Transgender rights and UCU

I am an unequivocal supporter of trans rights and the right to gender self-definition under the law. This will not come as a surprise to anybody who knows me or has followed my public pronouncements in the past. The rights of trans people are under constant attack in this country, in the mainstream press, in workplaces, and, unfortunately, in our colleges and universities. They suffer disproportionately from numerous forms of discrimination and violence. They are among the most vulnerable targets of the far-right ideologies that are becoming increasingly visible and influential in society. No candidate for General Secretary should be able to claim that they care about equality unless they have vocally and publicly defended transgender rights.

Our Union has policies upholding trans rights, updated most recently at its 2018 Congress, as well as academic freedom. To the best of my knowledge, nothing I have said or done is inconsistent with these policies. I will continue to uphold them if I am elected General Secretary. I hope that the other candidates in this election will also commit to doing so.

People sometimes ask me why I began using a service known as ‘TERF Blocker’ on Twitter last year, which provides an easy mechanism for blocking large numbers of accounts that have been identified as articulating transphobic views. The reason is that I was receiving an enormous volume of personal abuse for expressing my opinions about transphobia and trans rights. The right to freedom of speech or academic freedom is not a right to level unlimited personal abuse, in public, at individuals with whom you disagree.

I stopped using TERF Blocker after I stood for election to UCU’s National Executive Committee earlier this year, by which point the abuse directed at me had subsided. At no point did my use of TERF Blocker prevent anybody who was blocked from viewing my tweets, either by using a different account or by browsing Twitter while remaining logged out. Throughout this period, I have continued to receive and, when appropriate, respond to emails from individual members of UCU who disagree with me about this issue.

What are you going to do about Brexit?

I’ve got this question from more than one member, unsurprisingly, including after my first all-member email went out on Monday. Here’s how I’ve been replying:

First of all, I voted Remain, and I prefer Remain to any of the alternatives that would be on the ballot if this Parliament could schedule another referendum. I’ve also criticised UCU for waiting two years to schedule a member consultation on Brexit (in September 2018) without organising any larger campaign on the issue. The lack of a concerted campaign probably explains why only 25% of UCU members voted in that consultation. And since the consultation, we’ve not really seen UCU do anything to enact the will of the membersa press quote here, an announcement there, but nothing concrete. I wrote a blog about this for Times Higher Education which I’d invite you to have a look at if you’ve got a spare couple of minutes: it’s been republished on my campaign website and you can read it here. My manifesto also points out that we can’t trust either of the main political parties, including Labour, ‘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’.

In the absence of sympathetic parliamentary forces, the key thing to do is negotiate with employers to protect our EU staff and students as much as we can. For example, I plan to demand that employers pay any costs that fall on EU (as well as non-EU) staff relating to their immigration status if we end up with a Brexit deal that ends freedom of movement. At present, UCU is letting its international members down by failing to demand things like this in its annual negotiations with employers, as my manifesto points out. I’ve also made a statement on the government’s proposals to end home fee reciprocity for EU students after Brexit, which was quoted in The Guardian: click here to have a read.

Some other members have asked me about the prospect of UCU formally affiliating itself with the Labour Party, the way some other trade unions do, partly in order to have an influence on its Brexit policy. My take (which I’ve already offered on Twitter) is that although I’m a Labour member, I would require convincing by our membership on this issue. UCU is small compared with the main affiliated unions and it’s hard to see how much influence we would have in the policy areas that matter most to usand that includes immigration and Brexit.


What are you going to do about climate change?

More than one member has asked me about this, one in response to my first all-member email, which went out on Monday, and others on Twitter. Here is my answer:

Thanks for asking me about this very important issue. You may have seen that I talk about climate change in the pensions section of my manifesto. Given the size of the USS pension scheme’s fund (well over £60bn at the moment), my view is that the single most important thing UCU can do is to force USS to divest from its large direct fossil fuel holdings and invest in green assets instead. This is an area where UCU could have a lot of leverage in the near future. The Joint Expert Panel is going to issue its second report soon, which will deal with the question of overhauling USS’s decision-making mechanisms, governance structures, and investment strategies. There may well be more industrial action, or threats of industrial action at that point, and that will be the perfect time to put divestment on the table.

