'Mild-mannered militants' will get our support and protection

With 2,000 active cases of members claiming unfair treatment at any one time UCU membership remains vital, says Sally Hunt

October 9, 2008

Earlier this year, Times Higher Education "outed" a university registrar laughing about redundancies, describing staff as "deadwood" and the University and College Union (UCU) as "outdated" and "left wing" ("Loose lips sink staff relationships", 1 May).

What startled me at the time was how little surprise there was across the sector that the individuals concerned should hold such views.

It is perhaps easier to see this episode as symbolic of a sector increasingly dominated by macho management, such as that at Nottingham Trent University, where UCU members have voted in favour of strike action after the union faced derecognition unless it agreed to a much weakened agreement.

The concept of derecognition in higher education seems utterly alien until you link it to the broader anti-union context epitomised by our loose-lipped registrar.

Still not convinced? Try the thoughts of Nick Rogers, human resources director at Kingston University, who said in February: "I believe in trade unions - responsible trade unions. But being responsible means not pandering to a vocal, militant minority who cannot see either the future of modern employee relations, or the benefits it can bring to hard-working colleagues."

The extremism of the language is as shocking as the argument is weak. What Rogers really meant was that he believes in unions, so long as they are compliant.

These are not isolated instances. A work-life balance survey undertaken in 2007 by Coventry University reported that leadership styles in higher education were perceived to be "reactive, secretive, inconsistent, demotivating, controlling and indecisive". The survey also reported that university staff were more likely than others to experience bullying. In a recent UCU study, 6.7 per cent of respondents said that they were "always or often" bullied.

The UCU estimates that our branches are dealing with about 2,000 individual cases of members claiming unfair treatment at any one time. How sad that, instead of addressing the problem, the hawks who seem to be running higher education choose to shoot the messenger - the UCU.

The union acts as a powerful civilising influence on a sector that sometimes forgets how to treat staff properly. Membership is at its highest since the merger with our colleagues from further education and growing fastest among employees on fixed-term contracts.

The case of Andrew Ball, a researcher who won a landmark case against the University of Aberdeen, forcing it to offer him a permanent post after it had employed him continuously on short-term contracts for nine years, exposed the practices that have entrenched job insecurity within higher education.

Ball says he would "encourage university contract researchers at whatever stage in their careers to join UCU ... if they choose to remain out of the union they lose a powerful tool for representation to employers and government".

In its judgment against Aberdeen, the Employment Tribunal noted that the standard excuse of highly insecure funding as the cause of casualisation simply would not wash. Most comparable businesses would love to have the security of funding universities receive, said the tribunal, but they manage without the endemic use of short-term contracts. On 3 December, Times Higher Education readers are invited to join our first day of action to stamp out casualisation.

The 2006 pay settlement demonstrates exactly why the UCU and its members are so important to the sector. We had heard encouraging rhetoric about the need to pay staff properly, but when it came down to it the deal was substantially better than what the employers had been prepared to offer only because UCU members were prepared to challenge them.

But having been forced to pay more than they wanted, employers are looking to get even. On 18 September, Times Higher Education quoted an unnamed source as saying next year's increase will be between "zero and a very small figure".

Any attempts to claw back the value of our current pay deal will be seen by staff as yet another kick in the teeth, particularly as vice-chancellor pay is immune from this proposed downward pressure on staff salaries.

Most UCU members would chuckle to see themselves described as militants. They are dedicated professionals committed to their students and their colleagues.

Yet in this new world where the UCU is threatened with derecognition, where casual staff must go to court to establish their rights, where it takes industrial action to secure decent pay offers, and where one in 15 report regular bullying, even the most mild-mannered of people can become angry.

Vice-chancellors and their well-remunerated hired hands who wish the "dinosaurs" would leave the stage will be disappointed. The UCU and its mild-mannered militants are here to stay.

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