Students supporting the UCU strike in Leeds in 2018.

Unsure about the university strike? Just look at the data on pay inequality

This week staff at 60 UK higher education institutions are on strike. Industrial action is in response to two related disputes: changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the pension plan for most university staff, and addressing pay inequality in the sector.

Whereas industrial action in 2018 focused on the issue of pensions, the latest round of action has expanded to address issues related to pay, inequality, precarious contracts and workload.

University and College Union have explicitly noted the gender pay gap in higher education as a key factor behind their call for industrial action.

The gender pay gap is the average difference in pay between female and male staff, and is calculated as either a median figure (if every staff member stood in a line, from lowest paid to highest paid, the median figure is the person in the middle of the line) or mean figure (where everyone’s salary is added together then divided by the total number of staff).

According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency on the 2017/18 academic year, the median salaries for female and male staff were £33,518 and £38,833, respectively. When we consider mean salaries, female staff were paid £36,128 and male staff were paid £43,348. This translates to a gender pay gap of 13.7% (median) and 16.7% (mean) in favour of male staff.

HESA’s data also presents telling insights into intersectional pay inequalities. For example, the median and mean salaries for White male staff were £38,833 and £43,777, respectively. Far higher than the median and mean salaries for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic female staff: £33,518 and £35,016, respectively.

Data from Advance HE, (2019).

When we consider differences across the UK, the situation in Scotland looks particularly unfair. The median gender pay gap in Scotland was the highest in the UK (18.6%, compared to 13.7% across the UK), while the mean pay gap was joint highest with Northern Ireland (17.8%, compared to 16.7% across the UK).

Available data paints a clear picture of inequality and unfairness. Yet, the collection, analysis and presentation of data on the gender pay gap is the start rather than end point for action — demonstrating that a problem exists does not nothing, on its own, to fix the issue.

A huge amount of data is already available on staff equality and diversity in the UK HE sector. To move forward we do not require more data but a willingness among senior leaders in the HE sector to take meaningful action. UCU have highlighted examples of HEIs doing the work to address pay inequalities, including initiatives at the London School of Economics, University of Essex and University of Bristol. What works in one HEI may not always translate to other contexts. Doing nothing, however, is not an option. Industrial action can help focus minds on this issue, ensure the problem gets better rather than worse and rapidly accelerate the pace of change.

‘We do not require more data but a willingness among senior leaders in the HE sector to take meaningful action.’

A fundamental thread running through UCU’s call for industrial action is advancing equality throughout the HE sector. Today is day one — let’s work to ensure that we move beyond using data to demonstrate a problem and instead use this evidence to enact positive change in the sector.

Dr Kevin Guyan is an equality, diversity and inclusion researcher based in Edinburgh. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Equality, diversity + inclusion researcher based in Edinburgh, Scotland | @kevin_guyan | kevinguyan.com

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