The election for the next General Secretary of UCU starts on Monday 29 April and closes at 12 noon on Thursday 23 May 2019. There are three candidates: Jo Grady (Sheffield University), Jo McNeill (Liverpool University) and Matt Waddup (UCU National Head of Policy and Campaigns). Branch Solidarity Network invited questions for both rank and file candidates and we publish their answers below (and thank them both for making the time to give such full responses).
This is not an official hustings event in which case all three candidates would expect to be able to air their views. Instead, it is an endorsement and an opportunity to hear from the two Jo’s whose voices have not been heard as regularly in the THES and who we feel best represent the desire for a grassroots, member-led and radical union – the constituency out of which BSN emerged last year. We urge branches to organise official hustings with all three candidates but, given that this is an STV election, we also encourage members to use their votes to make sure that the next General Secretary is called Jo.
1. Does having two left candidates run the risk of splitting the vote?
I don’t think so, no. I think the recent race for Vice President of UCU, where Vicky Blake, the non-aligned candidate from the left of the union ran against one from each of the established factions, is the best guide we have to this election. And it worked very well for the left: partly because the two candidates encouraged their supporters to vote for each other, but also because it raised the level of debate, moved the whole conversation in a progressive direction, and possibly generated more interest, and therefore votes, than a two-horse race would have. So I’m glad that I’m not just one of two candidates.
Potentially. However, given this is a single transferable vote if we use our second preference vote wisely then we should be able to get a rank and file candidate into position. That’s provided both sets of supporters understand that neither left candidate is the enemy here and are disciplined in using their second preference vote for the other left candidate. This worked in the recent VP election. Vicky Blake came second to Adam Ozanne on first preferences but when the votes transferred, around 50% of my supporters chose her as their second preference which catapulted her into the VP position. However, we can never guarantee where our second preference votes will go.
What concerns me is that some of Jo G’s supporters may not choose me as their second preference because they’ve bought into the right-wing propaganda that those of us who’ve been fighting the bureaucracy for years before the USS dispute, are the devil. If that is the case, then it’s highly likely that the left vote will split and the continuity candidate, will win. The outcome of this election may well be up to the wider left. The question is, do you dislike the UCU Left candidate enough to allow the continuity candidate to win if your first choice doesn’t? My advice is to be disciplined and to vote #JoJo12 with whichever one of us you prefer as #1.
2. Are you running as an “independent” candidate?
No. I’m running as the UCU Left candidate. I’m more than happy to have the ‘factions’ debate at any time. ‘Factions’ exist in the union because activists have to organise in relation to the conservatism of the bureaucracy of the union. One of the candidates standing for General Secretary is an official who is seeking to restrict activists’ influence over the union. So all activists, whether in UCU Left, Branch Solidarity Network or USS Briefs have to organise as what is referred to as ‘factions’. These may be more or less formal, more or less internally homogenous and overlap with one another but nevertheless they reflect the need of activists to organise within UCU.
We have to organise on the Left because we face a very organised right in UCU. Although they claim innocence, they’re actually far more organised and definitely far more disciplined than is commonly known. They have won the majority of the national executive seats for several years and have stifled so much activism that I couldn’t even begin to go into detail here. We do caucus as the left in the same way I would expect every UCU branch to caucus with their sister unions on campus prior to meeting management, so we can have our discussions, talk about what our members want and come up with an agreed position where possible. I heard throughout the VP campaign that UCU Left turn up at NEC, we don’t allow debate and we all just bloc vote. That’s bullshit. We try to take in an agreed position so that we can then use our time in the meeting to convince the right to vote with us. Sometimes, on odd occasions, that works.
I appreciate some people say they don’t like the idea of ‘factions’ but these organised groups exist, they exist in all unions and political parties. Both of the other candidates in this election are part of different groups. These groups operate at a national level in the union. They talk to each other, co-ordinate their activity and campaign collectively. Anyone coming onto the NEC will quickly learn that the only way to get anything done in NEC is to take an organised position.
Yes, I’m the only candidate in this race not to receive support from either of the established factions in UCU. I have never been a member of either faction, and in my last two elections to national posts (for the USS National Dispute Committee and for the National Executive Committee), I stood as the only non-aligned candidate and comfortably beat candidates from each faction.
