As ballot papers went out, just a handful of members came to hear candidates for the UCU's top job, and most were unimpressed. Tony Tysome reports
It might have been expected that hustings for the top job in the world's biggest academic union held at the UK's largest single-campus university would draw a crowd, but as voting opened this week only about 40 people turned up at Manchester University to hear the three UCU general secretary candidates give their election pitch.
Quietly gathered beneath a crucifix in what seemed a cavernous 500-seat lecture hall in Manchester University's St Peter's House and Chaplaincy, the assembled UCU members looked like a tiny church congregation awaiting a sermon from a trio of local vicars.
The UCU membership of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan and Salford universities, as well as other institutions in the region, had all been invited to the event by officials from the 120,000-strong union.
But the grand plans for the future of the union outlined at the meeting by would-be general secretaries Sally Hunt, Roger Kline and Peter Jones would not be heard by the vast majority of their electorate.
As each candidate noted, the elections come at a crucial point in the development of the union: they follow a long and bitter pay dispute and a politically tricky union merger and come as higher education grapples with an uncertain future in a new era of top-up fees and an increasing concentration of research funding.
But even those members who showed up for the campaign meeting wondered if the UCU could remain relevant to today's higher and further education staff (see right).
Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said the turnout was good compared with other events that had been held around the country so far. "It says a lot about the way members participate in union activities," she said. "I would not expect there to be the same level of interest in the general secretary election as there would be in a pay ballot, for instance."
She told the meeting that in the election she wanted to focus on long-term ideas, strategies and objectives rather than personalities. The union, needed to begin setting and influencing the higher education agenda by asserting academic rather than corporate values, she said.
Roger Kline, UCU's head of equality and employment rights, said the low turnout was a sign that many members were disenchanted with the union. "The turnout at the hustings suggests that the union has a lot of work to do to recapture the confidence of local members," he added.
UCU officials reckon that membership levels average 67 per cent among academic staff, with the proportion ranging between institutions from roughly 35 per cent to about 85 per cent. But Mr Kline said: "Our membership density is too low because we have not done enough for staff."
Peter Jones, an hourly paid lecturer, said the UCU should be a more member-led union, responsive to staff of whatever grade. Branches in universities needed to present a united front in the same way that Welsh further education colleges do when staff at one college are in dispute with managers, he argued.
'There is no vision of how things are going to move on or how we are to influence policy'
Academic support worker
To Kamie Kitmitto, the election roadshow brought little relevant debate to the issues he feels are important to most staff.
He thought the presentations and comments of the three candidates illustrated how the union was so caught up in internal politics and questions over pay that it failed to see or address the fundamental changes taking place across the sector, he told The Times Higher.
"I think at the moment the UCU is strapped into its own straitjacket, and it is not looking at how government policy is raising major issues such as governance of universities and the way institutions are being pushed to become more like corporations," he said.
The union was in desperate need of more "deep thinkers" and leaders who were determined to push higher education back up the political agenda, he argued.
Dr Kitmitto added that UCU would continue to lack relevance until it showed it was prepared to engage with employers and policymakers on issues other than pay.
"There is no obvious vision of how things are going to move on or how we are going to influence policy. The union needs a more philosophical approach," he said.
'Pay is important, but so is the ability of lecturers to do their jobs'
Social policy and social work lecturer
The UCU is more relevant to academics today than it has ever been, but it could still do more to take on government-imposed policies that lead to managerialism and red tape in the sector, argued Laura Penketh.
"Pay is important, but so is the ability of lecturers to do their job. We did not come into the profession to feel under stress from having to juggle so many different things. Hopefully, the merged union will address this in a more fundamental manner and take on government policy," she said.
'For most the union is a safety net, and they are reluctant to get involved in industrial action'
UCU needs stronger leadership with more striking personalities at the top if it wants to recruit more members and motivate them to become activists, argued Jonathan Dewsbury.
He pointed out to the candidates that many academics were reluctant to get involved in any form of industrial action.
He said: "My main concern about the candidates is that none of them is a really charismatic leader or a natural star in the public eye. They are all decent people with their hearts in the right places, but in order to influence people who matter they need to have more personality.
"I think that was part of the problem with the pay dispute. For most academics the union is just a safety net, and they are reluctant to get involved in industrial action."
'The union should be working to change the model for higher and further education and to challenge the idea that everyone ought to be going on to university'
Senior lecturer in pharmacy
Union leaders have been too ready to duck questions over what went wrong in last year's pay dispute, David Berk said.
In particular, he said he was unhappy that UCU joint general secretary Sally Hunt had declined to answer criticisms of the handling of the dispute during the hustings at Manchester.
"We all went along with the dispute last year, but I do not think the union has yet fully addressed what went wrong," he said.
The UCU should also be more prepared to challenge aspects of government policy that were threatening to erode standards in higher education, such as widening participation targets, he added.
"The union should be working to change the model for higher and further education and to challenge the impression that everyone ought to be going on to university," he said.
Dr Berk said he did not think the union did much for senior lecturers such as himself, but he added that he could see it had more relevance for other academics, such as those on fixed-term contracts.
'They seemed to skirt around the question of low pay, and what we are going to do about it, as if it was too obvious to be worth saying'
The general secretary candidates failed to impress Philippa Browning in the way they responded to questions about pay.
She said: "I felt they seemed to skirt around the question of low pay, and what we are going to do about it, as if it was too obvious to be worth saying."
Although all three would-be general secretaries attempted to answer questions about the third year of the pay settlement - just 2.5 per cent in 2008-09 but potentially up for review depending on the financial health of the sector - Dr Browning thought they should be looking beyond that.
"I do not think much is going to happen in the third year. It's more a question of what we do after that when we are back to where we started," she said.
The union should also be ready to take on "managerialism, and a breakdown of the idea of a university as a self-governing community of scholars", she added.
But it was still relevant to most academics, even those who did not take part in the pay dispute.
"The area where the union's membership is weakest is among people on fixed-term contracts. It needs to be doing more for them," she said.