Universities are bastions of progress, knowledge and social change.
Yet, there is a crucial aspect of fairness and social responsibility that all too often goes overlooked: paying a real living wage. As vital civic institutions, there is a moral case for universities ensuring at least the real living wage, and it might just help with some of the challenges the higher education sector is facing along the way.
Universities rely on world-class education and ground-breaking research, but their everyday functioning depends on the often-invisible workers who prepare food in the kitchens, clean student halls, and keep campuses safe. These workers deserve a wage that allows for a decent standard of living, and right now they are at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis.
Our research shows that over half (56 per cent) of workers earning less than the real living wage used a food bank in the last 12 months and 42 per cent skip meals to make ends meet. Yet the majority of UK universities are not accredited with the Living Wage Foundation.
The real living wage is the only UK wage rate that is independently calculated each year to reflect the actual cost of living. Accreditation with the Living Wage Foundation means paying the real living wage not only to directly employed staff but also to third party contractors like cleaners, security guards and catering assistants – the vital workers that make universities tick.
Currently £10.90 in the UK and £11.95 in London, to reflect the higher cost of living in the capital, the real living wage is a considerable annual difference of nearly £1000 and nearly £3000 respectively for a full-time worker, compared to what they would earn on the minimum wage. This represents freedom from stress, and the ability to spend more time with family and participate in society. Accreditation is more than paying a wage, it’s a commitment to fairness, dignity and participation, key values in higher education.
In addition to a compelling moral case, the benefits of being a living wage employer are linked to some of the challenges facing UK universities: a hiring crisis, low morale and international competition. Research found that the vast majority (93 per cent) of living wage employers report having benefited from their accreditation, with 86 per cent saying it improved their reputation, 62 per cent saying it improved relations between managers and staff, and 60 per cent saying it improved recruitment.
Accrediting also heightens the positive impact universities can have on their local area through the living wage’s multiplier effect. If just one quarter of the UK’s low-paid workers were given a pay rise to the real living wage, it could put an extra £1.7bn back into the UK economy, through increased local spending and productivity gains.
As anchor institutions, universities are major local employers and contribute billions to the economy. There is a huge opportunity for civic leadership on the living wage for universities. For example, the University of Manchester plays a leading role working with other anchor institutions, local employees and civil society organisations to make Greater Manchester the first living wage city-region.
Pressures are significant on university budgets but paying the real living wage should be seen as an investment, rather than a cost; an investment in staff, in local communities, and in your reputation. There are already more than 13,000 accredited living wage employers across the UK, including over half the FTSE 100, as well as thousands of small firms and just over 60 universities.
If universities want to shape the global order by educating future leaders, driving innovation and creating a more equitable future, it is important to start in their own backyard and pay all staff a real living wage. By accrediting with the Living Wage Foundation, universities prove that fairness and equality are not buzzwords, but core principles reflected in their employment practices. The sector has the opportunity to lead the way on the living wage and beyond. I encourage all UK universities who have not yet taken that step to start the accreditation process now. It’s never mattered more.