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Pay and contract rights

At university everyone should be paid fairly, from training staff to senior managers, because ‘just and favourable remuneration’ is a universal human right. Instead, income inequality is soaring, and most of us are working longer hours for lower wages. Your contract sets your pay, along with national and local collective agreements, and also determines your rights and duties at work. Four main things you need to know are:

  • (1) your main pay is (usually) set by the university-sector collective agreement. It has been cut by around 20%, in real terms, in the 10 years from 2010 to 2021, even as most of us work longer hours than ever (note 1),
  • (2) additional local pay in the London Weighting Allowance is set by local bargaining, and has fallen by 35% since 1992, even as managers’ pay soars like London house prices (note 2),
  • (3) an employer can never change your contract without your consent, and unilateral “variation” clauses in a contract can never alter your rights,
  • (4) your ‘contract’ in law is not the document the employer photocopies for you (usually on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis) but it includes the whole deal at work, a duty of mutual trust and confidence, our reasonable expectations, the College rules, our collective agreements, and statutory rights: sometimes the employer’s written documents misrepresent the true nature of your agreement, the contract and rights.


(1) Your main pay

‘Fair pay’ means your income should reflect what you contribute, reflect your experience, enable good living standards and be reasonable between the lowest and highest earners. The best way to protect fair pay is sectoral collective bargaining, backed by pro-active union engagement, and votes at work, however these systems have eroded. Under the nationally-negotiated ‘Single Salary Spine’ most academic staff will receive contractual pay, according to the ‘point’ on this scale. However, some senior staff are off the scale.

The biggest problem is that everyone’s salaries have been cut by employers (even according to their own figures1) in real terms at UK universities by over 16% between 2008 and 2020 (using CPI inflation) under previous pay settlements, while the KCL Principal's pay has inflated by over 16% to 2020, and taking £422,000 in 2021, while everyone else's workloads increased and pay was cut. This is not right, and it is not the way university should run.

As university managers extract ever more money from students, they have also extracted more from staff. Vice Chancellors, principals, presidents and senior managers have benefited from an irrational system where they earn more than they – or anyone – is worth. They take home ever more money, decided by closed committees, as younger people struggle to even afford a home and even those who do face ever higher mortgage payments from banks. Universities are putting money into glitzy buildings with shiny windows, but forget about the people inside the buildings who create the wealth, and education: you. The best way to change this is through raising our voice at work: in our union and in our university’s governance.


(2) London Weighting Allowance

As well as your basic pay, King’s pays higher than the national scale, and KCL UCU is recognised to negotiate, for the London Weighting Allowance. This reflects the fact that London is more expensive than the rest of the country, largely because there are so many people here being paid more. However, the London Weighting has fallen in real terms by 35% since 1992. The top-earners raise their own pay like London house prices, while landlords (including King’s) and banks take an ever greater share of people’s income in rent and mortgages.

The way we change this is we support the demands for a higher London living wage for everyone. The current level is £3500 a year, and it should be at least £6000 to reflect the higher costs of living. In 2019, KCL UCU, with Unison and Unite, submitted a pay claim for £5000 in the London Weighting, and now inflation has soared even more. We want to see fair pay now, and we want unjustified manager pay to go down: they're not worth it, but you - the people who make the university - are.

The following chart shows how the KCL Principal's pay has inflated by around 50% since 2002, based on KCL's annual Financial Statements, while the London Weighting that benefits the low paid the most, has been cut. This is just not right. We must change it.


(3) Your contract, and “variation” clauses

A basic principle of law is that contracts cannot be changed without your consent. If you have a right in your contract, that cannot be taken away from you without you agreeing to it. This includes your pay, or any other benefit that you’ve been promised (e.g. Rigby v Ferodo Ltd [1988] ICR 29).

However, in recent years, the university managers had decided to follow a deeply concerning practice of relying on so called “variation” clauses, including illegal attempts in 2020 to freeze (that is cut) pay, before university unions forced managers to back down. Many contracts say the employer has power to make “reasonable changes to any of the terms and conditions of my employment” or even “significant changes” with notice. This can never be used to contradict an expressed contractual right that you have, and no such variation clause can be used in a way that undermines mutual trust and confidence (e.g. Wandsworth London Borough Council v D’Silva [1998] IRLR 193). KCL UCU opposes all unilateral variation clauses, because they undermine flexibility, which is based on good will, and they are solely used as a pretext for abuse of power. Your job should never be at the mercy of any individual or manager.


(4) Your contractual and other rights

Your contract is not merely the document that an employer writes: your true contract includes the whole agreement, and that encompasses at least five other sources:

  • a duty of mutual trust and confidence,
  • our reasonable expectations,
  • the College rules,
  • our collective agreements, and
  • common law, equitable and statutory rights.

The ‘duty of mutual trust and confidence’ means that the employer must act in good faith, and owes you a ‘duty of mutual respect’: Wilson v Racher [1974] ICR 428. The idea of ‘reasonable expectations’ is that as well as the contract’s expressed terms, the background of social norms are a part of the relationship. Your contract usually incorporates the employer’s rulebooks, often found on the intranet, and the major terms of the collective agreements that benefit you individually.

You also have a host of common law, equitable and statutory rights, including safety at work, paid holidays, equal treatment, voice through our union and the vote at work, and job security. You have these rights no matter what your contract says, because your rights come from our justice system, Parliament and international law. No contract, and no corporation, is above the law. Rights override contracts because employment contracts are usually written and photocopied by the employer on a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ basis. They are the means to misuse one-sided power, usually by corporate entities against individuals. This means that when courts decide what is the ‘true agreement’, and the true contract (rather than the employer’s version of it), they 'must' take into account ‘the relative bargaining power of the parties’. If an employer tries to contract away your rights, or even denies that you are an employee with rights, the courts must ignore it: Autoclenz Ltd v Belcher [2011] UKSC 41 and Uber BV v Aslam [2021] UKSC 5.



1 Historical salary spine points data, from UCEA, 'Previous Pay Settlements' back to 2008: and see also A Eyles, ‘Real Wage Changes on the JNCHES Pay Spine’ (10 October 2019) Universities & Colleges Employers’ Association

2 £2,323 in January 1992 is £5,328 in August 2021, based on Office for National Statistics, and the Retail Price Index, using the Hargreaves Lansdown calculator. This is useful for house prices in London, while the Bank of England calculator uses the CPI Index, and is used in the chart to make KCL Principal and LWA comparable. The London Weighting Allowance is £3,500 in September 2021.

Further sources

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