Low voter turnout raises questions of morale in UCU

March 16, 2007

Complicated ballot papers and disillusionment after the pay deal were blamed for poor response, reports Tony Tysome

Newly elected leaders of the University and College Union are facing serious questions over disenchantment among members after a disappointingly low turnout in the union's first ever elections.

Fewer than one in seven of the 116,512 ballot papers sent out to UCU members were returned in the election, which led to Sally Hunt being declared the first general secretary of the UCU.

Based on previous elections held separately by the lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers, which merged to form the UCU last year, candidates had been expecting about a quarter of members to vote.

Many of those members who were in the running for national executive committee positions said that the 13.9 per cent turnout posed a challenge for Ms Hunt, who received just over 52 per cent of votes - which means that only 7 per cent of members actively backed her.

Ms Hunt received 8,463 votes. Her nearest rival, Roger Kline, won the votes of 7,117 members after the third candidate, Peter Jones, was eliminated.

Disgruntlement and low morale among members in the wake of last year's bitter pay dispute, combined with a "fiendishly complicated" ballot paper and voting system, were to blame, according to some members who spoke to The Times Higher after the results were announced.

Mr Kline, the UCU's head of equality and employment rights, who received nearly 44 per cent of the votes, said: "The low turnout was a decisive factor for Sally's victory. But it also says something about the lack of confidence that members have in the union after the pay dispute, which is an issue that we will all have to address very soon."

Sue Blackwell, a UCU branch official at Birmingham University and a member of the UCU Left group that backed Mr Kline, said: "It shows a lot of members are disillusioned with the union after the appalling pay deal. I think a lot of members just put the ballot papers straight in the bin."

Liz Lawrence, UCU regional secretary for Yorkshire and Humberside and a branch official at Sheffield Hallam University, said many were put off by the "formidable wodge" of ballot papers that presented members with combinations of 176 candidates standing for 70 different positions.

She said: "People who did not know all the candidates would have had to devote two or three hours to going through the papers to vote. Clearly, where people are under a lot of work pressure, this is the sort of thing that would get put to one side."

Angie Pears, chair of the UCU branch at Oxford Brookes University, said she was "shocked" by the low turnout but "delighted" at the result.

She said: "I don't think the low turnout is down to lack of morale among members, but more to do with the work pressures they are facing."

The pay and conditions campaign led by Ms Hunt came at a "crucial point" in the UCU's development, Dr Pears added.

Tom Hickey, chair of the union's Brighton University branch, described the voting system as "bizarre". He added that the low turnout also signalled "the degree to which our defeat in the pay dispute has demoralised people".

Ms Hunt stated this week that the complex voting system - not disenchantment with the union - was the key factor behind the low turnout.

She said: "It was a very complex voting programme, and one that we will never have to repeat again. That is what was always going to make it a low turnout."



Focusing on the fact that the University and College Union was a new union that needed to unite around clear objectives was one way that Sally Hunt believes she managed to secure just over 52 per cent of votes to win the general secretary post.

Describing her election to the post as "an incredible honour", she said she was pleased to see that voting had not simply fallen along tribal lines between former members of the Association of University Teachers, which she had led, and its sister union Natfhe. The two came together last year to form the UCU.

"In these situations, you just have to accept the results and say 'now we have to get on with things' - so now it is time for putting together clear forward-looking policies."

Such policies should address issues to do with professional practice, the aims of further and higher education, funding and fixed-term contracts.

Ms Hunt said: "There are some huge success stories around the sector, but often these are being achieved on the backs of people whose goodwill is being stretched to its limits."

And she added: "Now is a time for unity, as we build a union to protect our members and increase public recognition of their important work. I am relishing the opportunity of working with everyone, whether they voted for me or not, and to building a bigger, better and stronger union."


* President

Linda Newman (Sussex University)

* President-elect

Sasha Callaghan (City Lit)

* Vice-president

Alastair Hunter (Glasgow University)

* Honorary treasurer

Alan Carr (Open University)

* Representative for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members

Alan Whitaker (Oxford and Cherwell Valley College)

* Representatives for women members in higher education

Mary Davis (London Metropolitan University)

Jean Harrison (Westminster University)

Susan Birch (Leeds Metropolitan University)

* Representatives for black members

Bill Gulam (Salford University)

Maureen Henry-Johnson (Sandwell College)

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