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Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary

29 May 2011

Speech to UCU Congress, 29 May 2011

'we must increase members' involvement in our decision making so we can be confident we speak for them with authority'

Let Sally know here how you think we should be fighting back

[check against delivery]

Thank you president.

And thank you too president for your work this year.

You have won respect from all sides for your fairness, honesty and commitment.

For all you have done, thank you Alan.


Good morning Congress.


In the first year of this Coalition Government, the richest 1,000 people in Britain increased their collective wealth by 18%.

Over the same period the government introduced measures which will increase the number of children living in poverty by nearly 1 million.


That says everything about this government's priorities.

And if that is what they can do after one year, think about the damage they can do to our country given five.


The truth is that this Coalition government presents a fundamental threat to everything we stand for as educators.

Their cuts undermine the transformative work we do in colleges and universities every day.

But they also undermine our professional standing and our pay and pensions too.


If we are to tackle this threat head on, we need to put forward a credible alternative to the cuts.

We need to focus all our resources on protecting our members.

And we need to persuade our members to get more involved in their union.


This, Congress, is the challenge of our lives.

New circumstances require new thinking.

So today I will set out my vision of a fresh course for UCU.


Congress, this week we celebrate our fifth birthday as one union.

Five years in which our membership has grown every year and now stands at its highest point yet.

Five years in which we have established UCU as what The Guardian describes as 'the UK's foremost academic lobby.'

And five years in which we have fought side by side in universities and colleges across the land to defend jobs and defend education.


Congress, the Financial Times says that just 13% of all mergers achieve their goals.

(In the case of trade union mergers their figures may be a bit optimistic there by the way.)

But we in UCU have by and large avoided the recriminations and bitterness that bedevil mergers.


Today, one in three of our current members have joined since merger.

For them, as for all of us in UCU, there is no them and us.

Only us.


I'm proud of that achievement and you should be too.


But it is our current situation not that we faced five years ago upon which we need to focus today.

We merged to face the future head on.

Now that future is here.

And we must continue to renew our union - not stand still - if we are to meet the challenges of a new political age.


Five years ago who could have foreseen the Coalition Government and its impact on us, and our students?

This government's policies threaten our society and economy... and they threaten UCU too.



While every area of the public sector has been cut, further and higher education have been singled out for special treatment.

Combined government spending on further and higher education will fall by more than 17% over the next two years.....

.....with more to come after that.

But this big picture, appalling though it is, reveals only half the story.

The government are removing access schemes like Aim Higher.

They are axing helping hand programmes like the EMA.

They are taking away the entitlement to help with college fees from millions of the most vulnerable.

They are removing government funding for whole curriculum areas like the Arts and Humanities.

They are cutting ESOL while at the same time imploring immigrants to learn English.

Goodness me, they even want to take books away from toddlers.

Letting this government loose on education is like putting King Herod in charge of a crèche.


The cost to our country of this attack on education will be substantial.

Economists say that every job lost in a college or university leads to another lost in the local community.

And as Kathy said in our film, educators should be at the centre of the economic recovery not joining their students in the dole queue.


The truth is that when you shut the door on opportunity for our young people... don't just waste lives..... waste money too.

Because when you compare the cost of keeping kids on benefit to the cost of giving them a chance in life... is ignorance that is the expensive option, not education.


Congress a country equipped with yesterday's skills will soon become yesterday's country.


Yet since the turn of the century the UK's qualification rates have been overtaken by Iceland, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland, Portugal, the US, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

It is possible that all those countries are wrong to be investing more in education and we are right but I doubt it.

Because most studies show that increased access to education is not a drain on resources.

Rather, education

enhances productivity,

promotes well being

and expands wealth.


And if the legacy the Coalition inherited was far from golden, what they have done in this area since May beggars belief.

Last year UCU showed that the only league table the UK tops is that of most expensive place to get a public education in the world...

...and that was before the tripling of university fees and the axing of the EMA.

What an indictment of this government that within six months they had made it harder to go to college and more expensive to go to university.


They claim their goal is to promote social mobility, but we must judge them by what they do not what they say.

In reality Coalition policy is about putting barriers up, not pulling them down.

Theirs is a political programme not for social mobility but for social engineering.


And there is another way.

In Wales and Scotland, thanks to pressure from UCU and NUS, money has been found to support college and university students.

