05/11/2012 12:20 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The Wage of Dave

There's something about being called Dave that attracts support for a living wage like bees to honey, or bankers to money. Cameron called it an idea "whose time had come" and Daves - Miliband and Prentis - are celebrating this week the campaign by NUS and Unison, and also Labour Students across the country for staff in colleges and universities to secure a living wage.

Fair pay is one measurement of how a fair society treats its most vulnerable. We can talk all we want about making society better, but the strength that students' unions like Canterbury College, Norwich City College, Strathclyde, Oxford and Derby have shown - all of whom developed their campaigns with support from NUS and Citizens UK - says a lot about the power of students' to build a fairer society.

David Miliband and Dave Prentis called this week for the living wage to be "a core economic policy for Labour at the next election". They talk of "financial incentives" for local authorities and other employers that require their private contractors to pay the living wage, as a condition of them getting work.

This makes economic sense, both for private sector employers but for the public sector too. Less will be paid out in tax credits to those on low incomes, but most importantly, fair pay delivers greater satisfaction for those already being hardest hit by public sector cuts.

I will always champion a publicly funded and driven education sector, which leads me to also mention Queen Mary's, who did excellent work last year in bringing their cleaning services back in house. But we can't escape the fact that millions of workers who keep our institutions open- the cleaners, porters and canteen staff - are employed through private service contracts. In recent months, many long-time employees on the living wage have been getting laid off and replaced with lower paid, more flexible workers employed by private companies set up by universities. As I've been travelling around the country, the extent to which this is happening is really quite worrying.

We can bemoan the privatisation agenda all we like, but it exists nonetheless, and I'd rather spend my time supporting students to work with other workers and unions to negotiate better conditions, including a living wage. It is a moral duty on NUS to work to ensure that our colleges and universities treat their workers fairly and this is all the more pertinent as these private contractors support what we still hold up to be a public education system.

Through private sector procurement, we can use our power at institutional levels to lobby university and college management for a living wage. This is already happening in other areas- where services providing colleges are made to employ students and provide apprenticeships. At Norwich City College, many of their students are employed and in training on campus. David Miliband has this week floated the idea of governments rewarding local authorities, with some of the savings from tax credits to go into a local skills fund for local people. This is exactly the model we could potentially deliver in education- to generate jobs and apprenticeships for the millions of young people and graduates out of work.

NUS Scotland just last week responded to their government's consultation on procurement. They argued that by establishing criteria for all public procurement contracts, we could ensure that we increase of the numbers of apprenticeship-level opportunities through outsourced contracts. This should be done for a living wage too, and I know this has already been floated at Holyrood.

Yet we can call on Labour and other parties to deliver more. If they are really serious about a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, why not only award new government contracts to living wage employers? And what about calling for no private outsourcing in publicly subsidised institutions unless the employer pays living wage?

We at NUS are looking forward to Wednesday evening when we can applaud the workers and students who have been organising so tirelessly on this issue, and take the debate to Parliament.