What is the nature and the extent of the obligations owed by universities to their local community and their region?
Recent Wonkhe contributions have emphasised the importance of universities becoming accredited living wage employers as an indication of their good faith as civic institutions.
As the Civic University Commission Report notes, the economic impact of universities is significant, contributing billions in GVA and supporting thousands of local jobs. Yet how universities treat their lowest-paid – often externally contracted – staff is, as Jonathan Grant has argued, a good indication of their genuine commitment to the broader civic agenda, with all of the commitments to place and place-based change that this involves.
The power of a civic alliance
However, becoming a living wage employer should not just be seen as a minimum standard for universities demonstrating their commitment to their community and their broader region, it also presages a different way of acting that goes to the heart of what a university is and relates to its broader purpose in democratic societies. The example of the University of East London (UEL) as champion of the living wage shows, we believe, how a university can drive change as a civic actor – not primarily through what it does – teaching, research and knowledge exchange – nor even through its corporate behaviours – as employer, procurer or broker – but as a member of a civic alliance.
As a member of a civic alliance – including schools, colleges, trade unions, churches and mosques – universities can develop civic agendas through deep listening across the alliance and take action over an extended period of time. It empowers universities to be more active in the democratic life of their communities, and more engaged in a broader range of issues relating to the health and wellbeing of their communities. It enables universities to play their part in holding decision-makers to account over a protracted period of time.
Beyond fair pay
UEL’s journey began in 2010 when organisers from TELCO (the founding chapter of Citizens UK in east London) reached out to academics and students at UEL to support a living wage campaign at the University. Academics, organisers, trade unionists and students met with cleaning staff after their shift finished at 8am in the morning and the latter shared stories of what it was like to work as a cleaner at the university.
With the support of staff and students, and the trade unions, the cleaning staff wrote to the vice chancellor to request a meeting to discuss their contracts. Before the meeting could happen, the vice chancellor announced that the university would pay the real living wage. Working with the cleaning staff, academics and trade union representatives produced a report on the state of the existing contract highlighting evidence of routine late or missing payments, bullying and staff being sacked without due process. The contractor was replaced and UNISON, which represented administrative staff at the university, took the cleaning staff into membership.
The university became an accredited living wage employer in 2012 and you might have expected the story of the university’s involvement with the living wage campaign to end there. But it didn’t.
Word spread about the university’s decision to become a living wage employer and soon cleaning staff from other organisations in the Royal Docks were reaching out to the university for help to start their own campaign. The university became a living wage champion in the region, leveraging its relationships with other employers to adopt the living wage.
The campaign was launched in 2015, under the university’s flagship civic engagement programme London Scholars. Staff and students were supported to work with TELCO to reach out to low paid workers and help them develop their own campaigns.
The programme began to reap dividends in 2017 when a TELCO campaign, spearheaded by staff and students at the university, succeeded in getting West Ham United and the London Stadium to become a living wage employer. The baton was passed to other institutions in TELCO to secure agreement from Tate and Lyle, London City Airport, Newham Council and most recently the Excel Centre. In total 19 organisations in the Royal Docks Newham are accredited Living Wage Employers and a total of 2,486 workers have received an uplift in their pay to the living wage.
A living wage zone
None of this would have happened if UEL had settled for being an accredited living wage employer and not responded to the challenge from TELCO to become a living wage champion in the region and the university continues to lead the campaign to make The Royal Docks Newham a living wage zone.
This is something for senior leaders in the higher education sector to reflect on. Universities as civic actors and as members of civic alliances have the capacity to agitate and leverage their local and regional partnerships for socially just outcomes, on behalf of their communities they serve and, as the case of UEL shows, they can make a substantial difference.