Sally Hunt: If I were voted general secretary of the UCU

January 19, 2007

The third in a series of three articles in which candidates vying tolead the University and College Union explain what distinguishes them from their rivals.

There are lots of political parties, and no doubt there are University and College Union members who participate in pretty much all of them. There is, however, only one UCU, and we should concentrate on being the "voice of the profession". We should not seek to mimic parties or position ourselves on the political fringes.

The new union must increase our lobbying presence in support of this core mission. As Association of University Teachers/UCU general secretary, I learnt that to influence policymakers our message must be focused and that we do best when we are united.

Good example? Fighting with one voice the attacks on academic freedom within the 2005 Terrorism Bill. Bad example? Hopeless division over an academic boycott of Israel.

Our employment concerns are well rehearsed - low pay and status, lack of time to do research, increasing administration and insecure employment. But these issues must be framed in a wider professional context of encroachments on academic freedom,Jreductions in practitioner control over the curriculum and of governance that champions corporate, not collegiate, values.

Here are four ways in which I will bring workplace and professional issues together in higher education:

* Linking excessive workload to quality and the defence of academic values. The UCU should recommend maximum student-to-staff ratios across subject areas and make the case that higher student-to-staff ratios can reduce the quality of students' education as well as increasing members' workload

* We should campaign for every academic to have the right to at least some self-directed research time; this, combined with limits on the administrative and teaching workload, would enhance quality and restore academics' autonomy

* The UCU should put direct pressure on funding bodies to make research grants conditional on providing decent pay, conditions and job security. This would provide a major impetus to the erosion of fixed-term contracts and, again, enhance quality

* The UCU should stand up for academic freedom - the right to publish freely, to criticise and to engage with civil society. Governments are careless of these freedoms. The UCU must not be - and as the largest tertiary education union in the world, our role is to defend academic freedom wherever it is under attack.

Underpinning my approach is the need for a restatement of the relationships between universities on the one hand and the state and the market on the other. The Government pays proportionately less now to support universities, yet it directs us more, intervening on curricula, quality, inspection, governance and academic freedom. At the same time, universities increasingly ape private corporations. The UCU must resist privatisation, "for-profit" universities and attempts to beat down academic values through so-called corporate governance.

As proud as I am of being UCU general secretary, I am prouder still of my six-year-old daughter. As both general secretary and a parent, one always looks to the future. What will it mean to study and work in a university by the time my daughter is old enough to go? Will academic values and freedoms still flourish? Will it still be knowledge rather than wealth generation that drives our institutions?

The UCU and its members must use our new strength effectively to stand up for the profession and for our future. How? My vision is clear - an independent union focused on tomorrow, not yesterday.

Sally Hunt is joint general secretary of the University and College Union and general secretary candidate in the forthcoming election.

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