is above the statutory minimum wage of £9.50 (rising to £10.42 in April 2023), which the government brands as the “national living wage” (for those aged 23 and over). To further obfuscate matters employers – including universities – have used the language of the “voluntary living wage” where they claim to pay the level determined by the Living Wage Foundation but are not accredited in doing so. This contrasts with the “real living wage” which is when an employer is accredited by the Living Wage Foundation as paying the living wage.

To be accredited with the Living Wage Foundation an employer must pay all directly employed staff the living wage and have an agreed plan in place for third party contracted staff such as for outsourced catering, cleaning and security. The requirement placed on subcontracted staff is one of the reasons employers – including universities – pay the voluntary living wage as opposed to the real living wage. It is also opaque as whilst it is relatively easy to see whether an employer pays a real or voluntary living wage to its staff, it is much harder to determine whether that applies to outsourced workers.

How have things changed since 2019?

So to the second critique, are universities on a journey when it comes to paying a living wage to their staff? I decided to revisit last year’s analysis to see if this was the case. The short answer is yes but a slow one with some way to go.

In 2019, 38 universities were accredited with the Living Wage Foundation. Last year the number had increased to 52 and this year it had increased to 63. I am also aware of at least four universities that are in the process of accrediting but did not meet my 1st November cut-off date for this analysis. This trend is unequivocally welcome. But it still means that the majority (63 per cent) of the 170 UK universities are not accredited living wage payers.

But what about civic universities? As noted, 59 institutions made a public declaration in “reaffirming their commitment” (as the boiler plate press release put it) to place when the Truly Civic report was released. Last year 23 (39 per cent) were accredited as paying a real living wage and this has now risen to 28 (47 per cent). In the intervening period six universities joined the Civic University Network, so taking those into account 48 per cent (ie 31/65) are accredited living wage payers. This is higher than 37 per cent for all universities so again a welcome trend.

However, not all institutions accredit themselves with the Living Wage Foundation, although they may pay the voluntary living wage. This is in part because they are concerned that they are letting a third party set their pay policy and the requirement to pay a living wage to outsourced staff. I therefore sent 33 freedom of information requests to the universities that had made a commitment to being civic but were not accredited with the Living Wage Foundation to see whether they paid the “voluntary living wage”. (Note that one university is not accredited but says clearly on its website that it is committed to paying the living wage so I did not send an FOI to them). Of the 33, 16 confirmed they paid the voluntary living wage, 13 that they did not pay the living wage and 4 never responded to my FOI request. This takes the overall percentage of civic universities that are living wage payers to 74 per cent (31 plus 1 plus 16, divided by 65).

The final bit of analysis I did was to look at the 23 universities that had developed and published a Civic University Agreement on the Civic University Network website (as of 1 November). Of these 23, 10 were accredited, 8 were unaccredited but paid the living wage, 3 explicitly confirmed that they do not pay the living wage to their lower paid staff and 2 did not respond.

What to make of it?

On the positive side it is great to see more universities accrediting themselves as living wage payers, and that those self-declared civic universities are leading on that journey.

However, it is still the case that two-thirds of universities do not pay a real living wage, and a quarter of those that claim to be civic do not pay a real or voluntary living wage, including three universities that have developed a civic university agreement.

So whilst UK universities may be on a journey in treating their lowest paid staff with the respect they deserve, during a cost-of-living crisis it is sadly a slow one with some way to go.

One response to “Are universities still “civic washing”?

  1. The question, with falling numbers in some Russell Group Universities, is is it affordable and sustainable without using reserves and earnings from endowments etc? Post ’92’s without such things in abundance, though apparently with increasing numbers, also have to balance the books.

    “Civic washing”, much like “green washing”, appears to be little more than a P.R. exercise all too often.

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