3. Please describe your experiences as caseworkers and branch activists for casualised, BAME and disabled staff.
This is difficult to discuss without revealing too much specific information about the members I’ve helped, so I’ll have to talk in quite general terms. I have been involved in casework with, BME and disabled members for various reasons, including bullying and harassment, in addition to casework related to changes to return to work following maternity leave, but also redundancies. A large part of my leadership role in my previous branch involved helping deal with a very large and intimidating programme of redundancies managers were trying to impose on us.
I’ve been a caseworker for years, I’ve represented countless members and I have an excellent success rate. We’ve fought zero hours contracts at a local level and achieved a moratorium on them, although in the past 12 months we’re hearing management have broken this agreement. We also have an anti-casualisation claim in progress this is a collective issue as opposed to fighting on a case by case level.
For BAME staff we’ve been meeting locally with our Black Staff Network. Members in this group told us that progression and promotion are the main areas of concern for them. Our approach to rectify this was to agree with management that black staff members would be seconded into new, higher graded posts being created as part of a re-structure for a trial period with a view to them keeping the position. This moves away from the deficit model which pushes for black members to receive training or mentoring to get a promotion. This is in my manifesto as something I would roll out nationally.
Our university, like many others, has lots of accessibility issues. I regularly negotiate reasonable adjustments for disabled members and work through stress risk assessments with members and management to support members with mental health issues. I’ve pushed work related stress through the H&S committee which is an excellent negotiating forum and we developed a stress code of practice which has been rolled out nationally by UCU. We organised a very effective day of action in line with UCU’s Disability Day of Action where we taped up the entrances to every inaccessible building on campus and followed this up with an extremely noisy march. This led to the employer asking to meet with us and we are now going through an institutional level review of accessibility. The direct action we took led to the movement by management which our disabled members needed to see.
4. Can we get a more powerful legal Department so that casework isn’t volunteer-dependent and that employers have a bit of fear in them?
When I ran against Sally Hunt in the last GS election I said I would overhaul the union’s legal department. As a caseworker myself, I know how difficult it is to get a legal opinion and even when it does arrive, it’s usually vague. We are not seeing any changes in university cultures because hardly any cases are going to court. We could have precedent setting caselaw in equalities cases if the union would offer more supportive, convincing legal support. As GS I will take a series of test cases on equalities issues to court. As a caseworker I’ve regularly been told that equalities cases can be ‘risky’, well, sometimes we have to take risks and financially support equalities cases in order to effect positive change.
I will also look into a legal challenge to question the misuse of NDAs (Non-disclosure Agreements) as these are being used to cover bad practice all over the country. A former member from my branch bravely broke her NDA very publicly last week and members from all around the country are talking to the media about their stories. I’ve unwillingly been involved in the negotiations of too many NDAs and its about time something was done by national UCU to actually step up and protect the members instead of the employers. When I ran in the last GS election, Sally Hunt claimed success in negotiating over £70million for individual members. I raised the point back then that this was nothing to brag about, that we had very little caselaw to show for this figure and that most of this amount was tied up in NDAs hiding bad practice, sexual harassment, bullying, abuse, discrimination and everything else that these agreements hide.
Yes, I think we can and should do this. I find it interesting and disappointing that UCU hasn’t filled its vacancy for Head of Legal Services. We don’t have a proper in-house legal team, as I point out in my manifesto. While there are good law firms we can engage for help with employment law, it does leave us under-resourced for problems that are quite specific to the sectors we work in: whether it’s the kind of ‘workload creep’ issue I’ve highlighted in FE, or the unequal effects of REF-related performance management in HE.
5. What plans do you have to make the union more responsive to the employment needs of our members day-to-day?
I’ve detailed a few ways in which UCU can make itself more of a presence in members’ daily lives in my manifesto. One is making more use of technology to communicate with members; another is to hold regular surgeries where members can talk to me, as GS, and other national officials. It’s easy to forget this but the GS doesn’t have to be holed up in Carlow Street (UCU’s national HQ) all the time. I plan to spend plenty of time going round the country, working from regional offices, and being in contact with branches. I don’t like London all that much anyway!
