This blog was originally published in Times Higher Education on 4 April 2019.
On March 27th the Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore delivered a speech outlining his ‘Vision for Global Higher Education’. Skidmore asserted that in the wake of Brexit—which he has voted for repeatedly since his appointment—university staff now have a responsibility to start ‘thinking and acting more globally than ever before’. Skidmore’s vision is disturbing in more than one way. It echoes the demands made by senior managers who impose impossible working conditions but demand success, and it reveals a disregard for our international colleagues and students.
Skidmore’s insistence that we now have the responsibility to make the best of Brexit, with the threat that the blame will fall on us if we fail, is grotesque. But it gets worse. Skidmore seems oblivious to the damage which his party’s Hostile Environment has already done to the sector. His ‘vision’ fails to acknowledge the precious gift which he has inherited as Universities Minister, the transformational capacity of education, and the diverse and international community that provides education in this country. Twenty-nine per cent of academic staff in UK HE are migrants (16.9% come from EU countries and 12.1% from non-EU countries). How can we keep international collaboration alive, let alone increase it, when some of our international collaborators can’t get visas to visit the UK for our research events? How can we morally continue to invite the best international students to come and study in the UK when the Hostile Environment imprisons them in detention centers and threatens to deport them?
Our government does not value our international students or our migrant colleagues, but as a union we must. As a union we must step up our national campaigns to oppose the use of university staff as de facto immigration police. We must campaign for the abolition of excessive immigration fees, including the international health surcharge. Furthermore, we must insist in our national claims that employers reimburse international staff for these unfair fees until such time as they are abolished. Powerful campaigns like International and Broke and Unis Resist Border Controls have laboured too long without official support. As General Secretary of UCU, I will create dedicated ‘task groups’ of lay members who will be given the time and the platform necessary to influence our national bargaining strategy.
Some major unions are split on Brexit, but UCU is not. We know from a 2018 consultation that 89% of UCU members support a referendum on the final ‘deal’. But what has this meant in practice? Beyond a flurry of activity when the consultation results were published, we have seen little action from UCU leadership. Other unions have been far more vocal in their requests for a final vote. Where is our voice in the national debate? Where is the voice of our international colleagues? Somebody must speak for university workers and UCU members, when the Universities Minister fails to do so. UCU’s underwhelming approach to opposing Brexit epitomises much of what frustrates us as UCU members; surveys to illuminate worst practice in our sector, but little meaningful national action. Build unions, not borders is a great statement, but we must be more than a press-release union on issues like these. The Hostile Environment is not happening somewhere else. It is happening in our classrooms, offices, and research events. It is time we stepped up.
Dr Jo Grady
University of Sheffield UCU and UCU General Secretary Candidate 2019