The devolved governments are not perfect, but on this issue at least - of investing in our young people's future - they put the Westminster coalition to shame.


And on top of all that, the government want to privatise education too.

They want to allow so called 'for profit' colleges to compete with our public colleges and universities.

People like Apollo whose name is a byword in the United States for the mis-selling of qualifications to vulnerable people.


The government's own funding agency HEFCE has warned that cut throat competition risks damaging our global reputation.

And the Times Higher Education magazine described the UK as a potential "treasure chest" for privateers.

Even in the USA itself, the for-profits are under attack, with US senators describing them as akin to the "sub-prime mortgage industry".


Bill Clinton got it right when he said the system forced young Americans to choose between "insufficient education and insurmountable debt."


Do ministers really want that here?

David Willetts really must have lent both his brains to someone else the day they came up with this policy.

Congress, it is a disgrace that ministers are giving taxpayers money to these characters while starving our public universities and colleges of funds.

Yet that is the reality of privatisation.


Some Vice Chancellors and Principals say the private sector is too small to worry about.

I say that is complacency beyond belief.

In America, the "for profit" sector started small too but has used the foothold provided by public money to rip off millions of families.

The same will happen here unless we act now to defend ourselves against the privateers.


Congress, the government claims it wants to work in partnership with the trade unions.

But again actions speak louder than words.

Attacking educators is not the best way to get UCU on your side.

Supporting the employers while they perform a smash and grab raid on our pensions is no way to win friends.

Insisting on a pay freeze which will leave UK wages lower in real terms than six years ago is no way to influence people.

And when you add to this the toxic cocktail of privatisation and job cuts... is easy to see why the advent of this Cabinet of Millionaires heralds a new age of personal and professional insecurity for UCU members.


So I hope I have spelt it out, this challenge we face.

A government committed to cutting our funding and putting educators on the dole, reducing opportunity for our students, introducing privatisation, and attacking our pay and pensions.

When faced with such a threat I believe we must respond clearly:

First, we must put forward to the public a credible alternative to the current government's policies.

Second, we must focus our resources more effectively to defend our members.


Third, we must increase members' involvement in our decision making so we can be confident we speak for them with authority.


So how do we build a credible alternative to cuts in education and beyond?

I believe the answer is to argue for tertiary education at the centre of a strategy for sustainable economic growth and social justice.

Investment in education pays for itself many times over.

Look at the individual benefits.

Every £1million of revenue spent in our universities and colleges generates 27 jobs in the community.

Those with qualifications earn more, pay more tax and on average receive fewer benefits.

And that is before we even consider the innovation and wealth generation that takes place within our universities and colleges.

Current and former FE students contribute £28bn to our economy ever year.

Teaching and research in our Universities create an estimated £59bn in annual worth every year.

An amazing achievement.

Our amazing achievement.

And we could do more still.

Because the UK's economic future depends on creating sustainable, green economic growth.

We must win this race to the top not engage in a race to the bottom with low skills, low wages and a burnt out shell where our public services used to be.

And our colleges and universities should be at the centre of that strategy, not at its periphery.

Because a new strategy for growth will mean we need a workforce able to think for themselves.

It will mean creating new areas of study.

It will mean new frontiers of research in science and yes in our wonderful arts and humanities too.

Educating. Innovating.  Pushing the boundaries.

Everything we do best.


Our colleges and universities are a powerful driver for social justice too.

Our members want to teach all those who would benefit from education.

And whether that learning is taking place in a prison, a college, or a university it has powerful benefits for individual and society.

For society, education creates healthier more informed citizens, more likely to participate in our democratic institutions.

And for the individual, education provides emancipation and a road map to a better life.

Nelson Mandela was surely right to say that "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

And that, Congress, is the contribution we can make to the UK's recovery.


But we must win over the public to this argument or we will all surely lose.

And that means reaching out beyond campus to the communities we serve.

I'm proud of our pivotal role in challenging the government over the Education Maintenance Allowance and tuition fees.

UCU at our best.

Reaching out to our student and union partners.

Working with politicians.

Building effective coalitions.


In recent years, we have worked with everyone from the Womens' Institute to the Ghurkas and all points in between to campaign against restrictions in access to education.

But we have to do better still.

Building bridges.

Working together.

Making the case for education.


And if we are to persuade our members to support us in building this credible alternative, we have to look more closely at how we support them too.