I have said in my last two national election campaigns that the leadership of UCU is disengaged from our membership. None of the senior management team have ever worked in any of the sectors we represent, they are all career bureaucrats. I have personal experience of all of our sectors except prisons. During my time with Aimhigher I was based at the University of Liverpool but ran projects in FE, Post 92s and schools and I came through adult education as an access student. I am an academic related member of staff but I have been a very active caseworker for many years representing academic and academic related staff in all aspects of their working lives. I understand the wider education system and the issues all of our members face. I am better placed to work across our membership than either of the other candidates. This is not just a ‘Lecturer’s union’. I would be a hands-on GS and would maintain my already strong connection with the wider grassroots membership. UCU will only be fully responsive to our members needs when they are properly engaged and understand fundamentally what those needs are. I will be accountable too and if members don’t think I’m doing a good job I will have accepted the proposed recall clause into my contract and will willingly enter that process.
6. What are your plans to make UCU a campaigning union?
We need to move away from any notion of a service model union and ensure campaigning is at the heart of UCU. One of the main reasons we see branches struggling to get the vote out during ballot periods is due to the lack of high profile national campaigning. In the past we’ve seen indicative ballots drop into our inboxes with no campaign whatsoever, this approach sets us up to fail. We know the annual timetable of national pay negotiations. They are the same every year yet we never start the national campaign early enough, or powerfully enough. A campaign needs more than a leaflet, a poster and a mention on the UCU website. As an NEC member I, along with others, have offered to go into branches to speak to members about the importance of the campaign. We’ve never been allowed to do that – although I have regularly gone in and spoke in friendly branches without National approval.
However, I believe strongly that UCU’s campaigns must not be restricted to national and local issues which directly affect our members. UCU must be an internationalist union. I have been a life-long campaigner against war and imperialist intervention. I’m proud to be an internationalist. I also proud that UCU has a strong position on supporting the struggle of the Palestinian people and is affiliated to organisations like the Stop the War Coalition. Interventionist wars led by US and Britain are still taking place from the middle east to Venezuela. UCU is quite right to make anti-imperialism a central part of the union’s polices. As GS I would make sure that this position is continued and strengthened. At a local level we’ve been working on campaigns with Liverpool’s Sudanese community for the last couple of years and we regularly supported a delegate from our committee to attend CSP-Conlutas Congress in Brazil so that we maintain a broad understanding of international issues. In June Donald Trump is coming to Britain. Regardless of the outcome of this election, I will be organising to get as many UCU members as possible to join the tens of thousands that will bring the capital to a stand still on that day to send a clear message across the world that this racist, misogynistic, climate denier and homophobe is not welcome here.
This really strikes a chord with me, because it’s a central concern in my manifesto. UCU says that it campaigns on all sorts of issues, and technically, it does. But campaigns are more than a report, a press release, or a list of resources on a website. The question we should always be asking about almost any issue that concerns us is: how are we going to get a binding nationwide agreement with our employers? Trade unions in other countries have managed to negotiate national agreements about all sorts of things: not just pay and pensions, but harassment, workplace dignity, professional development, job security, you name it. If we want that, we need to get leverage, and we need to get our membership as a whole on board. I have plenty of ideas about how to do that in various areas – so I hope you read the manifesto and take a look.
7. What do you consider to be distinctive about Higher Education and what is your vision of the “university of the future”?
I don’t know if I would say that Higher Education is particularly different from Further Education. Both are about about giving people the freedom to develop their interests and capacities and decide how they want to participate in society. A few years of freedom at university to think, and learn, and grow, is important and can form the basis of a happy, fulfilled adult life. The burden of debt associated with higher education now discourages people from working class backgrounds to benefit from that. Higher education should be open to everyone and free to everyone.
The other thing I would add is that universities, in particular, have become more and more detached from the local and regional communities around them. In fact, they’re often doing a lot of damage to those communities. That’s not an easy problem to solve, but it would be on top of my list of priorities if I were in charge of this country’s Higher Education system.
Higher Education in the UK at one point was the envy of the world; now there are more negatives than positives. My vision for a ‘university of the future’ is one where casualisation has been stamped out, all staff have manageable workloads and positive work/life balances women and BAME staff are paid the same as white men, and everyone works in environments free of all forms of harassment, abuse and bullying; where the far right and hostile environments are confined to studies in History departments and our colleagues from all over the world can work alongside UK nationals freely; where coming into work doesn’t detrimentally affect your mental health; and where further and higher education is free for all and is valued in and of itself instead of being just another cog in the capitalist machine. I’d also like to see pay caught up AND kept up with properly funded defined benefit pensions and there should be fair pay ratios between the highest and lowest paid staff.
