Can UCU’s ‘us versus them’ approach secure its members a deal?

Using Twitter to call people out has landed Jo Grady in potential legal trouble, but will a combative communications strategy force leaders into making concessions?

March 10, 2023
Can UCU’s ‘us versus them’ approach secure it a deal?
Source: Alamy

UK vice-chancellors with a taste for Saturday morning lie-ins got a rude awakening last month. “University bosses erode our working conditions and then sleep like babies,” read a typically abrasive tweet from the University and College Union, accompanied by a picture of a large golden bed. “This weekend, let’s give them nightmares.”

Attempting to rally members to vote to back more strike action, the union has turned up the dial in its “us versus them” rhetoric of late, using Twitter to accuse leaders of dodging accountability while “raking in” high salaries.

But such a confrontational approach has led to disillusionment among some members, who say they feel it undermines the chances of reaching an agreement with those being vilified. 

It has also landed general secretary Jo Grady in potential legal trouble. She faces being sued by the firefighter Paul Embery, who has successfully raised £24,000 to bring a case against her for publishing what he says was a “serious libel” against him on Twitter. UCU declined to comment on the allegations.

Aside from the specifics of this case, the merits of a combative approach on social media and beyond have divided members.

James Eastwood, chair of the Queen Mary University of London branch of UCU, said calling out his institution’s president, Colin Bailey, for his actions during the disputes had been effective. The publicity had helped the branch raise £70,000 to cover pay lost during the industrial action and the university stepped back from employing consultants to grade essays, he said.

“We think carefully about what we put on social media. But when the channels of communication within the university aren’t functioning, or when people pretend everything is normal, it matters to put the spotlight on practices that shouldn’t go unchallenged,” Dr Eastwood added.

Richard Harris, professor of quantitative social geography at the University of Bristol, said he supported the strikes and felt the actions of some vice-chancellors deserved to be called out, particularly given that they were so well paid.

But he felt there needed to be a conversation across the sector about how to finance higher education sustainably, and this was occasionally undermined by the sometimes “childish” vilification of vice-chancellors.

“The bottom line is that the sector is underfunded, and I am not sure I am comfortable with the union giving the impression that it has large liquid reserves that could be spent on salaries,” he added, referencing an oft-repeated union claim that universities are sitting on “£40 billion”.

Finn Pollard, associate professor in American history at the University of Lincoln, said that although he saw the need to present a “clear message”, he would also have liked to see some acknowledgement in the union’s communications about the varying financial health of institutions, with many facing course closures and job losses.

“I sometimes find it ironic – in the classroom we try to get students engaged with the complexities of problems but then, when we present ourselves externally, we do so in a very black-and-white way that obscures complexities that we are going to have to grapple with if we want a better sector,” he said.

Although the sector did have problems with leadership, Dr Pollard added, some of the “demonisation” of vice-chancellors had “obscured the very significant role that government and its funding frameworks play in determining the financial situation of the sector. I suspect the government is quite happy in that no responsibility seems to be passing to it for any of this situation.”

Dr Grady, for her part, said that it was “right” that vice-chancellors were “held accountable for a situation they have helped create”.

“Many vice-chancellors were involved in lobbying for today’s funding model and welcomed the lifting of student number caps. It is rich in the extreme for them to now distance themselves just when staff ask for their fair share,” she said.

But Dr Pollard said he felt that the confrontational approach often taken by UCU’s official accounts could empower some of the “pretty vicious” back and forth between different union factions seen on social media, which could lead to abuse on all sides.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, who has on occasion borne the brunt of such barbs, said that he felt it undermined the idea that those in higher education should be able to “disagree well” and left the public with a “bad impression” of the union.

But industrial relations expert Gregor Gall said both sides in the disputes had accused each other of “misrepresentation” and what unions said publicly should be “taken with a pinch of salt” because messages were often framed to satisfy internal audiences.

“The wiser employers might recognise that such union messaging is an essential part of how a credible bargaining partner operates at a time of internal tensions. These wiser employers should be concerned only if the union messaging leads to a shift in the balance of power between themselves and the union or the balance of forces within a union. Neither of these seems particularly present at the moment,” Dr Gall said.

