Who will succeed Sally Hunt as UCU’s general secretary?

Jack Grove speaks to the three candidates vying to take over from the University and College’s long-time leader and assesses how they will approach sector’s challenges

April 3, 2019
A demonstrator sticks a poster to a door as members of the University and College Union (UCU) stand at a picket line in protest against university lecturers' pay and pensions, outside of an entrance at University College London (UCL) in central London
Source: Getty
The fight is on: the big issue for the union’s next general secretary – be it Jo Grady, Jo McNeill or Matt ­Waddup – will be the unresolved USS dispute

This month, the 120,000-plus members of the UK’s main higher education union, the University and College Union, will receive their ballot papers to elect a new general secretary following the departure of Sally Hunt after 12 years at the helm.

It seems that the contest will be the closest in the UCU’s history. As it stands, three candidates – Jo Grady, Jo McNeill and Matt Waddup – have entered the field.

Looming over all this is last year’s 14-day strike over pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The dispute, which swelled the union’s membership and is widely seen as having energised it, remains unresolved: in the absence of a deal, employee and employer contributions are increasing this month.

Ms McNeill, the candidate for the UCU Left movement, believes that members should go back on strike if contributions rise again – as is planned – in October.

Jo McNeill
Jo McNeill

(Jo McNeill)

“Our members know the USS dispute isn’t over; it was paused at a crucial point,” Ms McNeill told Times Higher Education. “Without the possibility of industrial action, there is often no meaningful collective bargaining,” she said. “Trade unions need to be ready, when necessary, to take industrial action in defence of members’ pensions, pay and working conditions.”

Ms McNeill’s position has been questioned by some UCU members given that vice-chancellors have signed up to the settlement proposed by an independent review group, the joint expert panel, and have indicated that they are willing to contribute more to protect existing benefits if staff do too. Reopening strike action would not make sense if the problem lies with the USS trustees, rather than employers, they state.

However, Ms McNeill, president of the University of Liverpool’s UCU branch, is a firm advocate of the “no detriment” position, which says that employers should shoulder any extra pension costs in their entirety, pointing to the “record levels of surplus” in the sector. In any case, the “UCU has demolished the argument that there is a deficit in the pension scheme”, she added, calling it an “artefact of accounting generated by USS”.

Jo Grady
Jo Grady

(Jo Grady)

Dr Grady, senior lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield, who won a seat on the union’s national executive committee in February, is also an advocate of the “no detriment” position. Dr Grady – a member of the USS Briefs activist group – told THE that “if the JEP’s recommendations are applied to a 2018 valuation, USS is not in deficit and no detrimental changes are needed”.

She also believes that further strike action may be necessary to help the UCU “take on the USS executive”. “Our dispute – despite the publication of the JEP – is still very much about the extent to which our employers are willing to stand with us and protect our scheme from its own managers,” she said. In a “ballot situation…I would hope Universities UK and our employers ask questions about decision-making by those within USS, and also consider calling for resignations”, she added on what might force a change of heart from the pension fund’s ruling body.

Having the “joint union- and employer-backed document” of the JEP has been vital, said Dr Grady, although both she and Ms McNeill voted in April against its formation, urging instead more strike action – a course rejected by voting members.

However, Dr Grady explained that she did so because she thought the UCU could “press for a better offer” with more strikes looming. “When I voted to stay on strike in April, I wasn’t voting against the JEP; I was voting to make our employers back up their words with meaningful actions,” she said.

Matt Waddup
Matt Waddup

(Matt Waddup)

Mr Waddup, the UCU’s head of policy and campaigns, backed the creation of the JEP at the time, and said that it was “absolutely the right decision”.

“Ending the strike when we did effectively took [the removal of guaranteed payouts and their replacement with more variable] defined contributions off the table and established the JEP,” he said.

On the future of the USS, Mr Waddup, too, asserted that “if USS were to implement the JEP now, it would not mean any increases [in contributions] at all”. However, he seemed more open to splitting additional costs between USS members and employers if required. “My own view is that the priority is to protect members’ benefits while keeping costs as low as possible,” he said.

Mr Waddup, vilified in The Times during the 2018 strike as a firebrand leftist, added that he was bemused by recent claims that he would be reluctant to call for strike action. “I make no apology about being militant on issues around casualisation and precarity,” he said. “If we want USS-style success [on such issues], we need USS-style planning [for industrial action], though people do accept that there will be a negotiated process.”

