Paying a Living Wage Would Cost [Pounds Sterling]1m a Year ... and I Don't Have It; University College London Is a Financial Powerhouse, but Its Contract Cleaners Are Forced to Live on Poverty Wages and Provost Malcolm Grant Has No Plans to Change That

Article excerpt

Byline: David Cohen

THE scene outside the office of Malcolm Grant, president and provost of University College London, makes for an arresting sight. There, in a sealed glass cabinet, is the preserved body of social reformer Jeremy Bentham, stuffed out with hay and dressed in his usual clothes in accordance with his last will.

Bentham, who died soon after cofounding the college in 1826, is venerated as "the godfather of UCL" for his "advocacy for the poor and of human rights" -- and it is customary for students in their graduation gowns to be photographed here by proud parents.

But were Bentham alive today, one shudders at what he'd make of the Scrooge-like actions of the university's head, Professor Grant, and the escalating row over the poverty wages he pays to campus cleaners.

The UCL Living Wage Campaign, a coalition of cleaners, students, alumni and academic staff formed two years ago, has demanded that contract cleaners at UCL get paid the living wage of [pounds sterling]7.85 an hour -- the threshold needed to survive in London -- instead of the minimum wage of [pounds sterling]5.80 an hour.

But Professor Grant, 63, the secondhighest paid university head in the country, whose remuneration of [pounds sterling]404,000 last year comfortably exceeded the heads of Oxford ([pounds sterling]327,000) and Cambridge ([pounds sterling]246,000), has rebuffed them.

He insists that paying the 180-odd contracted cleaners a living wage might appear "seductive", but is "a luxury" the university cannot afford.

It leaves UCL as the only university in the Bloomsbury area paying poverty wages. Five others -- LSE, Birkbeck, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary -- have adopted the London living wage for directly employed and contracted staff. Goldsmiths has committed to follow suit when its cleaning contracts are renewed.

The living wage is an idea that has been gaining traction. In 2008 Boris Johnson committed the GLA to paying it, and Labour leadership contender Ed Miliband has called for a living wage to be implemented nationwide, with companies offered a tax break in return. Barclays, HSBC, KPMG and the Royal London Hospital are among more than 100 employers to adopt and champion the London living wage.

YET asked by the Evening Standard to explain his position, Professor Grant repeatedly declined our request for an interview, sending this statement: "UCL has no plans to join the London living wage campaign. If we were to demand that our contractors pay the living wage, this would result in significant additional cost or a loss of jobs among staff working on UCL premises."

But at a community outreach event held in UCL's Jeremy Bentham Room -- in which "Bentham's ethos of social inclusion" is repeatedly invoked by Professor Grant and his vice-provosts -- I catch up with him to ask why he insists on paying cleaners poverty wages.

Before I can complete my question he (very courteously) says: "I know what you want to ask me, David. It's an interesting issue. But I am advised that paying contract cleaners the living wage would cost UCL [pounds sterling]500,000 to [pounds sterling]1 million a year. That's a big slug. And what I haven't got is a spare million pounds, okay?" However, since his appointment in 2003, the New Zealand-born and educated provost has made the university into a financial powerhouse, raising [pounds sterling]170 million in an alumni funding drive and taking UCL up the global league table from 34th to fourth, leapfrogging Oxford along the way.

Not only is UCL now one of the richest universities in the UK, posting a [pounds sterling]12 million surplus in its accounts last year on a budget of [pounds sterling]713 million, but Professor Grant has also overseen a pay revolution at the top of the college. When he joined in 2003, there were only three members of staff earning more than [pounds sterling]200,000 a year, but that has jumped to 18. …