Fighting the good fight

On the many problems that confront our members in these dark times, our record speaks for itself, says the UCU's Sally Hunt

November 10, 2011

Credit: Elly Walton

Last week, Times Higher Education published two extended attacks on the University and College Union ("Bread, not political poses"; "One-note union dirge: change the record and listen to our record"). But now is a strange time to embrace union-bashing.

UCU members working to contract in the pre-1992 universities have persuaded employer representatives back to the negotiating table in the Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions dispute, and the government, with positive strike ballot results coming in and time running out, has finally made concessions over public sector pension reform.

Nonetheless, Ann Mroz's leader accuses the UCU of "grandstanding", citing our supposed inaction over the research excellence framework, privatisation and pensions, and our "disregard" for young staff, as evidence for the prosecution. These examples could hardly be worse chosen, and illustrate an ignorance of what unions do.

The UCU won a national award for its Stand up for Research campaign, which halted the REF impact proposals and was cited in that decision by David Willetts, the universities and science minister. Now that the coalition is backtracking on its promise to listen to academics on the issue, we are redoubling our efforts to defend the research community. Given that we are doing so, as usual, with little assistance from some of the mission groups that claim to represent the sector's interests, I wonder if THE's criticism would be better directed elsewhere.

By any definition, the UCU's protection of all existing USS members' final-salary pensions is something to be proud of and, as subsequent events have shown, sets a benchmark for others. We know we have more to do to achieve justice for new recruits and to protect pensions against inflation, but without the UCU, as the employers themselves admit, 130,000 staff would now be on the inferior scheme proposed for new employees.

On privatisation, Mroz and (the somewhat partisan) Aldwyn Cooper, chief executive of Regent's College, wonder if the union can rise to the challenge presented by private providers. Yet it is the UCU that has been warning about the dangers they pose since 2007 while others sat on their hands. Our largely lone battle to highlight the dangers of allowing "for-profits" to recreate here the mess they have made in the US has won praise from vice-chancellors and senior academics alike. The UCU remains public enemy number one in the eyes of privatisation cheerleader BPP and its American sugar daddy Apollo - itself the subject of an investigation in the US into the mis-selling of qualifications.

With regards to young staff, so often thrown in at the deep end by universities that neglect their duties concerning professional development: we have an 11,000-strong young members' network, and our Researchers' Survival Guide and early career handbooks have been downloaded by thousands of new entrants. While universities seek to wriggle out of their obligations, the union has won a series of landmark victories for fixed-term, mostly early careers, staff in Aberdeen, Lancaster and Leeds.

The UCU is nearly six years old, and our membership has grown each year since the merger that created it. In addition to our campaigning and political lobbying, we exist, in my view, to fulfil a basic need to provide help when staff have problems at work. Most of the time our reps can solve them on the ground, but when they cannot, we act to achieve a fair and just solution. Last year, for example, we recovered well over £2 million for members treated unfairly.

Looking forward, no one is more aware than I am that the UCU's future rests on delivering effective collective and individual support for members and standing up for education. We know, too, that headlines on Palestine/Israel and the political machinations of some small but vocal factions can alienate some of those we need to be reaching out to. As I said to our annual congress in May, these issues are not unique to the UCU, but we do need to address them in the interests of unity and of serving our members effectively.

The UCU has a great deal of which to be proud. I believe our future will be secure if we invest more in frontline services and less in internal bureaucracy; we must always put our union's interests ahead of party factions and stand up to the government and employers on the issues that matter most to our members.

Last week, THE criticised the UCU. I hope I have answered those criticisms while acknowledging where the union can do better. I would like to end by making a request that THE look critically at itself, too. On all the key issues - funding cuts, pensions, privatisation, research, career paths - staff need a magazine that speaks for the whole sector, not just those in charge. And, as the UCU is so often left to raise these issues alone, we would really welcome the support.

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