Other members have asked me about other forms of action on climate change, including the possibility of a general strike, and I’ve already said a bit about this on Twitter. There are legal issues around a general strike: since trade union laws prevent workers from striking over anything other than their own terms and conditions, we would need to find workarounds in order to make it clear that we are in dispute with our employers about how they are handling (or rather, failing to handle) climate change, and not directly with the government or any other body. But I think the possibility is there and we have to investigate it. Students have led on this issue, and we need to find ways to support them. And there may be other local opportunities, short of a strike, to make a difference: for example by pushing some of our wealthiest institutions, e.g. the big pre-92 universities, to divest. To my mind that’s bound up with the larger enterprise of governance reform, replacing the corporate figures who tend to direct decision-making at the highest levels of universities with representatives from student and staff bodies.

What will you do for Academic-Related/Professional Services staff?

A lot of members have asked me this question in one form or another. One person, for example, emailed me after my first all-member email to say that their branch was not very good at including ARPS staff in its activities and they were considering joining Unison. Here is an edited version of my replies to the members who asked me about this issue:

I talk in my manifesto about making it possible for UCU’s national committees to learn more about the members they represent, and communicate with them by email. The examples I give there are the equalities committees and the anti-casualisation committee, but this will be equally true of the committee for Academic-Related and Professional Services staff. At the moment, none of these committees is allowed to send emails to members in the categories they represent. They aren’t given access to information about the numbers, geographical distribution etc. of members in those categories, either. In fact, a lot of members don’t even know that they exist. I have pledged to change that. I hope that you would feel more like a valued part of the union if you received information about what UCU was doing on issues that particularly concern academic-related staff.

We have 8,500 professional services staff in pre-92 branches. My view is that UCU has not given nearly enough attention to them in its annual negotiations with employers over pay, casualisation, equality and workload. For example, when UCU makes (very limited) demands for more open-ended, longer-term contracts, it tends to restrict them to teaching and/or research staff only. No wonder professional services staff are discouraged from joining UCU: if we go on strike and get what we’re asking for, the benefits won’t extend to them.

The bottom line is that if I am elected, you’ll see UCU communicating more clearly and directly with you and other professional services staff, and including you properly in its national bargaining. We’re also interested in developing ways of making it easier for professional services staff to support industrial action without repercussions from their line managers.

[One of the members who got back to me said they didn’t even know that UCU had a committee for Academic-Related/Professional Services staff! It just goes to show how much difference it could make if members could be better informed about this sort of thing.]

Can employers afford the higher pay and pensions contributions UCU has asked for?

Your manifesto claims that ‘all Higher Education employers can afford to meet recent national pay and pensions claims made by UCU, and more’. How can you justify this statement?

This question was put to me in a long, politely-worded email from a very senior manager at a pre-92 university. They are still a member of UCU and they were replying to my first all-member email, which went out on Monday 29 April and linked to my manifesto. Their main argument was that universities’ main source of income, tuition fees, has failed to increase in line with inflation, and it was therefore necessary to cut staff pay relative to inflation as well. We decided to ‘agree to disagree’ after their second reply to me, but here is the gist of my argument:

Employers have imposed real-terms pay cuts on staff nearly every year since the financial crisis. They did this even after their per-student funding increased very significantly, when £9,000 fees were introducednot just when the fees were capped and funding stopped rising with inflation. The fact is that employers have repeatedly paid staff less when they could afford to pay them more. But instead of doing that, they chose to increase their capital expenditure and borrowing, while amassing substantial unrestricted reserves.

