Threats to Working Conditions: Cambridge UCU’s Response

At the end of last week, Stephen Toope sent an email to all staff outlining contingency plans that could see a serious erosion in working conditions for Cambridge University staff. These plans include: an extended hiring freeze, delays to leave and suspension of promotions, pay freezes or reductions, and redundancies. Toope cited financial difficulties that the University may experience as a result of the pandemic. 

The timing of this announcement before a long weekend seems callous in the extreme, making a mockery of the email’s later expression of concern over staff wellbeing. Whether this is a genuine threat of redundancies, or a ploy to scare staff into accepting other forms of deteriorated working conditions, we believe it is unjustified.

By all objective measures, the University of Cambridge is in an enviable financial position, it  has financial reserves worth more than £5 billion, which is 20 times higher than the sector average of £254.1 million. According to their own financial statements, these reserves have grown by nearly £800 million since 2016, and outstrip their nearest comparator institution, Oxford University, by just under a billion pounds.

Staff wages and salaries account for just 31% of expenditure (sector average: 37%) and this has been falling steadily over the last decade from 35% (as reported in 2011). The University employs 347 staff members on salaries above £100,000 (compared to a sector average of 33). The combined cost of their salaries comes to approximately £43 million, or 6% of total wages and salary costs. The Vice-Chancellor last year earned a total salary of £475,000, twelve times higher than the median pay of his staff, making him the fourth highest earning Vice-Chancellor in the country. Instead of announcing cuts to save money on the backs of the most vulnerable and casualised workers of the university, we suggest starting with the highest salaries. 

We have many questions for the University about its finances and we will continue to ask them over the coming weeks. While we acknowledge that Coronavirus is likely to have grave economic consequences, it is our view that no jobs need to be lost, and indeed the University can do a lot more to improve the welfare of its staff in this time of great global uncertainty. 

The Cambridge UCU branch opposes the announced cuts: alternative solutions that do not rest on punitive measures directed at Cambridge’s workforce are possible.

Our message to University staff is clear: if you are worried about your job security, join your union. Never have unions been more important than during this Coronavirus pandemic.

Cambridge UCU Executive Committee