In the event that none of the three candidates wins an overall majority, the result will be decided on the transfer of second-choice votes. As such, an informal alliance between Ms McNeill and Dr Grady – who was backed by UCU Left in the NEC elections – could swing the vote away from Mr Waddup towards one of them.

Equally, a candidate who can engage a decent proportion of the membership – Ms Hunt won in 2017 with just over 8,000 votes on a 13.7 per cent turnout – might squeak over the line. Ballots will open on 29 April and close on 23 May – with the winner declared on the eve of the UCU’s congress.



Print headline: Pension tactics central to UCU leadership race

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Reader's comments (25)

The UCU is a union for academics and the UCU president should be an academic. Enough of the career unionists who are not academics and whose ideas about industrial relations are based on rhetoric, textbooks and supposition. Sally Hunt was not an academic. Jo McNeill is not an academic. Matt Waddup is not an academic. No offfence to them but they don’t have PhDs or lecturing experience so they haven’t got a clue about the realities of academic careers. You cannot pick up that knowledge through the filter of random surveys of academics. Non-academics know very little about the realities of academic careers to a point that is embarrassing. For example, in one of the strikes organised by UCU was a “half day” strike or some such ridiculousness. That simply doesn’t work : if you are an academic your job takes as long as it takes. If you strike in the morning you will just work extra hours into the night. A marking boycott is more appropriate. UCU hasn’t worked out well under the leadership of non-academics therefore it is time to vote for an academic as UCU president.
And this is why I'm glad that I have left UCU. I don't regret the 8 years as a UCU member contributing at branch, regional and national levels. but I much happier now. I have seen how UCU works from inside and it's not nice to put it politely.
I agree that the UCU general secretary should be an academic. As should every key UCU leader. UCU leaders should be individuals with a personal stake in the system. A UCU leader should be someone who knows exactly what it means to be an academic and who is motivated by the potential improvements in their own working conditions that can come from UCU action. Non-academics cannot grasp things like the gravity of the REF, the grant funding system, pressure to publish, pressure to get research grants, university politics, nepotism, student complaints, student demands, fixed term postdocs, associate lecturing, and many other things. They just can’t understand it and this is why UCU has failed so many times. The non-academics in charge of UCU just haven’t got the foggiest idea about the actual reality of academic careers. And no, reading blogs, textbooks about industrial relations, or reports from UCU activists just isn’t quite the same as actually having worked as an academic. Matt and Jo should be doing the decent thing and promoting an academic rather than themselves, someone who is an academic and has been a branch president or national rep. And no I am not affiliated with the academic running for the post. If there were more academics to choose from that would be great but I shall certainly only vote for the academic.
I think that is unfair on Jo McNeill who works in academia full-time. UCU represents more than purely academic staff. I agree with the general idea though, and I would only support a candidate who works in academia and not a career-unionist.
(Full disclosure: My friend,) Jo Grady is the stand-out candidate for reasons alluded to above. Not only is she an academic, but she is a scholar of employee relations with published work on trade unions, pensions, and zero-hours contracts -- amongst the biggest issues facing our members. She has the academic expertise, as well as the clear-eyed politics and the strength of character, to lead the union in a time of great crisis.
That’s an interesting take Matt, Jo Grady says herself that she has been a member since 2006 but only got involved in UCU last year,when her own pension was threatened. She has never led a branch, led a dispute, done casework or represented a member threatened with redundancy or disciplinary action. Never supported a member through a grievance or bullying or harassment. Her experience is limited to HE academia. Jo Grady has no experience of trade union work outside of her research and teaching. Matt Waddup, well, where to begin, he's a career bureacrat who has never worked in HE, FE, prison education or any of the constituencies represented by UCU. He is an autocratic who was behind the shutting down of congress last year. It’s ironic that he uses the word 'Unite' in his campaign when he compelled 'his' staff who are all members of Unite the union to shut down a congress held to represent and do work on behalf of UCU members. He and the other senior managers of UCU bullied and threatended delegates trying to force them to withdraw motions democratically brought to congress, passed by branches, and put on the agenda by the Congress Business Committee. This was all reported last year by on Jack Groves. And in the Guardian. His election would split the union, and the only way he could win is if Jo Grady splits the left vote. That troubles me. I am supporting Jo McNeill, her track record is exemplary. She led a dispute that halted mass scale redundancies at Liverpool. She has won settlements for members when Matt et al would not work for them. She has saved jobs and improved working conditions for 100s, if not 1000s with her national