Either of UCU’s most recent pay claimsa 7.5% salary increase last year, and an increase of 3% + RPI this year (which will almost certainly turn out lower than 7.5%)still would not bring pay back in line with inflation, if implemented. Look at the annual accounts of most universities today, pre- or post-92, and you’ll see a net cash inflow from operating activities which is more than big enough to fund that 7.5% increase on its own. Most universities, to put it in plainer terms, have enough money in their back pocket to fund a significant increase in staff costs. But even those that don’t have the cash upfront can still afford it. Universities now tend to have a ratio of unrestricted reserves to annual income which is far higher than the norm for the charitable and non-profit sector. Our demands are reasonable and the money is there.

The same is true for the USS pension scheme: as information released by the Joint Expert Panel (JEP) has demonstrated, independent reviews by two accounting firms (PwC and EY Parthenon) found that all but one USS employer could increase their contributions from 18% to 21% without making any cuts in other areas of expenditure. And yet throughout the USS strike, employers insisted they had to close the pension scheme because they couldn’t afford to pay to maintain even a half-decent benefit package. In the 12 March Acas deal which UCU branches rejected, employers still only offered us 19.3%. Similar issues are occurring with TPS, too: post-92 universities are already claiming they need to make staff redundant in order to be able to soak up an impending 7% contribution increase, when their accounts are pretty healthy and they haven’t provided the evidence to justify their case, as I point out in my manifesto. So in the case of pensions, just like pay, we simply cannot trust employers when they tell us what they can and can’t afford.*

Another thing that makes it hard for staff to trust their managers is the lack of transparency and, in many cases, good judgement in the ways universities have been spending their money. Most institutions disclose very little to their staff, students, or the general public about their capital expenditure, borrowing activities, cross-subsidies, and the use of external consultancies and other private-sector collaborations.

I think it’s worth bearing the larger political context in mind, too. It really is extremely disappointing to witness just how complicit some of the most powerful figures in UK Higher Education have been in the Coalition Government’s disastrous tuition fee ‘reforms’. There was a reason why I cited the example of vice-chancellors secretly lobbying Labour to keep the current system in my manifesto. That sort of behaviour comes across really badly in the eyes of staff. There is a fundamental divide here: between staff who want a publicly funded tertiary education system, and managers who don’t.

*Of course, in the case of USS, the JEP and subsequent developments have made clear that if USS were governed in a responsible and evidence-based way, staff and employers could enjoy the current benefits at a rate equal to or lower than the one agreed at the 2014 valuationno need for any of the contribution increases USS has imposed on us. Employers should have joined forces with UCU some time ago, before last year’s strike and before the JEP was convened, to try to make the necessary changes. The fact that they didn’t is their fault, not UCU’s, and I believe it’s fair that employers should soak up the costs associated with tolerating USS’s dysfunctional management for as long as they have.

Statement on Post-Brexit Tuition Fees for EU students

Yesterday it was revealed that the UK Government is planning to deprive EU students of access to home tuition fee rates from 2020 onwards. Below is the text of a statement I provided to The Guardian, part of which is quoted in their coverage of the story:

This news is disappointing but not surprisingit is an extension of the Hostile Environment policy masterminded by the Home Office and the current Prime Minister. It will increase competition among universities for a diminishing pool of EU students’ fees, and worsen the cut-throat, ethically dubious practices that already exist in international student recruitment. The government already expects educators to work as border guards, and it increasingly expects them to become extortionists as well.

As with many other aspects of the EU, this government has never welcomed EU students and never appreciated the many reciprocal benefits we get from the agreement to charge them home fees, including the benefit of enabling our own students to study in the EU more cheaply or for free. The government should be working to extend the limited benefits currently enjoyed by EU students and staff to all international students and staff, rather than doubling down on its most xenophobic tendencies. Nor should we forget that this will impact directly on a significant body of students from outside the EU: namely, refugee students who have been granted EU status. What will happen to them under these proposed changes?

I fail to see how this squares with our Hard Brexit-supporting universities minister Chris Skidmore’s insistence that our universities should become more ‘global’ in their outlook.

