Controversial proposals to reduce the size of the University and College Union’s national executive committee by almost half have been rejected in favour of a more modest plan to downsize.
In a vote at last month’s annual congress in Brighton, the results of which were published on 5 June, delegates overwhelmingly backed plans to scale back the committee, which runs the union between congresses, by nine seats, from 72 to 63.
Almost 60 per cent of votes were cast for the 63-seat option – one of seven presented to congress – while plans to slash the number of seats to just 30 or 44 seats received 2 per cent and 8 per cent of the vote respectively.
The vote may be viewed as a defeat for Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, who has been embroiled in a long-running battle with some sections of the union that have vehemently opposed her plans to trim the NEC to “no more than 40”.
At last year’s congress, Ms Hunt argued that a direct email consultation of members on the issue showed that she had the support of rank-and-file staff, with 88.6 per cent backing her plan to shrink the executive. Cutting the size of the NEC would have saved about £120,000 a year, which could have been used to improve support for union members, and also reduced the number of committee meetings and papers that consume union time and resources, Ms Hunt argued.
However, her plans were rejected by delegates last year, some of whom claimed that she was trying to “stifle legitimate opposition within the union” through her approach. As a result, a commission was formed to suggest possible models for union representation.
One of the commission members, Catherine Pope, professor of medical sociology at the University of Southampton, said the representation of different parts of higher education had been a key issue for those members she had consulted.
“It is difficult to achieve this without a fairly large NEC,” she said.
However, Professor Pope believed that more radical reforms than the adopted executive committee model might be necessary in future.
“The financial pressures facing UCU…mean that we are going to need to adapt how we do things,” she said.
Tom Hickey, lecturer in critical theory at the University of Brighton, whose UCU Left group led the fight against Ms Hunt’s plans, said the decision was a “victory for democratic debate” that would strengthen the executive’s decision-making and accountability.
“I hope everyone now pulls together as the main issue now is the national pay claim.”
A UCU spokesman said that the vote showed a consensus for “a smaller, more effective NEC” and that the union was “committed to operating in as efficient a way as possible, consistent with our democratic tradition”.
Congress delegates also voted to adopt much of a proposed budget plan, which seeks to cut £2 million from the union’s budget by 2015.
However, an amendment proposed by Mr Hickey’s Brighton branch, which was passed, calls on the union to revise the budget to ensure that there are no compulsory redundancies. If necessary, the union should raise subscriptions by 5 per cent above inflation over a two-year period, it was agreed.