UCU general secretary candidates lay out their visions

The three people vying to be the next leader of the UK’s University and College Union explain in their own words what they’ll do if elected

April 10, 2019
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We must do more to oppose the hostile environment

Jo Grady

On 27 March, the universities minister, Chris Skidmore, delivered a speech outlining his “Vision for Global Higher Education”. Skidmore asserted that in the wake of Brexit – which he has voted for repeatedly since his appointment – university staff now have a responsibility to start “thinking and acting more globally than ever before”. His vision is disturbing in more than one way. It echoes the demands made by senior managers who impose impossible working conditions but demand success, and it reveals a disregard for our international colleagues and students.

Skidmore’s insistence that we now have the responsibility to make the best of Brexit, with the threat that the blame will fall on us if we fail, is grotesque. But it gets worse. He seems oblivious to the damage that his party’s “hostile environment” policies – introduced by the Home Office in 2012 – have already done to the sector.

His vision fails to acknowledge the precious gift that he has inherited as universities minister: the transformational capacity of education and the diverse and international community that provides education in this country. Twenty-nine per cent of academic staff in UK higher education are migrants (16.9 per cent come from European Union countries and 12.1 per cent from non-EU countries). How can we keep international collaboration alive, let alone increase it, when some of our international collaborators cannot get visas to visit the UK for our research events? How can we morally continue to invite the best international students to come and study in the UK when the hostile environment imprisons them in detention centres and threatens to deport them?

Our government does not value our international students or our migrant colleagues, but as a union we must. As a union, we must step up our national campaigns to oppose the use of university staff as de facto immigration police. We must campaign for the abolition of excessive immigration fees, including the international health surcharge.

Furthermore, we must insist in our national claims that employers reimburse international staff for these unfair fees until such time as they are abolished. Powerful campaigns such as International and Broke and Unis Resist Border Controls have laboured too long without official support. As general secretary of the University and College Union, I will create dedicated task groups of lay members who will be given the time and the platform necessary to influence our national bargaining strategy.

Some major unions are split on Brexit, but the UCU is not. We know from a 2018 consultation that 89 per cent of UCU members support a referendum on the final deal to leave the EU.

But what has this meant in practice? Beyond a flurry of activity when the consultation results were published, we have seen little action from UCU leadership. Other unions have been far more vocal in their requests for a final vote. Where is our voice in the national debate? Where is the voice of our international colleagues? Somebody must speak for university workers and UCU members when the university minister fails to do so.

The UCU’s underwhelming approach to opposing Brexit epitomises much of what frustrates us as UCU members: surveys to illuminate worst practice in our sector, but little meaningful national action. The Labour campaign for free movement’s “Build unions, not borders” is a great statement, but we must be more than a press release union on issues such as these. The hostile environment is not happening somewhere else. It is happening in our classrooms, offices and research events. It is time we stepped up.

Jo Grady is a University of Sheffield UCU pension officer, sits on the University of Sheffield USS valuation working group and this year was elected to the national dispute committee.

A union that’s ready to act to defend our pensions, pay and working conditions

Jo McNeill

The higher education sector is in disarray. Casualisation is rife; the gender and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) pay gaps are not decreasing and workloads are at dangerous levels.

Metrics such as the research excellence framework, the teaching excellence framework and the knowledge exchange framework have created a toxic culture of performance management, increased work-related stress and forced contract changes.

Members have not had a pay rise in more than a decade, while senior managers and vice-chancellors take home six-figure salaries. We are on the cusp of a mental health crisis, and Brexit and the Augar review are looming.

On top of all of this, the Universities Superannuation Scheme dispute is about to re-emerge.

I recently started a petition stating that if members are made to pay more into their pension from October because of actions by the employers or by the USS, we, the University and College Union, should begin the process of an industrial action ballot. Given that members are being told to expect to pay 30 per cent more to receive the same pension, this is a sensible and reasonable demand.

I led a very active branch through the USS dispute, and our members know that this campaign is not over – it was paused at a crucial point. I fully support the principle of “no detriment”, which is now UCU policy.

The UCU has demolished the argument that there is a deficit in the pension scheme. The deficit is an artefact of accounting generated by the USS. It arises if the USS plans to sell off the assets of the pension scheme and buy gilts and keep its assets in gilts longer. This is a move that almost everyone in the sector, including the joint expert panel – an independent review group – and many employers, have now criticised.