work and campaigning. Currently Jo McNeill is supporting a campaign to improve access on Liverpool University campuses. And has coordinated support for the campaign to reinstate Dr Lee Humber, suspended for his UCU work by the principal of Ruskin College. How do I know all this? I’ve been an activist in UCU for more than 10 years. I’ve seen the way Matt Waddup abuses his position - he and Paul Cottrell and others have just rewritten their contracts to make themselves de facto deputy general secretaries before the democracy commission currently sitting can put its report to this year’s congress. Don’t take my word for all of this, research their track records. Ask Jo Grady about her experience and succeses, ask Jo McNeill about hers and ask yourself, what has Matt Waddup ever done for members apart from shut down industrial actions (which he believes are ineffective as a mechanism to improve working conditions) and member led actions. They are when they are run by the current leadership. Oh, and ask Matt about his career trajectory at UCU. Then make an informed decision. Based on the best candidate, not your mate. Full disclosure, I am a UCU activist, I have been bullied by Matt Waddup and seen for myself how the current bureaucracy of UCU has failed for over a decade to win any ground for members, rather, we have more casual and zero hours staff, a higher gender pay gap, worse working conditions and a sector on the brink of a crisis. One candidate has written about HE and campaigned on pre 92 pensions, one candidate has led our union in defeat after defeat and one has led her branch and defended jobs, worked at national level across HE and FE for all members and has the respect of 1000s of members, including the 41% of voters in the last General Secretary election.
UCU represents enormous numbers of non-academics across HE, FE and prison education. It’s disgracefully elitist to say that the UCU GS has to be an academic.
Being an 'academic' doesn't necessarily give you any special insight into how to conduct union business usefully and effectively. In fact it's a bit of an absurd notion that the UCU General Secretary has to be an academic. No one would, for example, dream of suggesting that the leader of the RMT had to be a train driver or the NUT Gen Sec a teacher. The important thing is knowing where your members' interests lie and knowing what battles can be won. An academic won't be uniquely aware of this and indeed may be 'standing too close' to things to be objective.
It does not make me feel very welcome in UCU, as not only am I not an academic, but I have absolutely no plans to become one! UCU is supposed to represent a lot of people like me. The GS needs to come from & understand the sector they are representing. BTW, the NUT doesn't exist any more, but the joint GS's of the NEU were both working in education first, and the RMT GS did indeed work on the railways!
Trade unionists explain how the class struggle will be won by elites in the education system who can lead the grunts who interact with students and deliver and facilitate student creation of knowledge?! I think not. Unions exist to represent members. Only one candidate has years of experience of supporting members in grassroots struggle and that is Jo McNeill. If you don’t have a peer reviewed article to confirm that I apologise but the peers who review activism as fellow organisers know and respect the name Jo McNeill because it is a name you hear whenever you send out a call to support a branch defending education (for the masses, not just for the ruling classes). Jo M is no bureaucrat and no elitist when it comes to the fight for education. She is an experienced activist who will fight not just for academics but for education workers in every sector and for education itself. If you don’t get that education is a broader fight than elite knowledge the whole war is lost.
It is completely absurd and you have a chip on your shoulder if you think that academics who want an academic to be UCU General Secretary are elitist. Please get a grip. The UCU has done very little to stop the engine of the REF taking over academic lives precisely because UCU leaders have never published peer reviewed work, never experienced journal rejections, never known what is 3 star or 4 star (no it’s not B&B star ratings), never known what pressure to win research funding feels like, and they never will. UCU leaders who never been academics have never known what it is to deal with student complaints (hence UCU doing little to stop universities from turning into customer service centres) which is why UCU is doing little to stop the TEF. A person who is not a journalist would be an absurd choice to lead the National Union of Journalists. Architects, builders, plumbers, nurses, doctors and teachers would laugh at you if you think you can lead their union but you are not an architect, builder, plumber and so forth. Academia has changed because non-academics are running universities as registrars, trustees, senior managers and other unnecessary busy-work. UCU is a useless union in many ways because the people running it do not understand the academic profession properly and because they don’t have a stake in the system. So what if the academic running joined UCU to fight for her pension? Is she running a charity - why should she not be motivated to improve her own conditions? Vote for an academic as UCU general secretary and vote for academics to run UCU as far as possible. We need to see more academics ousting the career unionists and running for office.
Great, let us blame non-academics for all UCU shortcomings and credit all success to academics. We get this treatment from our employers why not get it from the trade union as well.
