Leader: Bread, not political poses

By favouring grandstanding over academics' worries for the profession and their future, the UCU risks irrelevance

November 3, 2011

Tumultuous times require strong leadership and a clear sense of purpose and direction. Questions are often asked about how those who run universities will rise to the many potential challenges ahead. One of the biggest threats could come from the private sector, as the universities and science minister has made no secret of his wish to see for-profit firms compete on an equal footing.

But what about the union that claims to defend the interests of academics? With redundancies being mooted in traditional universities and new providers entering the arena, representation for staff is more important than ever. That's not to say that pay and conditions in private firms will inevitably be bad, only that careful oversight is required.

For most university staff, the role of a trade union is first and foremost to secure members a good deal on pay and conditions, and second to ensure that their sector is run in the public interest - as was spelled out in a 2008 report written for the University and College Union by Jeremy Waddington, professor of industrial relations at the University of Manchester. Unfortunately for higher education staff, some members of the UCU's national executive seem to view its primary purpose as bringing down the capitalist system or otherwise grandstanding in pursuit of impossible political goals.

The most notable example is the obsession with Israel. In the past, members at the UCU annual congress have supported resolutions calling for an academic boycott of Israel, which have been dismissed as illegal by the union on legal advice; this year, members voted to reject the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia's working definition of anti-Semitism. None of this has persuaded Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.

What it has done is create negative publicity for the UCU, here and around the world, and cause the resignation from the union of dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish members in protest. A recent swipe came from Nick Cohen in The Jewish Chronicle, who wrote that "[the union] - which represents intellectuals and so, inevitably, is the dumbest and nastiest organisation on the Left - refuses to accept any definition of anti-Semitism for fear that defining prejudice would restrict its attacks on Israel".

Whatever one's views on Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, it is hard to argue that the UCU's stance has paid off politically or furthered the workplace interests of its members.

In February, a leadership contest will pit Sally Hunt, the incumbent general secretary, against Mark Campbell, the candidate from the UCU Left, which has close links to the Socialist Workers Party. This will provide the perfect opportunity to debate what a higher education trade union is for and whose interests it has at heart. What is it doing, for example, to give young academics a reason to join? The mess over the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which resulted in employers creating a two-tier system that will give new staff pensions much inferior to those of their older colleagues, is hardly encouraging.

The UCU must return to its roots and focus on improving pay and conditions, as well as building a reputation as a guardian of scholarship by making genuine improvements on issues such as the research excellence framework. It must remember what and, more importantly, who it stands for, otherwise it risks finding itself irrelevant in the new higher education order.


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