In the future all universities and colleges should be fully accessible to all staff and students. BAME staff should progress and be promoted at the same rate as white staff. No group of people should feel uncomfortable in the workplace and free speech should not be used as an excuse to intimidate or harass any group of people. I’d like to see employers value staff, and recognise that they are worth more to the education system than any shiny new building. I also hope the climate action taking place now works and our environment survives so we can have this ideal future!
All of this may seem like a HE fairy story but these are basic workplace expectations. We’ve been conditioned into thinking there is no way to resolve the situation HE is in right now but all of this is achievable. Ok, confining the far right to the studies of the History department may take some doing but most of what I’ve outlined above are basic working rights. In UCU we’ve lost sight of that simple concept. We are acting like a professional association while our employers are treating us like factory workers. We have to organise like factory workers. And I am not having a go at factory workers here – I’m saying they have far more industrial strength than we do, and we need to emulate that model if we want to effectively fight back.
8. What action should be taken in relation to allegations of financial corruption at universities and to ensure that union branches remain independent of university management?
The marketisation and financialisation of HE have led to complex financial structures, instruments and internal metrics-based transfer pricing mechanisms being used by a huge range of HE institutions. Simultaneously we see exponential growth in the conflicts of interest of those in senior positions coupled with an employers lobbying body, UUK, that puts on events that offer networking opportunities for those with predatory interests to hobnob with senior management teams. Alongside the increase in complexity, conflicts and opacity, we have found that democratic scrutiny and good governance have been actively discouraged, as statutes have been eroded and staff involvement in key university governance positions has been either minimised or removed entirely. Some institutions have actively engaged in union-busting activities to silence any challenge or scrutiny of those in positions of power or influence.
Currently, UCU tends to deal with the nuts and bolts issues such as redundancies, pay freezes, casualisation or gender pay gaps through local and national disputes or on an individual level via casework. This is all very important but it is also important to have a holistic sector-wide response to the root causes of these problems. I will therefore be supporting a motion from the Southern Region at Congress that challenges UCU to commission more critical accounting analyses so as to centrally provide a counter-narrative that supports branch discussions in talking to employers using the language they employ with us. While branches should be able to tailor such materials to their particular circumstances we need to do better at understanding similarities and differences in the big picture so we can develop and apply UCU resources more effectively for the benefit of all of our members.
This is a really important question but a really difficult one, too. We can’t have a situation where there are accusations of inappropriate conduct and UCU’s national leaders are intervening on one side of a dispute within a branch. So what can we do instead? To my mind, transparency is the key to ensuring the integrity of elected officers of the Union. Branches can have policies, for example, not to allow one-on-one and/or un-minuted meetings with management. They could also find ways to open up their official negotiation meetings to rank-and-file members of the branch. I’ve already said in my manifesto that I want to explore ‘open negotiations’ at a national level, and it would be good if we saw members pushing their branches in the same direction.
As for financial corruption: as universities open themselves up to global capital markets and other private-sector interests, this is only going to get worse. We need serious investigative capacity in the Union on a national level. On top of that, I wonder if this could be an area where we could set up a member ‘task group’, along the lines I discuss in my manifesto. We have members who are experienced in every aspect of this, from professional services staff who work with external consultants to specialist researchers in critical accounting. But a lot of what’s written about financialisation and financial corruption in universities and colleges fails to take a staff-centred approach. It asks what financialisation means for a university’s business model, or its relationship to the public sector, or for students, but not so much how it hurts staff, by exacerbating casualisation, outsourcing, and other problems. But we saw vividly during the USS strike just how many problems it can cause us.
9. What are your plans to address workloads in HE, particularly for early-career academics and those on fixed-term contracts?
