Sally Hunt speech sets out case for fairer education system

5 February 2016

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, will tell a conference today that staff and students must continue to make the case for a fairer education system.

Sally Hunt is speaking at UCU's annual Cradle to Grave conference in Bloomsbury, where other speakers include Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, author and principal of Hertford College Oxford Will Hutton, and the economics editor of Channel 4 News Paul Mason.

Sally Hunt will say that, despite the government's austerity agenda, this is not the time to focus on a narrow policy agenda, but time to make the case for alternatives to the government's current direction of travel.

She will warn that 'the government is intent on recasting the relationship between teacher and taught in our universities - turning what was once a partnership in pursuit of knowledge into a mere transaction.'

Speaking about the government's forthcoming reviews of college education and plans to create fewer, larger colleges, Hunt will argue that if the reviews are implemented it is the poorest in society that will again be denied access to education.

She will say: 'When the dust settles and many towns are left without an effective local college it will not be ministers' children who suffer. It will those who have sought sanctuary here, and who now want to learn our language so they can contribute who will suffer.

'It will be the bright kid who didn't do well at school but who now has to travel to the next town if she wants to get back on the road to university or an apprenticeship who will suffer. And of course it will be those already in work who need to retrain or reskill who will suffer.'

In her wide-ranging speech she will also address the prevalent use of casual and zero-hours contracts among university and college staff.

She will say: 'There are very many great teachers today who are existing from hand to mouth with little or no job security. The results they do achieve for their students are sadly despite, rather than because of, the system which governments and employers have allowed to grow.

'We need to be telling students that because our working conditions are their learning conditions, it is long past time that we make common cause with each other to demand real quality.'

Full speech:

In my remarks I want to focus on 'what is to be done'. What is to be done by those of us working in education and who care about its future? And the first thing I want to say in answer to that question is, not much unless we have a united, focused trade union to defend members and defend education.

I say that because when you organise teachers and lecturers and librarians and administrators and professors as we do, you come to see both the wonder of individuality and creativity but also the power that we have when we recognise our differences but decide to work together.

And this is that time - a time to work together.

In higher education, the Westminster government is intent on driving up the cost of access to universities whether through higher fees or the axing of grants. And, while the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish governments may take a different view, what the Tories are planning in England is poisoning the well for all.

The government is intent too on recasting the relationship between teacher and taught in our universities - turning what was once a partnership in pursuit of knowledge into a mere transaction. For researchers, opportunities are narrowing and commercial and large scale corporate or government interests are coming to predominate.

And so we ask: what is to be done? And what is to be done too, in further education. Where English colleges are now in the middle of the largest rationalisation programme seen since the war. A process already suffered by the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish by the way.

The government says that it wants to create larger, more robust colleges.

And it is certainly true that many of our colleges are now in financial trouble, but why? Because the government has cut their funding by a quarter, that is why. So this latest rationalisation is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than a policy, isn't it?

And when the dust settles and many towns are left without an effective local college it will not be ministers' children who suffer. It will those who have sought sanctuary here, and who now want to learn our language so they can contribute who will suffer.

It will be the bright kid who didn't do well at school but who now has to travel to the next town if she wants to get back on the road to university or an apprenticeship who will suffer. And of course it will be those already in work who need to retrain or reskill who will suffer.

So, I ask again what is to be done? Let me leave you with four things that I believe we must do.

The first is that while the politics of austerity tempt us all to worry only about number one, this is no moment to be looking inward, no moment to pursue a narrow trade union agenda. Our union must continue to argue for an alternative to the current policies.

That is why I have made and will continue to make reform of the admissions process a priority for UCU - because until there is fair access, there is no fair education is there?

And that leads me to my second point. In the end the working conditions of university and college staff are an education matter. That is why I keep returning time and time again to the need for us to link the endemic casualisation of our workforces with the student's own learning environment.

There are very many great teachers today who are existing from hand to mouth with little or no job security. The results they do achieve for their students are sadly despite rather than because of the system which governments and employers have allowed to grow.

So let me say it again. We need to be telling students that because our working conditions are their learning conditions, it is long past time that we make common cause with each other.

The third is the need to appropriate the language of the other side. Since when did quality become a word to be used against staff? We need to be arguing that quality in public services comes at a price, and that the best guide to any service is the morale of those who work in it.

And while we are about pinching the other side's clothes, let me tell you about some league tables you won't be seeing advertised on college and university websites. Our new rate for the job website, launched this week, shows the worst payers, the ones with the biggest gender pay gaps and in time will also show how much the bosses are paid too. It's about time we lifted the lid on that particular stone, I hope you will agree.

My fourth point is, I think, the most important one. We need to stop waiting for someone else to save us. To build that progressive vision of education; to make the arguments for reform; to fight for educators to be at the heart of policy not its periphery; and to stand up for fair treatment.

Those are our jobs. And to do them we need to unite our profession; focus on the vision we share not the minutiae we disagree about and we must work together.

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