Conference round-up: Israel boycott, IQ and class, commercial inroads and mooted merger

June 5, 2008

- The University and College Union's policy on academic engagement with Israel is "profoundly disturbing", Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, told its annual congress last week.

Speaking after the union passed a motion asking academics to consider the moral implications of links with Israeli universities, Mr Rammell said: "I profoundly disagree with cutting links with Israeli academics. That doesn't mean people can't, or shouldn't, criticise Israeli government decisions and policies. But academic boycotts are the complete antithesis of academic freedom. Boycotting academics because of their nationality I find deeply disturbing. And there is no evidence that such a strategy would further the cause of peace in the Middle East."

- Mr Rammell also referred to a recent Times Higher Education news story that quoted the views of Newcastle University reader Bruce Charlton. Dr Charlton argued that the low proportion of working-class students at elite universities was a result of IQ differences between the classes. "Views like these, I believe, amount to reactionary prejudice," Mr Rammell said. "Nevertheless ... it's a salutary reminder to us all that it's still possible for ostensibly rational people to believe such drivel, and to try to convince others to think likewise."

- Motions attacking the increased involvement of business in higher education were passed at the conference.

The UCU will launch a campaign highlighting the dangers of "excessive business influence on degrees" and lobby the Government against offering universities incentives to increase business involvement, under motions from Steve Shelley of the University of Hertfordshire and Des Freedman of Goldsmiths, University of London.

According to Dr Shelley, "we are not against business per se, but are against it having an excessive role".

- UCU members rejected proposed reforms to the national pay negotiating machinery because they could not accept a timetable that precluded effective industrial action, according to a motion proposed by Tom Hickey of the University of Brighton. The motion was passed with an amendment, tabled by Roger Brooks of the University of Liverpool, which stated that the reforms were rejected because of "the lack of a permanent forum for national negotiations on matters primarily affecting academic and academic-related staff" as well as concerns over the timetable.

- A review of the impact of the 2004 pay and career reforms on recruitment, retention, promotion and equality of treatment of staff in every university will be carried out by the UCU executive.

Proposing the motion calling for the review, the University of Aberdeen's Andrew McKinnon said the union's current involvement with the pay-negotiation reforms and pay claim "suggest it is not the time" to revisit the 2004 framework agreement, which created a single pay spine and introduced formal job evaluation to ensure that roles could be compared for equal-pay purposes.

But he said that the framework appeared to have had a negative effect on female academics, who were less likely to be promoted to higher grades than before its introduction.

- A motion calling on the national executive to "investigate with the National Union of Teachers the longer term possibility of a merger" was remitted for consideration, which means it has not become official UCU policy.

Proposing the motion, Nick James of the University of Leicester said: "I can see a whole load of pros and cons to being a joint union ... I feel it would be more than appropriate to have that on the agenda." But Gregory Lane-Serff of the University of Manchester said: "Continual change is not the best way to take the union forward. Our own merger (between former lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers) has not yet settled."

- A motion condemning government interventions relating to "alleged Islamic extremism" as "shallow, ill-considered and potentially racist" was passed. Cliff Snaith of Manchester Metropolitan University noted that five out of six examples of "extremism" quoted in government guidance related to Islam.

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