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Taking action in higher education

President's address 2012

I suppose a Presidential address might be an occasion for me to look back over the past year, and to tell you how rewarding a time I have had as President. How glad I am to have been given the chance to oversee our union's business, and to represent UCU at a whole range of events from major marches and rallies to less publicly visible meetings and seminars. How much I have enjoyed the opportunities I have had to travel to other parts of the world on UCU business, and to play my part in what I think is the important international dimension of our activities.

I could tell you all those things entirely truthfully, because the year has indeed been, for me, an experience I would not want to have missed.

But I am not going to spend much time on the last twelve months, and will spend even less on personal reminiscences, because our business this weekend is to look to the present and the future, and it is your task to make important decisions that can have a big impact on the working lives of all of us in Further and Higher Education, on our current students and their successors, and on the education system itself and the institutions within it. While I hope we will all enjoy the comradeship and conviviality of Congress - very valuable in themselves for renewing our sense of united purpose - we are here to get a serious and important job done, one which requires our sober attention and careful deliberation.

Where are we with the issues that affect the working lives of our members ?

We have become all too aware of the threat that pensions will decrease in value, and that members will have to work longer before they receive them and to pay more in contributions. Negotiations on both TPS and USS have been agonizingly drawn out and have not brought us all that we would have wished. The government and our employers have been obdurate in forcing changes through, deaf to our arguments that there is no compelling financial reason for changes, and short-sighted in ignoring the threat that the changes pose economically, socially and in terms of employment relations. Yesterday afternoon you had to make difficult decisions, in HESC and in full Congress, about how to carry forward the unresolved disputes over both schemes, and it is clear that those disputes will be with us well into the year ahead. Securing good and just pension provision for all is a crucial element in constructing a fair and responsible society, and the battle over pensions is one in which we must fight alongside our sister unions in education, as well as with comrades in the trade union movement more widely, where that is appropriate.

Yesterday you also discussed and made decisions on pay matters in the two sector conferences, and even in times of supposed financial crisis we must not lose sight of our well-justified aspiration to see our members' living standards maintained and improved. Especially, in pay as in all other aspects of employment, there is a need for continuing efforts to remove inequalities based on gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and employment status. As trade unionists we have to see each of our fellow workers as fully equal in their rights and entitlements, regardless of visible or unseen differences that might exist between them. In the Equality Committee business scheduled for the early afternoon today are motions running right across the range of equality issues. I doubt that many of them, if any, will be contentious, but if they go through without much dissent we should nevertheless not view them as any less important than some of the more hotly debated motions. The motions on equality issues seek to establish or confirm UCU's policy positions on various matters - a primary function of Congress - and the decisions are ones to be taken back to branches and acted on, if we are to claim to be doing our job properly.

Questions of professional status and of academic freedom form a bridge between employment issues and those affecting the state of our post-school education system. They remain as pressingly important as ever, if not more so. Progressive encroachment on the professional autonomy of our members in their workplaces, and constraints which some employers seek to impose on the freedom of their staff to speak their minds, responsibly, about matters of concern to them, have a direct impact on their working lives. You will shortly, in the Education Committee business which will begin this morning's debates, have the opportunity to consider those issues, amongst others. Please take them very seriously, as they lie at the heart of people's freedom to carry out their work according to their best professional judgement and as fully recognized members of the academic community.

Acknowledgment of our members' professional status, and of their right to academic freedom, is also vital to the proper functioning of the post-school education system and of the institutions which sustain it. It plays an essential role in ensuring that teaching and research are conducted in a spirit of open enquiry and without undue constraints imposed by what may seem to governments, employers or others to be expedient for financial or political reasons. A distinction needs to be made between the proper, mutually agreed diversification of roles in the academic community, with some members assuming at least for a time responsibility for overseeing the organization of activity, from the improper pretence that the right model in educational institutions is that of businesses in which the 'employees' - in fact, the ones who know best how to do the work - are controlled by 'managers' pursuing largely spurious goals of supposed financial efficiency. Motions this morning address amongst other issues that of the governance structures of our institutions, in which our members must play a key part if the fundamental aims of education, as well as the rights of staff, are to be adequately upheld.

Delegates at Congress, like our members at large, will to no doubt differing degrees share a sense of our place within the wider trade union movement, and of our responsibility to frame our actions with a view to the overall needs of society and broader questions of what is right and just and fair. We are, in fundamentally important ways, servants of the public as a whole, and we are proud to take on the responsibility for the learning and research and teaching which is so indispensably one of the very foundations of a good and healthy and happy and well-functioning society. You will at various points be debating motions in which that broader perspective is explicitly or implicitly present - the very first motion to be debated this morning will ask UCU to defend education 'as a universal public good', with a manifesto in which 'the benefits of the relationship between education and society in terms of the economy, critical citizenship, democracy and social wellbeing are clearly named', and to reject the privatisation and marketisation of the education system. You will be returning to privatisation in motions scheduled for tomorrow.

Other motions, to be debated towards the end of this afternoon, will turn our attention elsewhere in the world - to Greece, to the Middle East and North Africa, to India, to Burma and to Latin America. UCU, especially through its affiliation to the global trade union federation Education International, has sought to play an appropriate role with regard to overseas issues. Education has for many centuries has an international aspect to it, and it is now valuably enhanced by the flow of academics, students, knowledge and idea from one country to another, and somewhat less beneficially affected by the economic consequences of globalisation. We will do well, I believe, to continue to do what our resources permit to have solidarity with overseas comrades on education and trade union concerns, and to draw on the often salutary examples their experience provides of sometimes bad but very often of good practice which we can benefit from.