And may I add I don’t know Dr. Jo Grady and I am in no way affiliated with her. The general point is that the UCU largely represents academics and it should be run by an academic. As for the person who tried to belittle Dr. Jo’s experience by saying she has ‘only’ worked in HE: shame on them. HE is a sector like any other and the experience that academics have is absolutely important in and of itself. I find that people who berate academics as living in an ivory tower have a severe case of chip-on-the-shoulder mixed in with envy about not being able to hack it as an academic themselves. I would not dream of belittling other sectors. And, by the way, many builders and plumbers earn a lot more than the average academic so please stop it with this projected elitism. Most academics - including me - are NOT elitist. Wanting an academic to represent academics is common sense, not elitism.
You do know that UCU represents members across post-16 and also academic related staff in HE as well as academics don’t you? The idea that you think only academics deal with student complaints and the fact you assume this is an argument in favour of the recent leadership shows how small the bubble is of those who would willingly write off such huge swathes of our membership as lacking connection. Academics needed to organise on the REF. What more could you have done to support your colleagues who fought hard on this? Beyond publishing material, to what extent might door-knocking, having conversations with other members, demonstrating and other strategies to collectivise with other members have helped? It would be absurd to blame pre-92 academics for for example FE pay crumbling so why on earth would you suggest non-academic members are to blame for a failure to organise on the REF. I recommend a bit of research into use of the term “chip on your shoulder” and the credibility of “common sense” as a justification for anything. It might help broaden your political horizons and if you really want to win on the issues you care about that is something you need to do.
I'm going to use the term 'misplaced elitism' in reference to some of the above, because the fact that certain members do not understand that our union represents tens of thousands of lecturers and tutors in Further Education, Adult Education, Prison Education and academics who predominantly teach rather than research in the post-92 sector, suggest they are not quite as clever as they think they are, peer reviewed publications notwithstanding. Ultimately the pre-92 sector constitutes about 17% of taught Higher Education provision in this country and working in that sector does not confer any particular special right to rule. I am actually an 'academic' who submits to the REF, but I recognise that the union's strength is collective and that if we do not arrest the loss of members in FE and my own post-92 sector then we will be in far weaker position to bargain for anything, regardless of our own individual status. Ultimately I do not want a 'career bureaucrat' to control my union, but lumping in lay reps from our Academic Related section (like Jo McNeil) who have given years of unpaid activism and voluntary support to their colleagues (academic and non-) with those who have never done any job apart from work full-time for a union is both a gross misrepresentation and hugely condescending. And while Jo McNeil may be based at a redbrick, her own life trajectory, studying in Further Education, working in Widening Participation, supporting her own members, and a decade long history of activism encompassing all of UCU’s sectors, means she is the candidate who best represents the entirety of our union.
Non-academics have led UCU from one chaotic loss to the next and it is time that academics took over UCU leadership. Only 23.7% of UCU members work in FE, if that. The majority work in HE and the majority of those ARE academics. Deal with those facts. https://www.tes.com/news/strike-action-boosts-ucu-membership It is nobody’s fault if you are not an academic and feel somehow put out of joint because academics want their union led by academics after a series of non-academic UCU leaders have been disastrous. Sally Hunt made a disaster of AUT and UCU, accepting deals that did not serve the interests of academics because guess what? It doesn’t affect her personally. She still got her £100,000 salary either way. I will vote for academics to lead UCU. Nearly 75% of UCU members are academics and it is time we took over UCU from people with no stake in academia. Non-academic HE staff belong to UNISON which is a far better organised, far more effective union than UCU, so good on them and not having a piece in the UCU pie will certainly not leave non-academics in HE hard done by. https://www.unison.org.uk/at-work/education-services/about/higher-education/ Academics have no choice about belong to UCU so we need to take the reigns and make it more effective and fit for purpose in actually representing issues like the REF and TEF as well as bloated executive pay in universities. What has UCU done about that? As for the FE folks desperate to froth at the mouth, no one is actually unhappy with FE lecturers having a part in UCU leadership. One quarter of the leaders should represent FE. But the General Secretary should, if majority wins, be an academic. The problem is people like some of those standing for GS who have never taught a day in their lives or published a paper. Here is some news for you. This is a democracy and I am urging academics to vote for academics. We are the majority and the majority can win.