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Reader's comments (9)

Maybe the UCU should be asking why univ's are in a financial mess, asking the Govt why funding ia ahort yet we have plenty of money for H2S (it stinks) VanityRail and various other controversial spending areas. Maybe the UCU should co-opt parents and employers, as univ's are a major investment for future skills, and work WITH univ management, against the Govt.
Personal attacks on Vice-Chancellors or anyone else are unhelpful, unkind and create the wrong culture in our universities. The uncomfortable truth for our universities is that many are facing significant financial pressures which will only increase over the next three to five years. The simple facts are our funding base is simply not keeping pace with inflation and running costs and expenditure and investment is out running our income. We all need to work together to consider and resolve the long-term sustainable funding approaches to our university sector. A sector which is world class and delivers significant benefit to the UK and beyond. The current situation we find ourselves in knocks confidence and our ability to influence. Now is the time to come together to create a compelling narrative that endures and encourages investment. My fear is that unless we seriously consider our costs, our business models and delivery models we will quickly find ourselves in serious financial trouble with universities not able to deliver on the core mission of teaching, research and enterprise.
Good to have a more nuanced and balanced article that doesn't rely on simple and misguided binary oppositions.
If the Vice-Chancellors argued in favour of the funding model - most of them are not the same ones now running our Universities. Now is definitely the time to work together and address the bigger issues being faced. Let the UCU and the Universities show what our sector is really all about - and that is not daft 'tweets' but rather a sensible grown up conversation about the future. UCU is far too fond of sweeping generalisations at the moment, its not working and its not smart so lets change the narrative.
If vice chancellors and other senior managers wanted to win the support of all their staff during a wages and cost-of-living crisis, they could simply proclaim to their boards that they would henceforth only accept pay rises equivalent to the average enjoyed by all the staff of the institution they manage. That none (or few) of them appear to do so does rather set them apart ...
I think that the UCU have, for years, tried to have “grown up conversations” about these issues, but have been ignored on the one hand, and watched their terms and conditions eroded on the other. Successive Tory governments are responsible for this ‘crisis’, and we need to remember that it was a Tory govt that decided education should be run as a ‘business’. V-Cs, and those others who move into admin seem to forget, remarkably quickly, their experiences as lecturers etc., together with the ways in which academic work has been swamped by bureaucracy. There seems to be no empathy for, or understanding of, the idea that everyone is entitled to a fair & secure contract and a living wage.
Once upon a time, universities were run as democratic communities with academic senates with substantial power. At those times there really were collegial relationships between the executive of the university and the rest of the community. Then universities corporatised. The power of senates were reduced and the power for boards and VC increased. The executive began to act more like bosses and treat the rest of the communities more like employees. For a while though, good relations continued. We had very successful casualisation and superannuation working groups at my university where the university hierarchy worked with union representatives to fix what could be fixed at a local level and provide suggestions and steers for solutions at the national level. During industrial action the union met with the university on a daily basis to keep lines of communication open. That has all changed in recent years though. The university suspended cooperation with these committees (some of this is now returning, but it was absent for years). During the pandemic we were threatened with a mass fire-and-rehire, the threat of which was only rescinded when the union went through the university finances with a fine-tooth comb and showed it was unreasonable. The feeling today is that the admin regard themselves as the bosses, who are in charge, and the faculty as workers. Back during the marking boycott last year, in local negotiations to try to find a local solution, the VC would insist privately that they agreed with a lot of our points, but that their hands were tied by UCEA/UUK. One of the suggestions from the union for a way out was for the VC to apply *public* pressure to UCEA/UUK to that effect. The union was laughed out of the room. Frankly, if the university wants to treat its members like workers at a 1970s factory, it can expect them to respond in kind.
Personal attacks on VCs are not really helpful but inevitable. They have failed the sector miserably through ineffective lobbying against govt changes and under-funding. They then rewarded their own failure with outrageous salaries at the same time as increasing staff workload, cutting staff pay and destroying their pensions. Communications over both salary and pension changes have been characterised by deliberate misinformation and gaslighting. People are annoyed - go figure.
Someone needs to understand there is a need to sack bureaucrats and slash to idiotic amounts of bureaucracy in UK Universities. Then there will a lot of money to better pay the academics. Deputy VCs and Deputy Deputy VCs breed like rabbits creating even more useless bureaucracy. Deans and deputy deans etc etc it is endless waste of money.