Cardiff University Students’ Union student staff will not receive a living wage without legislative intervention, a Gair Rhydd investigation has found. Despite a successful Student Senate motion in 2013 that resolved that the Students’ Union should pay living wage to all its staff, work to introduce a student living wage has all but ceased.
The minutes from the Board of Trustees meeting that reviewed this decision said that the trustees agreed with the idea in spirit, and that they would “look to introduce it in future”. But Gair Rhydd can reveal that no progress was made towards paying student staff a living wage after this meeting.
Additionally, we spoke to the senate members that passed the motion, who could not specifically recall the matter arising after the motion was passed. One of these senators, who is now an elected officer, said that after the senate meeting that they “heard nothing further” about a living wage for the Union’s 300+ student staff.
This is particularly damning as the 2013/14 officer team were shortlisted for the NUS Award for “Officer Team of the Year” in 2014, in part for “supporting the university’s introduction of the living wage,” according to a news report on the Cardiff University website. Questions now remain about why the political will to see the the living wage introduced at Cardiff University did not extend to the students’ union.
Madhura Kanade, a member of this year’s student senate, was concerned to hear that the matter had effectively been dropped by trustees. “Students should be paid the living wage if they are giving time from their studies to work and earn money. It doesn’t matter if they’re not career staff. They should be earning the same wage that everybody else is.”
“The senate is really important. We’re here to represent the student body and make decisions that benefit students. I’m not sure why the issue was dropped, but I would be very interested to see this motion taken back up to the senate.”
One positive outcome of the senate meeting is that all of the Students’ Union career staff are now paid above minimum wage. But the Students’ Union’s current position on the living wage is still less progressive than the University’s, which pays all staff the living wage as standard (including casual student employees).
Gair Rhydd spoke to SU President Elliot Howells, who sat as a sabbatical officer on the board in the trustees meeting that discussed the senate motion in 2013. In our initial contact, Howells said that the decision to introduce a living wage for students would be reviewed when the Living Wage Foundation released plans for a student living wage.
However, Gair Rhydd contacted the Living Wage Foundation, and a representative said that they “had not heard of any plans to introduce a student living wage.” They added that “as students may have a range of financial situations, we would suggest that the main Living Wage is the most appropriate for employers to adopt”.
Howells also asserted that while the Students’ Union did not pay a living wage to its student staff, the union paid all students above the minimum wage for 21 year olds. But this was also proven to be false: the Union pays the majority of its 300+ student staff minimum wage, including those who work in jobs that typically pay over minimum wage, such as graphic design and administration.
When presented with this information, Howells revised his position to say that only students in managerial positions (such as “bar team leaders”) were paid over the minimum wage for 21 year olds.
He added that the Union did not consider paying living wage to students a priority because students “don’t traditionally have the same living costs and are likely to have income from student loans or grants”. He cited the council tax exemption as one of the ways that living costs differed between students and working adults, as well as student exclusive offers: “The first example that springs to mind is bank accounts with lower fees and I’m sure there are more if I was to research this at length.”
Howells confirmed that the only way that Students would be able to secure a living wage from the Students’ Union would be if the Living Wage was introduced as a matter of law.
“The only example I can think of that would mean we pay student staff the Living Wage would be legislative on the back of the General Election. We would then, of course, be obliged to pay the new amount which would mean a significant uplift in our salary bill which I imagine would have to be met by an increase in costs across our services.”
The living wage for all citizens over the age of 18 is £7.85 outside of London. According to the Living Wage foundation, this figure is “calculated based on the basic cost of living in the UK” and not on the circumstances of an individual. It has been estimated by CUSU Trustees that introducing the living wage for student staff would cost the organisation approximately £80,000 a year.
Finance is a matter of concern for many students, with NUS Wales research showing that one in three students have considered leaving their courses, with financial difficulties being the most common reason. They also found that “over half” of students regularly worry about meeting basic living expenses.
The exemption from council tax is afforded to students as they have a number of constraints that working adults do not; they are, for example, prohibited from working over 20 hours a week by the University. Although some do work over 20 hours to make ends meet, the Union does not employ anyone for longer than this as a result of agreed policy with the University.
There is also the small matter of studying at University at the first place, with many degrees recommending that students spend at least 35 hours a week on work relating to their course. Dr. Andrew Williams, an academic at the school of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, told Gair Rhydd that in his field students were expected to devote 200 hours to each 20-credit module, or 600 hours per semester.
In response to Elliot Howell’s statement that students enjoyed lower living costs than working adults, and that this justified the Union’s stance on paying a living wage to students, Kanade said: “That makes no sense. You’re still a human being. If you’re doing a long shift with a person who is older than you, you’re no less valuable because you’re a student.”