I think there’s a lot of work we can do to develop UCU’s current workload/Health and Safety campaign, as I suggest in my manifesto. At the moment, there’s just one national officer responsible for Health and Safety across all sectors – that doesn’t suggest it’s been prioritised. The workload surveys UCU has offered are quite basic. They don’t align properly with the standards set by the Health and Safety Executive, for example. As for how we relieve the burden on ECRs and fixed-term staff: this is the kind of thing I believe we can and should put on the table in our national negotiating. For instance, the casualisation-related demands in UCU’s last two annual pay claims don’t really address overwork in any way. There are simple demands we could make on a national level: reductions in workload for staff on probation, for instance, which already happens in some institutions but needs to be expanded; or we could ask for all teaching-focused fixed-term staff to be allowed to enrol in a PGCHE course, with a corresponding reduction in their workload allocation.
One of the first things I’d do as GS is to launch a campaign to make sure every single FTC holder who has had two or more contracts for four years or more is recognised by their employer as permanent. So many of our members have been on repeated FTCs and haven’t established permanency, it’s a very simple process, a template letter from UCU to the individuals HR department gives them more rights instantly. I will roll out the successes we’ve had in Liverpool in relation to early-career academics where I have used the nationally agreed Framework Agreement to ensure they are working within their pay grade.
Workload is both a Health and Safety issue, which means employers have to formally consult with us over this issue and a pay issue which means we can collectively bargain at a national level. H&S legislation has some teeth and crucially, H&S officers automatically receive facilities time. Branches should be supported in effectively using H&S legislation to ensure employers collectively consult on workload allocation models (WAM). UCU needs to centrally co-ordinate to ensure strong, functional WAMs are rolled out around the sector. I will ensure national negotiators relate workload to pay. Its simple, if you work 60 hours a week, your hourly pay rate decreases. That discussion needs to feature on our pay claim. Industrial action over unreasonable workloads is more likely to get a high turnout than pay alone but this will only happen if the national union deliver a credible, highly visible campaign with a strong supporting narrative from the GS.
10. What are your views on university tuition fees and post-16 funding and how do you think the union should pressure government to invest more in public education?
I believe education should be free for all. I personally returned to education as a mature student and a young, working class mum via an access course and overcame lots of barriers to do that. I’ve since worked in Widening Participation and Fair Access for the past 14 years and know very well that intelligence is not in any way related to privilege, opportunity is directly related to privilege and if everyone had equal opportunities in education we would live in a very different society. I was working for Aimhigher when EMA was abolished and the fees went up to £9k. I was working directly with young people from some of the most under-privileged areas in the UK, I witnessed first hand the devastation the loss of that income meant to them and how their aspirations to go to university halted because they came from families who had struggled with debt all their lives so were highly debt averse. UCU needs to do more to support widening participation and adult education. UCU can have a strong voice on this nationally, as GS I would work closely with the NUS to lobby to abolish fees and to bring back EMA and the Adult Maintenance Grant. Corbyn’s National Education Service is the ideal model for all of the sectors we represent.
We are now awaiting the full publication of the Augur Review which will potentially create one of the biggest bombshells UCU will have to face in coming years. Direct funding has to replace fee income or universities around the country will look elsewhere for money which we know is likely to mean course closures and job losses for our members. This is a joint union issue as our sister campus unions will be equally impacted so we need a high profile joint union campaign and grassroots organisation from day one of the GS term to ensure we are ready to fight any such attacks. The only way to win for our members in this environment is to build from below to pressure those making decisions at the top.
I am opposed to tuition fees and have consistently taken part in demonstrations against them and against funding cuts. This includes the huge UCU/NUS coordinated 2010 protest about the removal of the cap on tuition fees in HE, and FE funding cuts.
There’s one thing we have to be clear about from the start: the Conservative Party is ideologically opposed to public education. We can see that in everything from academisation at the secondary level, to the imposition of austerity on FE colleges, to the shifting of the cost of Higher Education in the direction of students. Another thing we have to be equally clear about: too many of our managers like this state of affairs. As I point out in my manifesto, Universities UK have already lobbied the Labour Party to keep the current tuition fee system if they get into power.
What does this mean for us in practice? If we get a Labour government, perhaps we’ll be better off. But if not, we need to be so strong in our defense of staff conditions that it’s too much of a headache for the Tories to cut funding. They need to understand that if funding gets cut, it’s the business operations of universities and colleges that will suffer first – the way they way funnel money into the private sector. It won’t be staff. I don’t think polite lobbying will get us anywhere with the politicians or managers that are currently in power.