Union steels itself for hostile future

UCU set for tough talk over resources and strategy, general secretary Sally Hunt tells Jack Grove

January 17, 2013

Falling membership at the University and College Union will prompt a “tough debate” about where the body should focus its resources, its general secretary has warned.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sally Hunt said that the UCU was braced for a sustained period of job losses in the sector that was likely to reduce its membership and financial resources.

The UCU was formed by the merger of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education and the Association of University Teachers in 2006, with its membership reaching about 122,000 in late 2011, Ms Hunt said. However, this figure has fallen by about 4,000 over the past year, with retirement and redundancy taking their toll.

Increasing numbers of academics on fixed-term contracts have also affected recruitment because they are less likely to join than those with greater job security, she added.

“We have started what will be the worst two- or three-year period of public sector job losses in history, and our sector has been affected, too,” Ms Hunt said. “Universities and colleges are changing the way they employ staff, so we have a more casualised, factionalised workforce.”

She said that the UCU had “bucked the trend” for falling membership seen at other unions over the past few years, “but we’ve noticed changes over the past 12 months with these small-scale redundancies and retirements”.

Efforts to bolster membership are under way, although recruitment remained strong, she added.

There also needed to be a “tough debate” about whether the UCU was focusing too much on the interests of some members at the expense of others.

“The hourly paid lecturer or researcher on a fixed-term contract might not be so worried about pay but by job security,” Ms Hunt said. “The 58-year-old academic concerned about their final pay and pension is worrying about different things than the 23-year-old trying to get on the ladder, so we need a real debate on what the union does.”

Ms Hunt said she would assess the UCU’s 200-strong workforce - its “major area of expenditure” - to make sure that resources were available for other activities.

“A one-day strike costs tens of thousands of pounds [to organise], while fighting a strategic legal case can cost as much as £300,000, so there needs to be pretty tough debate on what we want to do in future,” she said. “I am trying to be as open and honest about it as possible.”

Ms Hunt confirmed that all loans relating to the purchase of its Carlow Street headquarters in Camden Town, which stood at £9.5 million in 2011, had been cleared after the sale of its old premises in Britannia Street, central London.

This follows criticisms in THE last month by former UCU trustee Fawzi Ibrahim, who wrote that property deals have cost the union at least £3 million because of falling commercial property prices.

The Britannia Street sale - awaited since 2009 - leaves the union with a £1.5 million surplus, although capital gains tax and other commissions have yet to be paid, the union said.


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