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.


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.

In Higher Education we must do more to oppose the Hostile Environment

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