Hunt to urge unity at union's annual meet

UCU head to decry employers' 'subversion' and call for united front. Melanie Newman reports

May 28, 2009

A call for unity is to be issued by the general secretary of the University and College Union amid mounting criticism of her leadership.

In a speech to the annual UCU congress in Bournemouth on 29 May, Sally Hunt will emphasise the need for consensus if the union is to meet the challenges of the global recession.

"Others would delight in the thought that any failure would lead to division," she is to say.

"Employers are trying every trick in the book to subvert us. They use the recession to mask their financial incompetence. They exploit anti-trade union laws to try to bully us. They use loopholes to deny us our right to strike. They are going through wild manoeuvres of a type not seen since last year's congress disco."

Her plea for togetherness comes after a failed attempt to ballot the union's membership for industrial action over pay earlier this month.

The vote was called off after the Universities and Colleges Employers Association threatened legal action over inaccuracies in membership data supplied to 78 institutions.

Ms Hunt has blamed IT problems for the data errors and has vowed to hold the ballot in the autumn.

However, a member of the union's higher education committee, who asked to remain anonymous, said the UCU had "a lot of work" to do before any re-run, and would have to "greatly improve" its communication with members.

"People were very surprised about the speed with which the ballot was initiated and the speed with which it was called off," the member of the committee said.

Ms Hunt called the ballot over employers' 0.3 per cent pay offer and their refusal to discuss a redundancy avoidance policy. The union is demanding 8 per cent.

The claim has divided members, with some arguing that it is too high, given the recession.

The ballot debacle prompted one reader to write on Times Higher Education's website: "The UCU have let their members down when they are at their most vulnerable - first, with a ludicrous 8 per cent pay claim not supported by the members and rightly derided by the media, and second, by incompetence over this ballot."

Employers raised their offer to 0.4 per cent last week, but this was rejected by all the campus unions.

Ms Hunt is also expected to highlight the UCU's international activities in her speech. "We have committed to challenging the global market in education and safeguarding academic standards at home and in North America, Europe, Australasia and Africa," she will say.

The union has also signed international agreements opposing privatisation with unions representing half a million academics across the globe.

However, some criticism has been levelled at the UCU's central administration for its focus on international activities at a time of widespread job cuts at home.

The most controversial international issue at the annual congress promises to be a proposed boycott of Israeli universities.

Delegates are set to vote on two motions that call on the union to support a Palestinian proposal for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign.

But the official agenda for the conference includes a statement beneath the motions that they will be treated as "void and of no effect" if they are passed unamended.

"The union received advice from leading counsel that to pass this motion would be unlawful because it is likely to be viewed by a court as a call to boycott Israeli academic institutions," it says.

"If the motion is passed in its unamended form, the president has been advised that she will have to treat it as being void and of no effect."

A reader posting on Times Higher Education's website commented: "There's little interest among (local branches) concerning Israel and Palestine. Nationally it very much seems to be the opposite."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

CALL TO RESERVE PROFESSOR TITLE FOR ACADEMIC POSTS

The title of professor is a jealously guarded status symbol of the academic profession.

Now calls are being made for the title to be bestowed only on those with top academic credentials, and not staff in administrative posts.

A motion at the annual congress of the University and College Union this week says: "The practice of awarding professorships to administrative post holders who do not fulfil the academic criteria is misleading and should be discontinued.

"Conference also believes the arbitrary use of 'associate' or other professorship titles by new and old universities is also misleading and it is better that all permanent members of university faculties should hold the title 'professor' on the American model."

The motion is proposed by the UCU's Canterbury Christ Church University branch.

However, Greg Garrard, of the Bath Spa University branch, said: "There is a certain disdain implied for 'administrative post holders' that I don't share and don't much like.

"The motion might lead to the peculiar situation of a university in which all the academic staff are professors except those senior managers dedicated wholly to running the place."

Conference update: 28 May 2009

The University and College Union (UCU) annual Congress passed a motion supporting a Palestinian call for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel yesterday. But the union’s general secretary immediately declared the motion void. Sally Hunt said she had received legal advice that the union could not lawfully pass the motion. The void motion also called on the British government to expel the ambassador of Israel. A second motion on Israel, which has not been declared void, calls on members to “reflect on the moral and political appropriateness of collaboration with Israeli educational institutions”.

The votes followed a debate in which boycott supporters were accused of refusing to allow the proposal to be put to a membership ballot. John Pike, of the Open University’s branch, said: “You and I know why that is. The membership strongly oppose the boycott.”

Tom Hickey, who proposed the second motion, accused Mr Pike of attempting to change the terms of the debate. He also said the legal advice received by Ms Hunt should be tested in court.

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