Pay gaps don’t justify strike action

An academic’s view on why the UCU is wrong to use ‘pay gaps’ to justify strike action

I will not be participating in the forthcoming university strikes and am not a member of the University and College Union (UCU) which is organising them. However, I see that one of the grievances the UCU is again trying to put across is the pay gap with respect to race. Since I would be one of the supposed beneficiaries, should the grievance be addressed, I thought I should express my view about it by questioning the status of the grievance.

The data addressed in the following points can be easily looked up from the way the UCU draws on the figures upon which it bases its claims. These may be outdated (they are from the 2017/18 Higher Education Statistics Agency staff record as discussed in UCU’s release of October 2019) but I don’t suppose it matters much for the issues I raise below, unless the UCU has undergone a major shift in attitude.

  1. The data are conceptualised in terms of ‘race’ of which no one has yet been able to satisfactorily explain the referent. Therefore, the information the UCU draws upon to make its quite definite conclusions for campaigning and justifying its strike is inherently vague.
  2. The data draw on the dominant British nomenclature and classification (BME, BAME), which sets apart people on the basis of skin colour. (HMG has apparently undertaken not to use this terminology anymore.) It is interested only in the differences among non-white groups but not within the white group. This means the chief (though not the only) concern of those who drew up the classification is the importance of skin colour.
  3. The broader conclusions the UCU draws from the data are based on the essential distinction between white and non-white, although it also makes some play of differences within the BME group (for instance ‘black’ is in the heading of the release although the figures do not refer only to black people). Does the UCU assume, and want us to assume, that all white people are inherently and equally privileged? If white privilege is a presupposition for the distinction then how can it be justified also as a conclusion?
  4. The UCU claims to have done its own ‘analysis’. It draws conclusions which are not justified solely by the figures. Its conclusion is about the presence of discrimination only, whereas the figures are raw. Therefore, it interpolates some unexpressed ideas when drawing the conclusion about discrimination. It uses only one type of explanation – that of discrimination – and overlooks other possible explanations for pay differentials or differences in representation at different levels in the academic workplace. We don’t know whether the pay differentials are present because of years of service, competence, longer time being devoted to work, or indeed discrimination (or something else). The UCU does not care to know. We aren’t told the size of the sample against which the figures are compiled. Don’t smaller sample sizes tend to skew percentages more?
  5. While the figures on pay differences call for inquiry, the UCU appears to be certain of its ‘analysis’ and conclusion regarding discrimination. How is its conclusion justified even though it overlooks the basic principles of research? The UCU represents thousands of academics who presumably adhere to more rigour in drawing and presenting their own conclusions. But the UCU itself does not feel obliged to adhere to any such standards when drawing its conclusions.
  6. One might consider that the UCU is concerned with equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. I don’t think such a conclusion is justified. My sense is that it is concerned with neither. The way it interprets the figures shows that it isn’t concerned with equality of opportunity since there is no hint in its conclusions that it wants to foster such equality. It is not interested in criteria that would enable it to assess whether employees among different groups are similarly situated and against which judgements of equality of opportunity (or discrimination) can be justified.
  7. The UCU also isn’t concerned with equality of outcomes. If it had been, then it would have been interested in those parts of the figures that show that white people fare worse or no better than some lower paid BAME people. Instead, the UCU is only exercised when white people are ahead in pay but not when they are behind others. As a result, might one surmise that should, say, all BAME people’s pay outstrip that of white people, the UCU would not be concerned? That is why it is reasonable to claim that it isn’t concerned with equality of outcomes. Rather, it may well be the case that it wants to see asymmetry in favour of BAME groups.

The way in which UCU goes about its ‘analysis’ of the ‘race’ figures, presenting its conclusions, and using them as a part justification for striking strikes me as disingenuous. Although I am supposed to be, at least obliquely, a beneficiary of its campaign, I don’t feel persuaded by the UCU’s claims. It uses my BME/BAME-ness (and that of others) to dissimulate a situation which will lead to serious disruption to all of us including our students. The UCU’s manner of going about its business also contributes to the infantilization of academia and the wider public discourse.


Dr. Prakash Shah is a Reader in Culture and Law at the School of Law, Queen Mary, University of London

Prakash Shah Written by:

One Comment

  1. February 2, 2022

    Prakash high lights some key points where UCU fail. In particular, the bases and data quality of the research to call this strike. The other, equality of outcomes and how would UCU manage / promote equality of opportunities for all grades and groups?

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