Election FAQs

1. When does the GS election start and finish?

The ballot opens on Monday 29 April and closes on Thursday 23 May. However, this is a postal ballot, and the pre-paid envelopes in which you are invited to post your vote are SECOND CLASS, NOT FIRST CLASS. You should post your papers no later than Monday 20 May in order to ensure that they arrive in time.

2. How do I vote?

You should receive ballot papers by post at whichever postal address you have given UCU. The papers should contain some information about the election and a 1250-word Election Address by each of the three candidates, as well as a piece of paper to record your vote(s) on. They should also include a pre-paid envelope so that you can return your vote(s) by post for free. You cannot vote online, unfortunately.

You must vote using numbers, not an ‘X’. See more just below:

3. How does ‘Single Transferable Vote’ work?

The ballot will operate on a ‘Single Transferable Vote’ (STV) basis. This means that instead of voting for a single candidate, you are invited to rank each candidate in order of preference, putting a ‘1’ next to your preferred candidate, a ‘2’ next to your second-favourite candidate, and so on. Once the ballot has closed, the counting and allocation of votes will proceed in rounds. First, the first-preference votes for each candidate will be counted, and the candidate with the lowest number will be eliminated. The second-preference votes of people who put the eliminated candidate first will then be allocated to the other two candidates. The winner is the candidate with the highest total number of first- and second-preference votes at the end of this process.

4. When will I receive my ballot papers and how can I order a replacement?

Papers are mailed on Monday 29 April and should arrive by Wednesday 1 May. If you haven’t received your paper, or if you’ve lost it, click here for the ballot replacement form.

5. What’s the latest I can order a replacement ballot in time to receive it and post it back?

UCU has told us that the latest date is Sunday 19 May – but given how long ballot papers took to arrive, this may not be sufficient. Try not to leave ordering a replacement to the last minute! Click here for more details.

6. Who is eligible to vote?

There is one category of UCU member that is not eligible to vote in this election: those who are ‘student members’. However, this category does not include all students: for example, if you are a student who is paid to teach, you should be eligible. As a rule of thumb, if you do anything that constitutes paid work in your institution rather than, or as well as training, you are eligible to vote! Many members who took advantage of the free membership offer as PhD students will be eligible, even if they weren’t when they originally joined. Click here for details.

If you have only just realised that you are eligible, you may need to change your membership status in UCU’s official database in order to receive your ballot papers. To do so, click here.

For more information about these categories, see this web page, and Section 3.1 of the UCU Rulebook. Please check your eligibility, change your details if necessary, and do so as soon as possible in order to make sure you can use your vote!

7. How can I talk to/ask questions of the candidates and/or hear them debate each other?

All of the candidates have a presence on social media as well as campaign email addresses. But there will also be a series of live hustings organised by UCU branches, regional committees, and one or two other institutions. Click here for a list.

8. Why haven’t I received any emails about the election from UCU?

UCU does not do much to publicise elections to members. You may have missed the brief and infrequent communications it has issued about the election (for example, in ‘The Friday Email’). The main source of publicity comes in the form of four emails which each candidate is entitled to send to all members of UCU during the election period.

However, there are other reasons why you may not be receiving some or all of UCU’s emails:

  • You may in the past have chosen not to receive any emails from UCU whatsoever. If you would like to change your decision, click here or email the UCU membership department.
  • You may, after receiving one email from a GS election candidate, have chosen (deliberately or by accident) not to receive any more candidate emails. If you would like to change your decision, click here or email the UCU membership department.
  • You may be registered as a ‘student member’ who is ineligible to vote in this election and therefore does not receive any candidate emails. If you are unsure of the category of membership you belong to and/or wish to change it, see the answer to question 5, above.
  • Your spam filter may be filtering out communications from UCU – this is a very common occurrence, so please check your junk folder for missing emails!

Time’s Up Academia

Creating structures to prevent sexual harassment and violence in the workplace

It is estimated that 18% of men and 40% of women have experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. Sexual violence disproportionately (but not exclusively) impacts women, BME women, and LGBTQ* people.

