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Pay spine talks – explainer and update

What is the pay spine and what are the discussions for?

The structure of grades and points is how our pay is organised. Our yearly pay talks mostly involve increasing everyone’s pay by a percentage, but the pay spine talks are more nuanced and include negotiating the pay people begin on, how quickly they move up their grade and the maximum pay for each band and role.

How does it work at the moment?

A picture of band 400 at the University of Birmingham as it stands as of October 2022. It shows 6 green increment points that are semi-automatic (you get one every year), followed by 7 blue points that are more spaced out. You need to get a performance-related increment to progress to the blue points or to move up the spine faster

Above is how band 400 looks at the moment – which shows the following issues with the current pay structure:

  • All of the bands have a lot of performance related points. These must be earned by being nominated by your manager for going above and beyond your job. It can take decades to reach the top of a grade and is very subjective because of this.
  • Each yearly increase- especially the automatic ones- are very small.
  • With lower grades, pay rises have been dealt with by chopping the bottom off the scale, meaning that band 200 has no automatic progression and band 300 has very little.

What other issues are there?

The main issue the pay spine reform needs to fix is the fact that the University has fallen behind many similar employers in relation to pay – this is acknowledged by senior management and HR. Historically it was only seen as a problem for higher support staff bands but since the pandemic, it’s safe to say that all bands are lower than they should be compared to similar employers.

The University’s Vice Chancellor acknowledged this in the most recent VC forum on 18 October, acknowledging that fundamental reforms are required for support staff bands. While maintaining that the University’s finances won’t allow it to do everything at once, the Vice Chancellor also stated earlier in the forum that the University’s financial position is strong. UNISON maintain that now is the time to invest properly in support staff pay to fix it for the long-term. 

Branch position

Our branch position is based on a motion we passed after our AGM in spring 2021. The key points are that:

  • Talks on the pay spine should be conducted separately from any other talks
  • Pay should be separated from the PDR process and performance in general- taking pressure away from the review process
  • Pay progression should be automatic
  • Broadly speaking, support staff bands should:
    • Be smaller, with bigger steps between each point, allowing quicker progression and a bigger increase in pay each year
    • Evenly spaced, meaning that staff get a fair reward for promotion
    • Have the same number of points, meaning all staff benefit from progression

This is the mandate negotiators from the branch are working from. 

Current negotiations

We are going to update this section as negotiations progress – keep checking back for the latest updates on this!

Negotiators from the support staff unions have had sight now of draft proposals from the University. At present we can’t share specifics (what happens first of all is we try and improve the proposals as much as possible in initial negotiations, before they become public). These are the key points we want to share at the moment though:


There is broad agreement about the need to make bands smaller, and steps between each point bigger (so each yearly increase is more significant). There are other things we disagree on though:

  • There are still performance related points in the University’s proposal, They are saying the additional points are only to be used really rarely, with one-off payments to be used for rewards instead – but we might ask why have them anyway in that case!
  • In their initial proposal bands 200 and 300 are smaller than 400 and 500 (with only one automatic increment), which goes against the principle of giving everyone the same opportunity for progression

Mapping on to the new structure

The extent of the immediate pay rise everyone will see will depend on where they are “mapped” onto the new structure. This has the prospect of being complicated and (if it’s not calculated correctly) unfair. Depending on where you are in your current band, you might end up with a big rise, a smaller one or no additional rise at all. 

Mapping should largely be based on length of service – for example setting a rule that (assuming the agreement of a three point structure for each band) anyone with at least 3 years length of service is moved to the main rate (i.e. the third point in the scale) for their band. 

Benchmarking (paying us what we are worth)

The University has used a market survey of pay rates for medium to large employers in the West Midlands for this. They state that this shows the bottom of every band to be paying too little, with this being worst for band 300. Their changes are seeking to move the majority of staff on each band to the new benchmarked “rate for the job”. Their response to the fact that this means a small rise or no additional rise at all for some staff is that they are already earning the “market rate” for that role. 

As an example of how far roles at the University have fallen behind we’re collecting examples of comparable vacancies to use in the negotiations. Below are some we’ve collected so far

Electrician / Maintenance officer – band 400

  • Current rate of pay £22,050-£28,631

Compares with:

  • University of Warwick (vacancy closing 30 Oct) – Electrical Technician £27,929-£31.411 (plus £2,000 market supplement)
  • JIB (Joint industry board) standard “Electrician” rate (transport dependent)- equivalent to £28,061.28-£29,240.64. This rate is for qualified but inexperienced workers. 
  • JIB “approved Electrician” rate (transport dependent) – equivalent to £30,644.64-£32,329.44. This rate is for more experienced workers – JIB reference two years’ experience

Senior technician – band 500

  • Current rate of pay £25,506 – £31,718

Compares with:

  • Birmingham City University (vacancy closing 28 Oct) – Senior technician (Ceramics and plaster) £30,856 to £33,539 

Programme administrator – band 400

  • Current rate of pay £22,050-£28,631

Compares with:

  • Birmingham CIty University (vacancy closing 20 Oct) – Course administrator £25,234 to £27,428 per annum 

Other points raised in negotiations

The other likely point of contention is going to be the other things the University is seeking to include in the discussion. These range from being potentially welcome (such as simplifying the PDR process), through being neutral (updating the wording on policies), to being very contentious.

Shift work enhancements

While the University has ruled out any changes to holiday entitlements and sick pay, the biggest potential disagreement is likely to be over additions to pay for working non-standard hours, such as shift allowance, bank holiday and weekend working. Initial proposals on these are far too drastic – and existing branch policy is to refuse to agree to any changes like this in return for pay spine improvements.

In addition to the significant impact that this would entail to members of staff in particular roles (many of whom have shift patterns that have major implications for work-life balance and also health), the current structure of enhancements also act as a useful control measure, limiting anti-social working hours to the times when it is solely necessary. More broadly, changes that entailed the removal of enhancements for more flexible working patterns (e.g. to 5in7 or annualised hours arrangements) have had significant negative impact for staff work-life balance, morale and retention in affected teams. 

Priorities for negotiators

Given all of the above, these are priorities for negotiators at present:

  • Pushing for more automatic increments and fewer performance related ones
  • Pushing back against any changes to allowances / enhancements to pay
  • Putting forward a counter proposal on mapping people onto the new structure, to ensure that more staff receive an additional decent pay rise in January
  • Pressing the University on other demands made in the summer such as an additional one off payment

We’ll be sending out regular updates and holding meetings to discuss progress, so make sure you keep an eye out for our emails!


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