Later this morning we will be welcoming an academic colleague from Colombia, Dr Miguel Beltrán, who has suffered a great deal at the hands of the authorities in his own country, as a result of his having expressed views they find unwelcome. There is cause for celebration both that UCU was instrumental, with other organisations, in securing his release from prison, and that he has been able to come here to speak to us today and to remind us of the need for our ongoing support for academics and other trade unionists in Colombia.

There is much to do. Are we in a fit state to meet the challenges ?

This meeting of Congress will, on Sunday morning, be debating motions that may lead to some of the most significant changes in UCU's structure and procedures since AUT and NATFHE were merged into the union we now have in 2006. I believe that few would now argue that the merger has not been successful, and I believe that UCU has shown itself to be an effective voice for its members, for the profession and for post-school education. But after six years of the union's existence it is right that we stand back and look at the way we are organized and operate, and ask ourselves whether the arrangements we put in place when the union came into being continue to give us the best opportunity to accomplish the work we have to do.

I will be surprised, to say the least, if any of us come to that debate not believing that the union has an overriding obligation to reflect the collective wishes of the membership ─ an obligation which is very easy to state, but rather less simple to decide how to fulfil.

Many of us are all too familiar with the phenomenon of branch meetings being far too sparsely attended for it to be possible to claim they give a fair representation of views across the branch's membership. In my own branch ─ a fairly large one, with around 1,000 members ─ getting 10% of the members together in a room at the same time for a branch meeting would be a triumph unparalleled in my experience, and even 5% is very rarely achievable.

While there are undoubted advantages to members meeting together, in terms of their being able to debate issues, the reality seems to be that properly representative meetings are going to remain very much the exception rather than the rule. Unless and until that situation changes, are there alternative ways in which we can seek to ensure that the wishes and opinions of each member - each equally entitled, equally to be valued and considered individual trade union member ─ is given due weight in collective decision-making ?

We should want to encourage active participation by members. What effect does it have on our ability to do so if decisions are seen to be taken by small group of activists ? What better arrangements can we devise ?

You will be debating some very important motions on those questions tomorrow morning. Strong and divergent views are reflected in the motions, and have been expressed over recent weeks in other contexts. It is vital that we approach the debate in the awareness that decisions emerging from it will have profound consequences for the relationship between UCU's members in their institutions and those in the union elected to reflect their wishes and defend their rights. It is essential that everyone keeps that relationship firmly in mind as they weigh the arguments.

Whatever our conclusions may be on such matters, in a large organization like UCU we will have to entrust the day-to-day running of the union to our paid professional officials acting within the parameters set by the elected representatives of the members constituting the NEC and, ultimately, by Congress. An important question to be debated at this Congress will be the appropriate size of that NEC. At present it is significantly high among trade unions, and bringing over 70 NEC members to London half a dozen times year, from places throughout the UK, is a sizable drain on the union's expenditure, not to mention the difficulties raised in reaching decisions on important matters in such a large body. While we of course need not be bound by other unions' practices, we should be aware in considering our own arrangements that our current NEC is substantially bigger than those of a number of sister unions with very much larger memberships than UCU has.

I don't believe that anyone would want to limit the opportunity for particular groups of members to have their voice heard and their particular concerns noted in the union's deliberations. That would run counter to our fundamental commitment to equality of treatment for all our members within UCU as well as in their employment context. Can we both meet that commitment and conduct our business more effectively by some reduction in the union's committee machinery ? Will such a reduction, indeed, if achievable, free financial and other resources so as to make UCU better able to give effective, practical support to the ever‑increasing number of individual members encountering workplace difficulties ? It's not foreseeable that the union will ever have the capacity to meet all the deserving calls on its services ─ we know all too well, and will hear examples in the course of our proceedings this weekend ─ how harsh our members' treatment at work can be, and how much support is needed to help them overcome the obstacles to remedies that many employers and much legislation put in the way. But we must have hope that we can do better and better as time goes on, and making such progress will require that we periodically reconsider the balance in the uses we make of our resources.

The things I have mentioned are not the only important matters you will be thinking about and voting on at this Congress. But they are ones which will lie at the foundation of our work, and will shape the framework within which we operate.

It is an excellent development that we have an increased attendance here this year, and that we have a good number of new delegates. I will be handing over to my successor as President, Kathy Taylor, confident in the expectation that she will have a vigorous and effective union to steer through the coming year. Like all who have held this office, I have had indispensable help and support from many people, and if I just single out Kathy, her own successor as President-Elect, Simon Renton, and the General Secretary, that is not to overlook all the devoted and patient staff in the various departments in UCU, nor the equally committed and hardworking elected members who sit on the union's committees.

My three years as Vice President, President-Elect and President have been fulfilling, exciting, challenging, exhausting and several other things in roughly equal proportions. But I wouldn't have wanted to miss for anything the opportunity I was given by our members to take on those offices. I hope I will have a bit more to offer UCU yet, and I will do whatever I can to support the coming year's and subsequent Presidents and the union in general.

You and your new officers have vital work to do in the months and years to come. I know that you and they will take that work forward with energy and commitment, and I wish you every success as you do so.

Last updated: 22 June 2012