Sexual harassment and violence are chronically under-researched, but also under-reported in our sector. This certainly reflects my experience, and when I think of conversations with the women I work with and students I teach, I struggle to believe that 40% accurately captures what happens. Or worse still, we’re so accustomed to daily acts of harassment that we see them as something to be endured and don’t report them. Like many other women in our sector, I have experienced sexual harassment at work but never reported it.

Why have I never reported? Partly, I learnt to cope with regular infractions and avoid contact with harassers, but mainly because I have seen what happens when women who experience harassment report it or speak out about it. They rarely get justice, and often get further abuse. Reports never make it out of the departments where the harassment takes place. Abusers can be in positions of power and privilege, acting as gatekeepers to opportunities. They are able to use the structures to defend themselves. Procedures to tackle harassment are often insufficient because they don’t acknowledge this. The person who has experienced sexual harassment and violence must relive their trauma as part of the reporting process. In worst case scenarios, the identity of the predator will be an open secret in their discipline or department, but the abuser will still torment many over the course of their career.

The 1752 Group’s excellent campaigns and strategic priorities have gone unsupported by our national union. Members have had to rely upon whisper networks to warn each other about predators in our classrooms, offices, and libraries, and branches have been overburdened by treating sexual harassment through casework. We can do more. As well as urgent issues relating to pay gaps, retention and promotion, our sector cannot pretend to be progressive or inclusive if we fail to address the epidemic of sexual violence and harassment in it. We must provide the basics of respect, dignity and safety for all of our members.

As a first step, we need to quantify the problem better. The government does not collect data on the prevalence of sexual harassment at work, and nor does UCU. We must quantify and make public not just the number of harassment cases reported in our workplaces, but also the number of hours and the expenditure allocated to dealing with them. As General Secretary I will create positions for specialist, full-time equality casework officials. These officials will be key to this process. They will collate information, identify emerging trends and patterns of discrimination, target potentially high-profile cases for special assistance, and work towards precedent-setting legal challenges and broad-based agreements with employers.

As a union we must start recording data on the misuse of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to silence survivors of bullying, sexual harassment, or racial discrimination. Armed with data and successful legal challenges, we will then run a national UCU campaign to reform disciplinary procedures and also implement professional boundaries for the protection of staff and our students. As UCU General Secretary I will work with student groups to lobby our employers to adopt new disciplinary procedures and to ban the use of NDAs in such cases.

Once we have formulated a set of concrete demands, we should consider putting them to employers as part of our annual pay, equality and anti-casualisation claim. We need to signal to our bosses, our members, and our students that we regard harassment as a core issue rather than a peripheral one, and recognise that the gender and ethnicity pay gaps are far from the only ways in which women and BME staff can be socially and materially disadvantaged.

However, we cannot claim the moral high ground as a union if we do not set the very best example to our employers. We must conduct an urgent review of UCU’s own internal procedures, to ensure that complaints of sexual harassment are dealt with in a sensitive yet decisive way. Using the expertise of our members (something our institutions rarely do), we could produce a confidential harassment reporting app. Such technologies do not further traumatise the survivors, but work proactively to subvert cultures of abuse through prevention and support. If we are to demand best practice from our employer, we must ensure we implement and follow it in our union.

Photo credit: Professor Anita Hill, by Gage Skidmore

New blog on UCU and FE in Times Education Supplement

On Wednesday 24 April, I published a new blog in Times Education Supplement.

‘The union has been letting FE branches down’

UCU needs to grow its FE membership, general secretary candidate Jo Grady believes

Low pay in further education is probably the single most urgent issue currently facing UCU. Nobody can ignore what years of Tory austerity, combined with rapacious managers, have done to the sector. Without a meaningful national bargaining framework, branches have been forced to act locally.

The low turnout among FE members in recent elections to UCU’s National Executive Committee (NEC) indicates a collapse of confidence in the union’s ability to fight for FE on a national level. This makes the local action which many FE branches are taking against their employers all the more impressive.

Read the rest of this blog over at Times Education Supplement!