Wages of Imperial employees are decreasing in real terms despite many staff working longer each week than is permitted by government regulations.

College spending on staff as a proportion of total expenditure has fallen from 55.2% in 201112 to 52.8% in 201617. Pay at Imperial has failed to match inflation (currently 2.3%), leading to an average salary decrease in real terms of 1.1% each year since 2005. These figures – published in a pay claim by trade unions Unite, Unison, and the University and College Union (UCU) – do not take into account additional costs associated with living in London. Data from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests London living costs have risen twice as quickly as pay at Imperial.

A College spokesperson said: “We are committed to offering staff a pay and benefits package that is equitable, fair and appropriately reflects the College’s standing as a world leading university.” The pay claim will be discussed on Friday 25th May, and “the College’s response will be shared with staff in the coming weeks”.

A statement from Imperial College Union said: “’Imperial College Union has re-emphasised the importance of fairly rewarding academics in providing our members with a world-class experience. Our students do not want to be taught and supported by demotivated staff.

“We hope that the College uses the pay and benefits review to engage our community in a discussion about how Imperial spends its money and to acknowledge the hard work of our staff across the institution,” it continued.

The unions have called for a salary rise 7.5% or £3,000, whichever is highest, to cover the gap between salaries and London living costs, and “as an installment towards the massive shortfall in Imperial College pay settlements over the past 12 years”. The unions also want this to be applied to staff who are paid by the hour and say the College should commit to paying at least the London Living Wage (currently £10.20 per hour) at all times.

Although staff have seen their wages fall in real terms, the College’s total salary bill for 2016-2017 increased by 3.2% from the previous year. In the same time period, the payment settlement for most staff was 1.1%. The unions’ pay claim asserts this is due to an “exceptional increase in very highly paid staff”.

“The unions stated ‘clearly, the College has chosen to devote its surplus to buildings rather than to staff”

The unions state the salary increase for the 111 employees earning more than £160,000 was greater than the combined annual increase of the remaining 7,489 members of staff. A Felix investigation earlier this year revealed Imperial spending on senior staff is greater than that of any other Russell Group university. In 2017, the College spent £5.6 million on 20 key management personnel – an average salary of £280,000 each. At the time, a College spokesperson said pay increases across the board were “weighted in favour of lower paid staff, as has happened for the past two years”.

“Our success depends upon attracting world-class talent and our remuneration reflects that,” they added.

In the pay claim, the unions report: “Last year we were told that the Provost Board thought it best to ‘taper’ cost of living increases to allow a redistribution to the lower paid. The actual very much larger redistribution to the highest paid was not mentioned.

“Affordability has not been an issue as far as the highest paid are concerned,” the unions continue.

Claims over affordability fuelled anger over proposed changes to pension schemes and led to strikes at universities across the country earlier this year.

Tom Pike, vice president of Imperial UCU, told Felix: “The strike over pensions shouldn’t be seen as a one-off grumble by staff at Imperial. There has been a long-term erosion of pay, specifically seen against the increase in living costs in London, that has outstripped national figures.

“It’s both the squeeze on the value of current salaries and the threats to future pensions that have made staff so upset, especially when we’ve recently seen a burgeoning salary bill for the highest paid.

“This is an unsustainable position if Imperial wants to recruit and retain the best staff,” he added.

At the time, Imperial supported the proposed changes – which could have seen staff lose up to 60% of their pension value – and said they were “necessary” as the shortfall in pension funds (reported to be £7.5 billion) was “not likely to be sustainable”.

Suggestions that Imperial could not afford to continue under the current pension scheme were attacked at the time in light of the College’s extensive property holdings. Earlier this year, Felix revealed the College has £179.1 million invested in property and spent approximately £200 million on its estate. The trade unions further report that, while staff expenditure has decreased, Imperial’s capital expenditure has risen: since 2011, Imperial has spent more than £1.42 billion. Up to £928 million is estimated to have stemmed from internal surpluses.

“Clearly, the College has chosen to devote its surplus to buildings rather than to staff,” the unions write.

Affordability of pensions was a sore point in the recent industrial action. // Joseph O'Connell-Danes

Working Hours

A survey carried out by UCU in 2016 found Imperial staff work an average of 50 hours each week. The legal maximum working week is 48 hours.

According to the unions’ pay claim: “Overall, academics gave nearly two days of work per week to Imperial for free.” It continues: “Every year members of staff are donating thousands of pounds to Imperial College and risking their health as they do so.”

The UCU survey reports the workloads of almost three quarters of Imperial staff increased in pace and intensity over the previous three years. Almost a quarter of staff said their workload was unmanageable most or all of the time.

“55% of Imperial academics were on fixed-term contracts, compared to 4% at UCL”

The unions have also criticised Imperial for employing more academics on “unnecessary” fixed-term contracts, which are “out of line” with similar universities, which employ staff on open-ended contracts. In the pay claim they state: “Fixed-term contracts are particularly difficult for members of staff, making it difficult to obtain decent housing, plan ahead or develop careers.” Fixed-term contracts also make it harder for the College to “build successful, stable teams of researchers and teachers”.

Data provided by the unions show in 201516 over 55% of academic staff were on fixed-term contracts, compared to 4% at neighbouring Russell Group university UCL.

To improve working conditions, the unions have called for action to prevent Imperial staff routinely working beyond their contractual working hours and “to harmonise contractual hours at 35 [hours per] week”. The unions are also asking for an “agreement” to reduce the number of staff hired on fixed-term contracts and to convert existing fixed-term contracts into open-ended contracts.

Gender Pay Gap

Female employees are also worse off. As previously reported in Felix, women at Imperial earn a median of 9.4% less than men and a mean of 19.4% less per hour. The mean pay gap may be explained by decreasing numbers of women in each subsequent pay band: 70% of Imperial employees in the highest salary quartile are men (the highest proportion among Russell Group universities); 56% of those in the second-highest salary quartile are also men. Women at Imperial are also less likely to be awarded a bonus and receive half the value of the median bonus granted to men. The College states that this discrepancy because there are “fewer women in senior positions, and bonus payments are proportional to individuals’ salaries”.

At the time, Provost James Stirling said: “We do not consider (the gender pay gap) acceptable. We are committed to addressing this imbalance by tackling barriers to progression.” The joint trade unions have described the College’s response as “complacent” and note that “College has published no plans to take new action”. The unions are calling for a commitment to close the gender pay gap by 2020.