The Other Side of the Coin: Oxford’s Overlooked Living Wage Problem

Jacob Armstrong, former OULC committee member and Chair of the Oxford SU Living Wage Campaign, sets out the next steps in fighting for the Living Wage in Oxford.

Few students are not familiar with the comments Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson made over the summer regarding executive pay and free speech at Oxford. Regarding the former, Richardson admitted that she earns “a very high salary compared to our academics – our junior academics especially, who are very lowly paid”, but said that the £350,000 figure reflected the “global marketplace”, in which these rates of pay were necessary to attract the best talent.

We, as individuals and campaigners committed to ensuring our economy serves the community, cannot dismiss any disproportionate rates of pay as a reflection of market conditions. Richardson’s pay is widely scrutinised, and rightly so, but we are often quite long-sighted. We fail to notice the imbalances which affect those workers we interact with every day, as well as the effects of the local marketplace on those on the lowest pay. The university is by no means such favourable place for a lot of cleaning, catering and maintenance staff who serve the university and our colleges.

Oxford has often been named the most unaffordable city to live in in the UK, and the lowest paid workers in our university do not receive a wage which reflects the cost pressures they experience. To put it bluntly, they receive poverty pay.

This situation is becoming less and less tenable. Oxfordshire County Council has revealed that it is anticipating extreme difficulty providing housing for workers in coming years. In a recent article in the Oxford Mail, it was suggested that bosses “might need to look beyond the country to towns like High Wycombe to find enough affordable housing for the influx of extra workers” required to meet increased demand in health and social care. The recruitment of workers to provide cleaning, catering and maintenance services to our university and colleges is arguably affected by similar conditions.

It is imperative that employers keep up with escalating costs by paying a living wage which reflects these pressures. If not, it will be difficult to recruit and retain staff who provide essential services in our university and colleges.

As it stands, the university pays the national living wage as calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and has been accredited as an employer by the Foundation since April 2015. Eleven constituent colleges are also now accredited, but the picture elsewhere in the university is somewhat murkier. According to the Oxford SU Living Wage Campaign’s most recent complete research figures, pertaining to Freedom of Information requests from the last financial year, thirteen colleges pay the national living wage but are not accredited by the Foundation, offering no guarantee that workers will be paid this wage in the future. Three colleges do not pay a living wage at all; for a further three, the information received was not sufficient to establish the facts.

While accreditation is an important step we as students and members of the community should recognise and celebrate, it is not a stable solution given the local picture. The living wage calculated by the Living Wage Foundation for Oxford is over 9% higher than the national figure, at £9.26 compared to £8.45. This is a figure which will be revised when the Living Wage Foundation announces its recalculated wage on the 6th November.

If local cost pressures continue unabated, the gap between these figures is will widen. We desperately need to put more pressure on members of the university’s executive, and lobby the authorities of our own college, to develop a fair strategy on pay and the living wage.


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