I believe there are three key areas that the union needs to prioritise.

The first is in parliamentary lobbying and campaigning.

In the last five years I have tripled the strength of UCU's political team in order to ensure the union punches its weight at Westminster, Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Wherever decisions are being taken which affect UCU members, I want us to have a presence.

And that investment has started to pay off, with a UCU group of parliamentarians now working together with us to raise issues of concern.

We have used this strength to lobby of course on the cuts, tuition fees, and the EMA.

But also, with success, on workplace issues like the Research Excellence Framework and the Institute for Learning.

Now as we build support for our credible alternative to the government's cuts strategy, we need to go one step further.

We need to target every MP in every seat which has a university or college in it and make sure they support our alternative.

That will mean putting more of our resources into lobbying and campaigning and it will mean asking members to do even more locally to support our efforts.


The second area of priority has to be to increase support for our branch and local association officers.

These men and women on the ground are the face of the union, working for members, standing up for fairness and promoting equality.

And what an extraordinary job they do, often in difficult circumstances, at great personal cost and against considerable odds.

In recent years our Branch and local association officers have taken on more and more local negotiation and representation on behalf of members.

There is no stronger supporter of national bargaining than me.

But to ignore this growing trend because we don't like it, is to do a disservice to our local officers and to leave members without the tools to defend themselves.

The lesson from other sectors of the economy where unions have faced deregulation is clear.

If trade unions fail to prepare properly for local bargaining, it is members who suffer.

Unions like PCS and RMT have shown that the best way to uphold national standards in a deregulated bargaining environment is to equip local branches for the task.


So, today I am proposing a major programme to increase support for our hard pressed local officers.

The aim is simple - to put our local association and branch officers on a level playing field with the managers they face across the table.


That will mean providing speedier access for Reps to advice and guidance.

That will mean providing comprehensive and effective training to all local officers.

And that will mean increasing the number of UCU staff on the ground in support of branches.


The third area of priority is the support we provide for individual members themselves.

This year alone UCU branches and local associations have taken up cases for 7,000 members.

2,000 of those needed specific legal advice of some kind.

Truly, this is the new age of personal and professional insecurity.

Our case workers are volunteers who do a brilliant job.

Our regional officials and legal team are amazing too.

Between them they won members more than £1m in compensation in the last year.

But we need to do more to help them.


In this speech I have argued that we want members to take an active role in building a credible alternative to government policy.

We want them to stand up for each other and for education too.

But if we are asking that of our members, they have the right to ask that we provide the best support available when they have a problem at work.

So, I am proposing a new, enhanced legal service for members and those who advise them.

A dedicated legal team who will work with our regional staff to support our members and their reps providing faster legal advice when they have a problem and direct legal representation when they most need it, such as when faced with dismissal or claiming discrimination.


The introduction of this new dedicated team will mean giving caseworkers access to the best legal advice through their Regional Office.

It will mean, as standard, that members facing redundancies and their branch and regional officials will have direct access to expert legal advice.

And it will mean trained lawyers providing regular surgeries for case-workers and UCU staff to ask questions, seek guidance and discuss common problems.


UCU already supports thousands of members at work every year, but the new age of insecurity means we must do better still.

My aim is to respond to the new political and industrial situation by providing individual support for UCU members which is the best of any trade union.


And we will do this not as a substitute for organising collectively, but in order to strengthen our common bond.

Because we all know members are more likely to support us and the causes for which we collectively stand when they feel that we will support them.


That then is where I stand.

Build a credible alternative to the current cuts.

Invest in our branches so they are equipped to stand up to the employers.

Increase support for members with a problem at work.


Giving priority to these three key areas is the right thing to do but it costs money.

In the current financial climate we will have to make some tough choices to find the resources we require.

Let me give one example of what I mean.

Five years on from merger, our Head Office staff now spend up to 30% of their working time servicing the National Executive Committee and its constituents.

To give you some idea of the work that involves, in the past year our staff have produced no less than 900 Committee papers at the NEC's behest.

That works out at nearly three papers a day.

And yet despite all the resources it absorbs, participation in NEC elections is falling.

This year of 35 vacant seats, just seventeen required an election.

Indeed, some seats have been uncontested every year since merger.


One reason for this is the size of the NEC which is, by common consent, an historic anomaly from merger.