Now we are seeing a not too dissimilar crisis in the Teachers’ Pension Scheme within post-92 universities.

In general terms, trade unions need to be ready, when necessary, to take industrial action in defence of members’ pensions, pay and working conditions. Without the possibility of industrial action, there is often no meaningful collective bargaining.

We regularly hear employers say that they cannot afford any extra costs, yet the sector is booming overall, with record levels of surplus. However, this boom is unbalanced, and universities have taken up large unsustainable loans.

Universities have competed with each other to chase high student fees and have expanded to accommodate them, borrowing billions of pounds in the process. The financial problems our employers cite need to be traced back to their causes: rampant competition and market greed by university managers. They are not the fault of UCU members.

It is clear that the tuition fee experiment is a failure. We should take no pride in the fact that the English higher education system has some of the most expensive degrees in the world. We need to see higher education as a public good, not just a benefit to individuals, and restore public funding and the public service ethos in higher education. We need a properly funded National Education Service.

The financial problems in higher education need to be addressed. We need a Corbyn-led Labour government, which will replace tuition fees with funding through taxation.

As general secretary, I will be prepared to initiate further sustained industrial action to save our USS pensions. I will also work with members and politicians to address all the issues our sector is facing.

Jo McNeill is president of the University of Liverpool UCU and a member of the national executive committee.

We’re stronger together

Matt Waddup

The University and College Union is special. Our members change lives through education, and that includes mine. I messed up at school and moved from job to job until I found evening classes at the local college. That’s when my world was transformed. Without that support, I would never have considered university, yet that’s where I ended up, with my horizons further expanded by the brilliant staff. I am standing as UCU general secretary because I want to win a better deal for a profession that has done so much for millions like me.

With 30 years’ union experience, first in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and now the UCU, I have the commitment, skills and experience required to be an effective general secretary. The role is an important one: it is the public face of the UCU, representing members to employers, politicians and the media; employing 200 staff and managing a budget of more than £25 million. When our last general secretary, Sally Hunt, sadly became ill, I was honoured to be asked to take on her responsibilities for bargaining, campaigning and organising.

Last year, I was attacked by the Daily Mail and The Times for planning and organising the successful Universities Superannuation Scheme campaign. These papers attacked me because I am an effective campaigner who knows how to win.

During my time at the UCU, I have planned and organised hundreds of strikes, including the USS dispute; supported branches to deliver record membership – up 14,000 in the past 18 months; acted as secretary to the independent review group, the USS joint expert panel; implemented the “Future of the Profession” strategy that makes the UCU free to working postgraduates; and developed policy to challenge marketisation and managerialism.

The UCU has plenty to shout about. Our brilliant reps help tens of thousands of members every year; our USS action showed that we can be a force to be reckoned with; our membership is now at an historic high.

However, marketisation has created a crisis for which staff are paying. The intensification of competition, the imposition of one metric-driven initiative after another, attacks on academic freedom and the breakdown in governance have all had disastrous consequences. Pay has been held down, workload has been intensified and casualisation has become endemic. The risks posed by Brexit multiply the insecurity that many members now feel.

To challenge the exploitative employment model that exists in higher education, our union needs clear negotiating objectives. My priority would be to reach agreements with employers that deliver higher salaries and fairer progression; address the gender and ethnicity pay gaps; establish better employment rights for early career staff; tackle unmanageable workloads and unrealistic expectations; maintain the professional status of academic-related staff; protect members’ pensions whether in the USS or the Teachers’ Pension Scheme; and provide a better deal for international staff, including support with visa and other costs.

If elected, I will shift the union towards a strategic approach by investing in our branches and staff so that activists have the local resources to bargain effectively and defend members; by prioritising action on workload, casualisation, pay and equality; by consulting with members, planning campaigns properly and communicating clearly; and by striking hard when we need to.

I am an independent candidate with support across the union. I believe that we have a responsibility to stick together and support each other. When we allow ourselves to be divided, only the employers gain. When we stand united, the UCU is a force to be reckoned with.

Matt Waddup is national head of policy campaigns at the UCU.

Ballots will open on 29 April and close on 23 May.

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