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Jo Grady

Online Congress, health and safety updates and more

28 September 2020 | last updated: 29 September 2020

Despite the massive challenges facing our sectors, members everywhere are striving to make the first few weeks of term go as safely and smoothly as possible for themselves and for students. At the same time, we need to keep one eye on the months ahead and with that in mind I am writing with some updates regarding our democratic decision-making over the next few weeks as well as our immediate health and safety concerns.

Online Congress in October

Looking ahead, our first ever online Congress - where all sectors of the union meet to discuss UCU policy, finances and other matters - will take place on 28-30 October. This will be members' first opportunity to attend Congress without anyone having to travel or stay overnight. I hope that will make the event more accessible and that we will be able to welcome more members than ever into our decision-making processes. Branches rarely send their full entitlement of delegates, so if you are interested in attending please contact your branch and read our further information here.

Health and safety

I know that right now your immediate focus is likely to be on the outbreaks of Covid-19 that are taking place across all sectors, especially within higher education, and the same is true of me. We are seeing university students forced to lock down in their accommodation without the proper support and without access to the in-person teaching which they were supposedly on campus to benefit from. Meanwhile, staff in the overwhelming majority of institutions continue to be instructed to come to campus for work that can and should be done remotely. 

Last month the union called for remote working to be adopted wherever possible this term because it was clear what would happen if it wasn't. Since then, our polling of members of the public in university towns and cities has revealed a wider consensus in support of our position. I have spent the last few days appearing on TV and radio to highlight these issues and I have never received so many emails from students and their parents, as well as staff, thanking the union for standing up for them.

At the same time we have learnt that before any outbreaks happened on campus, the government's own modelling experts had identified in-person teaching and student halls of residence as two particularly high-risk areas. Today I have written to the prime minister to reinforce our views and demand an explanation as to why this modelling was ignored.

We have created a new web page to bring together reports from members and branches from all sectors about the risks you are facing. Please share your stories on social media using the #HygieneTheatre hashtag. We are also now seeking stories from members who would be prepared to go on record about experiences that will resonate with staff and students across our sectors. Read this recent Guardian article for an example of the type of coverage we can achieve when people are prepared to speak out. If you'd be prepared to have an initial conversation with us, please email

Finally, please do not forget to contact your branch and use the resources which I emailed you about recently to articulate your concerns and put pressure on your managers to move more work online. Some institutions across the UK are starting to suspend in-person activities. I do not think that would be happening without the efforts of UCU's members, branches and staff - but we have to keep making our case through every channel we can.

Virtual visits

I've been joining online meetings of FE branches all summer to talk to members and will continue to do so throughout the autumn. Please get in touch with your branch if you would like to schedule a virtual 'visit' from me.

Higher education sector conference to decide on November/December industrial action ballots

Delegates from higher education branches meet this Wednesday for our first ever online higher education sector conference (HESC). Branches have submitted a number of important motions for decision, including two motions to ballot for UK-wide industrial action in November or December.

The purpose of the sector conference is to give members control over the union's strategy via your branches. I have given my views about our approach to industrial action in previous emails and events, but it is ultimately conference delegates that have the responsibility of making decisions about these very serious matters. If your branch hasn't consulted you about the debates that will take place on Wednesday, you still have some time to get in touch with them and give your views - especially since voting on motions is not scheduled to take place until after the conference has ended.

USS consultation

USS is currently consulting higher education (HE) employers on its assumptions for the 2020 valuation of the pension scheme. The illustrative figures put forward by USS would involve very significant increases to the overall contribution rate to keep the same benefits for members. Our actuarial advisers, First Actuarial, are not convinced by USS's arguments and the advisers to Universities UK, Aon, are taking a similar view.

Since last year's industrial action in HE employers have worked with us to challenge USS's approach to the valuation and we need them to continue that trend in this consultation window to get the best valuation outcome we possibly can. I am about to write to branches with advice from First Actuarial and other sources about the best ways to engage with employers to make sure they put in the strongest possible consultation response.

As ever, please email me with your concerns or questions about anything covered in this email and I will do my best to respond.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary