1.1 A manifesto for a modern education union

A career in education is more than just a job, and education is not a commodity. Education develops people’s capacities, challenges them, communicates values, and creates lifelong opportunities. It is a source of dignity and community. But the system we work in is eroding those ideals. Education is being turned into a dysfunctional consumer market, and the people who provide it into a cost to be minimised.

This election comes at a pivotal moment for the UK education sector. UCU has an opportunity to elect its first General Secretary who works on the front line of teaching, research, and administration in tertiary educationwho knows how hard all those things are, how important they are, and what they really mean to the people who benefit from them. As a Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations, I research trade union organising, employment relations and regulation, industrial action, pay and casualisation, and the causes of labour market inequalities. I am an active and experienced branch officer, a member of the USS National Dispute Committee, and I was recently elected to UCU’s National Executive Committee with 80% more first-preference votes than any other candidate. Since the USS pension dispute began in 2018, I have played a vital role in organising members by drawing upon my research skills and my experience as a branch officer.

Our union’s membership is passionate, talented, and knowledgeable, from Higher to Further, Adult and Prison education, from professional services to teaching and research staff. I want to embrace that expertise, draw upon our lived experience, and foster a proactive approach to meeting the challenges we face. As General Secretary of UCU, I will transform the union into a force for positive change, not only for those who work in the sector, but for our society as a whole, for our students and our future students.

A manifesto is not a shopping list of demands or a set of superficial treatments for the symptoms of a sector in crisis. This document is meant to drive a conversation about the future and purpose of education in this country, and show where we, as UCU members, must go next. It is about building a union that truly embodies our values and commitments as workers in a public education sector.

In this manifesto, I pledge to work towards:

  • Wide-ranging, ambitious subscription reform to rebuild our membership in Further Education and increase participation among lower-paid and casualised staff in all sectors (2.1).
  • Redistribution of UCU funds to provide more support for collective industrial action (2.2)
  • Empowerment of national committees to represent and communicate directly with casualised members and other specific constituencies that are currently marginalised (2.3).
  • The creation of new, dynamic, research-informed task groups to campaign on specific issues affecting multiple sectors, constituencies, and campus unions, including (2.4):
    • Surveillance and the security state (6.2);
    • Metrics and marketisation (7.2).
  • New approaches to the negotiation process (2.5).
  • The creation of national ‘branch coordination’ officers to help us build towards meaningful national bargaining on employment security (3.1) and equality (5.1).
  • National pay claims to include the demand for employers to pay all extra fees imposed on EU and non-EU immigrants, including visa fees and the NHS surcharge (6.1).
  • A standardised, accessible ‘Stress Survey’ for reporting overwork in our branches (7.1).
  • A proactive national campaign against the use of Teachers’ Pension Scheme contribution increases to justify attacks on staff in post-92 institutions (8.1).
  • Regular surgeries held by the General Secretary and other key elected officers, open to all members (9).
  • Adoption of proposals by UCU’s Democracy Commission to reform the role of General Secretary and make it more accountable (9.1).

1.2 An affordable strategy that holds managers to account

The vision mapped out here is financially realistic and sustainable for our sector and our union. The current funding arrangements for Further and Higher Education are a consequence of Conservative austerity policies that are economically unsound and unjustified, as well as socially harmful. In Further Education, cuts have been direct, and brutal. In Higher Education, the cost of funding has largely been transferred to students and future taxpayers. In either case, there was no need for staff benefits and working conditions to bear the brunt. All Higher Education employers can afford to meet recent national pay and pensions claims made by UCU, and more. Further Education employers, too, have been paying their staff much less than they can afford, and less than FE branches have campaigned for.

Employers will place the burden of responsibility on us, by saying what they have always said: that meeting our demands will lead some weaker institutions to make people redundant or even go bankrupt. In worst case scenarios, mismanagement of our colleges in FE has resulted in a government bailout. It remains to be seen whether the same will happen in HE. We have learnt since the beginning of the USS dispute that pensions are affordable and that our employers can cover the cost of large contribution increases, contrary to what they had claimed. The financial case is in our favour. But if redundancies do happen and institutions do go out of business, that will not be our fault.

UCU has accepted and internalised the idea that staff are supposed to mitigate their managers’ worst failings. But it is managers who cause redundancies. It is managers who have redirected spending to overambitious capital projects. Managers created a system in which colleges and universities can go bankrupt. And when managers have an opportunity to work with politicians who promise to change that system, they lobby those politicians behind closed doors to keep it as it is. We should never feel ashamed, guilty, or uncertain about asking for what we are entitled to and deserve: we should take confidence from recent experience that our demands are fair and in the sector’s best interests.

1.3 No shortcuts: beyond party politics

The proposals offered here involve concrete actions which I will work with UCU’s national structures to carry out during my term as GS. They do not depend on wishing and waiting for a transformative social-democratic or socialist government, or on any legislative or regulatory change. As things stand, we cannot trust any parliamentary party to do the right thing on the issues that matter to us, like immigration and border controls, Brexit, or direct funding of education and research. Nor can we trust even a friendly future government to succeed in implementing a progressive post-16 education policy. We need a practical roadmap to building our own power, regardless of the larger political circumstances we find ourselves in.

Next: 2. Building the Union
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