I agree that the UCU president, general secretary and everyone else in a significant leadership position should from now on be an academic. Non-academics have had their turn, failed, and should step aside. Take a look at Sally Hunt’s appalling record of selling out academics’ interests with no consultation at this insightful article https://medium.com/@drleejones/why-ucu-general-secretary-sally-hunt-should-resign-c770ca70ff7d I am very very suspicious of the extremity with which the above commentators are promoting Jo McNeill. A bit of digging with Google shows that she is being promoted by the UCU Left, https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/44060/Support+UCU+Left+in+union+elections We do not need another career unionist on £138,000 like Sally Hunt https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ucu-leader-sally-hunt-condemns-high-pay-and-earns-138-000-a-year-bzlq2pjh7 Jo McNeill’s CV is that of a career unionist. She might be a PhD student but that does not make her an academic. She should finish her PhD first, slog it out as a postdoc and lecturer and then come back in 10 years’ time. Jo McNeill is unfortunately no different in her lack of academic experience than Sally Hunt. https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9871/Jo-McNeill-University-of-Liverpool Be very very very suspicious about why the UCU Left is aggressively pushing you to vote for McNeill. I will vote for the academic, thanks.
I wholeheartedly agree that the UCU General Secretary must be an academic. He or she should be on secondment from an academic post and be directly affected by whatever the UCU does. Sally Hunt and her successor should not be paid £138,000, that is completely ridiculous. I am appalled by the UCU Left aggressively pushing members to vote for McNeill when there might be a better candidate. I am appalled that UCU Left exists, a faction comprising of career communists with Soviet links who view the UCU as yet another playing arena in which to act out ridiculous Marxist fantasies. Communism has always failed because it is a totalitarian ideology in which the elite few (like McNeill who will presumably enjoy a £138,000 salary) milk the masses (who pay UCU subscriptions) under the pretense of knowing what is best for the masses but in reality knowing nothing of the sort. UCU is not a communist playground, it is a union for people who lecture or do research. UCU for academics, lecturers and research staff, not career unionists.
On Dr Jo Grady's involvement with University and College Union (UCU) at University of Leicester and University of Sheffield, please refer to her webpage, section "About Me": https://grady4gs.com/2019/04/09/about-me/ You can also read Dr Grady's Election Address there. With best wishes Dr Leon Rocha, University of Lincoln
How sad to see this divisive thread of comments. I am an academic working in an institution with a strong and highly effective branch (one of the most effective and well organised in our region according to our regional officials) and we have built a strong branch that includes academic and academic related staff. We have reps for professional and academic related staff, who are dedicated, highly effective union activists. I will vote for Jo McNeill because her track record tells me that she is the best candidate. Not because she holds a particular post, but consider this, we have in Jo McNeill a candidate who has experience in both sectors that UCU represents, who has organised and led successive successful campaigns, saved jobs and supported members in legal cases when the national officials declined to. Oh, and by the way, she has an academic background, and is currently a PhD candidate. What a fantastic opportunity we have to elect a GS who will understand all members concerns, fight and win for members and stand up to the bureaucracy of UCU that has failed us for more than decade.
I will vote for Dr. Jo Grady. She has walked the walk as an academic and she publishes about industrial relations https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/9884/Dr-Jo-Grady-University-of-Sheffield I like her commitment to make the UCU more transparent, ending casual contracts and I will vote for her because she is not a vehicle for the divisive UCU Left. Every academic and their uncle or aunt should vote because with such a low turnout of 13% the last General Secretary was voted for by only about 7% of UCU members. I am also very suspicious of a candidate who is being pushed and shoved at members by the UCU Left. No offence to McNeill, I am sure she is a good activist but her alliance with the UCU Left is unfortunately ringing alarm bells.
Beyond the red-baiting and attacks on left wingers, can we move past this narrative that people calling for academic - any academic so long as they are an academic- is acceptable electioneering but those supporting Jo McNeill (a lower grade university worker) are aggressive, pushing and shoving, frothing and so forth please? This language is used systematically to discredit working class women and their opinions and knowledge by the hierarchies we seek to organise to overcome, please don’t recreate them in this election. I don’t think any of the candidates would want you to.
I am voting for Jo McNeill. In my experience, working at a university for almost 15 years, all academics are lazy, entitled, arrogant and condescending. I would trust Jo McNeill to save my job, thank you very much.
We shouldn't be trying to divide the membership into academic and non academic members. UCU is membership is comprised of both and all members should be able encouraged to actively be part of the union.
I am definitely voting for Jo McNeill too. I have no interest in voting for some posh academic. Jo Grady's PhD means nothing to me.