UCU elections
Taking action in higher education

Shereen Benjamin (University of Edinburgh)

Election address

I'm a Senior Lecturer in Primary Education at the University of Edinburgh where I'm a long-serving UCU branch committee member and former branch Equalities Officer. I've been an active member of UCU (and before that, AUT) and a workplace rep since moving from school teaching into the university sector in 2002. I've been active in peace and justice movements since the 1980s: I fought against Section 28 and still consider myself a Greenham Common woman. My teaching and research in the intersection of gender, class and disability in young people's experiences of schooling inform my activism within UCU, which is directed towards the disproportionate effects of the marketisation of HE on disadvantaged and marginalised groups.  My three priorities, all related to the corporatisation of our sector, are casualisation, workload and academic freedom.

Last year I was one of the negotiators on our local anti-casualisation team. We won important concessions from management in addressing unpaid work and moving colleagues from yearly to open-ended contracts. However, there is much more to do as the diversion of funding from teaching to vanity projects and senior staff pay still means far too many of our members, at Edinburgh and across the UK, are on precarious contracts.

I currently lead the branch working group on academic workloads. Workload models that consistently underestimate the time it takes to do key tasks, and the pressure caused by ever-increasing student numbers and bureaucratic demands, mean that working hours have spiralled. It is time for a national lead from NEC to address the funding priorities underscoring both casualisation and workload: building on the current industrial action we can and must seek a major change of direction from our employers.

The corporatisation of our sector has also seen assaults on academic freedom as universities seek to placate rather than challenge their student 'consumers'. In times of precarity, it is more important than ever for UCU to safeguard the freedom for academics to challenge received wisdom, explore contentious topics and express unpopular opinions. We are currently seeing threats to academic freedom in relation to issues such as sex and gender identity, and Palestinian rights. Academics are being no-platformed or are self-censoring, leading to conferences and talks being cancelled and research on important topics not being done. NEC needs to be far more proactive in reasserting its commitment to academic freedom, including in relation to topics on which UCU members may ourselves have profoundly divergent opinions: if elected, I would work to ensure that NEC provides leadership to branches to prevent division on such topics and to ensure respectful, comradely discussion between members, and that it takes the lead in standing up to University managements wherever protection for academic freedom is threatened.

 

Last updated: 30 January 2020