Your university, pay and the living wage

Posted By TEU on Aug 17, 2017 |

Dr. Wayne Linklater, co-president of the Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) branch of the Tertiary Education Union, discusses how paying the Living Wage would help advance the values of public institutions like VUW.

Universities are the engine of progress. They train the next generation; encourage and debate new thinking, design new policy and practice; and develop new treatments and technologies.

They are also economic engines for their cities. They bring student and infrastructure spending and pay staff, many staff and very many students because innovation and education is people intensive. And so, the better universities lead as well as reflect their region’s communities. Victoria University of Wellington, in particular, has been having a bull-run of late.

In its last performance-based research fund evaluation it ranked No 1 in the nation for research quality. And its world (Quacquarelli Symonds) ranking has improved 56 places in the last three years to 219th. It is advancing up the rankings and closing in on Auckland, Canterbury and Otago universities that have traditionally been ranked higher but are not advancing nearly so rapidly.

Revenues, too, are on the rise, thanks largely to teaching and greater success by its staff at generating research funds.

The number of students enrolled was up 2.4 per cent last year, including a 12 per cent increase in post-graduate students, and full-fee-paying, largely international, students now make up 15.5 per cent of the student population.

In 2016, $32.4 million of research revenue was awarded Victoria University from the nation’s largest providers, including the largest amount ever received from the Marsden Fund.

And so, Victoria University achieved a surplus of $9.9m last year, even after accounting for the $4.5m of costs relating to the November 2016 earthquake.

Not included in this achievement are $5.9m in cash donations, and pledges exceeding $11m. The potential sale of Karori Campus too promises an injection of 80 per cent of the asset’s value – perhaps about $20m.

So good have the financial results been, that the institution has confidently expanded its building programme and put aside the equivalent of last year’s financial surplus for reinvestment.

While other New Zealand universities are finding the going a bit tough, Victoria has charged ahead. And it wants to pick up the pace. Its strategic plan is to almost double student numbers and research revenue by 2034.

All that has been achieved, and all that is being aspired to, is in large part because of the work and aspirations of its staff who teach and research, support each other and build relationships, and demonstrate the university’s values and value day to day, week to week.

It is worrying, therefore, to learn that in its latest survey of staff, the university has discovered a growing workload problem. Its highly productive and inspirational staff, are reporting the strain.

With all this progress and productivity, and rising workloads, it comes then as a surprise for staff to discover how poorly paid they are compared to other New Zealand universities or Wellington city institutions.

While Wellington City Council has moved all directly-employed staff to the living wage and is rapidly extending it to contracted workers – paying at least $20.20 per hour to its lowest-paid employees, the employer at Victoria University has refused to do the same. And yet, it would cost less than half of just one professor’s salary each year to pay the university’s lowest paid staff the living wage.

For teachers and researchers, the situation is also bad. Across all academic roles – from lecturers to professors – Victoria University pays its teachers and researchers 4.6 per cent less than the average paid at the other five of New Zealand’s leading universities (Otago, Canterbury, Massey, Waikato and Auckland) and 9.3 per cent less than the highest paid (Auckland).

Professors, associate professors and senior lecturers at the top of their pay scales at Victoria University are lower paid than peers at any of those other universities.

Victoria University wants to be one of the great global-civic universities. A commitment to a civil society, respect, responsibility, fairness, integrity and empathy are the explicit values in its strategic plan. And yet the university employer is unwilling to pay everyone a living wage or pay its academic staff even the average of the other New Zealand universities.

Financial constraints are the reasons given for not paying staff what they deserve and for refusing to commit to the living wage. Given the university’s success, however, this is not evidence of financial responsibility but just a senior leadership prioritising investment in its physical assets over its people and community.

There is a sharp incongruence between Victoria University’s achievements and aspirations and how it pays its staff.

So I am left to reflect on how our university contributes to the region and its community, and whether it strives to uphold its values and leads by example.

The staff at Victoria University have worked to make it great and grow. It seems to me that the employer at Victoria University is missing the heart-beat of its people, community and the region.

This article first appeared on Stuff on 15 August 2017.

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