So with 68 members we have one of the largest Committees in the trade union movement.

Compare us to some of our closest allies.

UCU has an NEC rep for every 1,750 members.

In RMT the equivalent is 1 for every 3,800.

In NUT it is 1 for every 7,000.

In PCS it is 1 for every 7,100.


Will our members understand why Unison with 1.3 million members has a National Executive Committee near enough the same size as UCU with 120,000?

So, Congress, with other much more pressing calls on the union's resources it is my view that we need to reduce the NEC to a size comparable with other unions.

Reducing our NEC to nearer the norm would save a minimum of £150,000 a year in administrative expenses and election postage.

And that is money I think we would be better investing in legal services, in more support for Branch officers and in putting more staff out in the field.

But it isn't just the money.

I want our brilliant staff to be

supporting members,

running campaigns,

building that credible alternative we have talked about.

Not writing paper after paper after paper for an internal audience.


What I am saying will not be popular with all.

But, I think a more sensibly sized Executive Committee and a streamlined committee structure will breathe new life into the NEC...

....increasing competition for elected places

....focusing elected members on holding the general secretary and others to account and

....allowing NEC members to spend more time at the workplace where they want to be, not in endless committee meetings

That is just one example of the examination we need to do to establish that the union is fit for purpose.

Because renewing the way we work in every area in order to meet the challenges we face is essential in my view.

And so too is renewing our relationship with our members.


Congress, less than one in eight members turn out to vote in UCU elections.

Yet, we all agree, that to beat the government and employers we need to create an active, vibrant union.

Alan Whitaker has campaigned this year to increase participation in UCU's elections.

I fully agree with him on the crucial importance of increasing participation to our future.

But it isn't just about elections.

We have to persuade more of our members to vote in elections yes, but to become reps, branch officers and NEC members.

We have to persuade our members that getting involved in the union is something for them - not other people - and that their opinions really count.

 How do we do this?


For a start I think we need to make sure the views of ordinary members are better reflected in the decisions the NEC and Congresses make.

That is why I strongly support the use of consultative referendums to test members' views on each final annual offer made by the employers.


Because the union makes better decisions about whether to ballot for industrial action when we know what members' priorities are.

Don't we?

We have nothing to fear from asking members what they think.

But we have everything to lose when we misjudge what members want.


I think we also need to ask ourselves whether the factionalism that has recently emerged in UCU discourages members from wanting to get more involved.

We all know to our cost that in FE and HE, the creation by Vice Chancellors and Principals of rival interest groups has diluted the sector's message and allowed government to divide and rule.

UCU must avoid making the same mistake.


I don't care whether its UCU Left, UCU Right or UCU Centre.

Or whether it's the the Socialist Workers' Party, Conservative Party,  or even The Monster Raving Loony Party.

Any group that seeks to assert their own political agenda within UCU in place of that of our members should think again.


Our members, in my judgement, want an independent union that will stand up for them not follow the party line - and by that I mean any party line.

So what I am talking about here is creating a genuinely member led union, where our rank and file want to get involved.

And what I am therefore, respectfully, asking some of you to do is to demilitarise decision making in UCU, to stand down the factions, and stop the caucusing.

I think that is what our members want and have a right to expect.


I have talked at length today about the challenges we face, five years on from merger.

Our response must be to argue not for things as they are or were, but as they can be.

And that applies just as much to us as to anything else.


I stand for a renewed union.

That is why, today, when I sit down and I send my speech to members it will be with a request for help and a promise.

The help I seek will be to ask members and our staff too, to join a great debate about the future of our union.

To help shape our next steps and guide our priorities.

To be part of the credible alternative that we must build.

And the promise is that if I am lucky enough to be re-elected, my first act will be to put a programme of renewal shaped by that great debate to members for their endorsement.


Congress, I began today by noting that, one year in, this government has already presided over a massive transfer of our nation's income from the poor to the very rich.


In their policies they have already chosen ignorance over education. 

Apathy over ambition.

And isolation over integration.

Those are the choices the Coalition has made.

Our choice is equally stark.

A great American president once said that in times like these we must think anew and act anew.

That is surely what this union must do.

Think anew to apply our core principles to new circumstances.

Act anew to put our members at the centre of a struggle for the heart and soul of education.

And stand together anew to win.

Last updated: 26 October 2011