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Taking action in higher education

General secretary's speech to Congress 2012

Thank you very much president.

Sally Hunt, general secretary.

Good afternoon Congress.

Can you believe we are less than half way through this damaging and divisive coalition government?

A government better at destroying jobs than creating them.

A government better at looking after the rich than helping the poor.

And a government better at attacking educators than supporting education.

As UCU members we are well placed to see the human cost of the Coalition's policies.

20,000 student places lost in our universities.

Hundreds of courses cut in FE colleges.

Millions of learners trapped in an unfair student loan system.

Congress, we know that education does not just exist in a vacuum.

It now costs our country £4bn a year to meet the spiralling cost of youth unemployment.

And that is more than the total annual further education budget for 16-19 year-olds.

When it comes to the next generation, this government is now investing more in unemployment than in education.

Yet the fact is Congress, 80% of the new jobs over the next decade will be professional or technical.

So, the UK must invest now in the next generation if we want to maximise that return. .

Because if we lose the race to educate our kids we will lose the race for economic growth too.

Far from being wasted, as the ideologues would have it, state investment in putting a student through a levels and a degree produces a net return to the wider economy close to quarter of a million pounds.


Those who are in work are under attack too.

While the government thinks tax cuts will make the rich work harder, they believe fear will do the trick for the rest of us.

They are dismantling workers' rights which took a century for trade unions to build up.

Health and safety, unfair dismissal, equality rights you name it. They are attacking it.

They have one simple aim, to bring fear to the workplace.

Well let me say, the only people round here who should be "fired at will" are the coalition government themselves.

And we can see how much value the Coalition place upon us as educators too.

Pension cuts.

Pay cuts.

Job cuts.

So, things are pretty tough.

Which is what makes our members' response all the more magnificent.

Take pensions.

Whether in TPS or USS we have been fighting for a better deal for our members not for days or months but for years.

Even as I spoke to last year's Congress, our members had already taken two days strike action.

We followed that with a joint day with NUT and ATL last June.

And then we played our part in the magnificent events of November 30 when 2 million struck.

Nobody should underestimate the extent of the attack on our members' pensions.

But it is a mistake too to underestimate our members' achievements. Because, both in USS and TPS our members are receiving a better deal because they stood up for each other and we stood up for them.

Not perfect. Not even close. But better.

And if we want to persuade members that it is right to fight, we have to remember that what we do does make a difference.

Our members' response has been magnificent in the fight against privatisation too.

As the Times Higher acknowledged, it is our union that has made so called 'for profit' education into a political issue.

We mobilised more than 20,000 of our members to contact their MP to oppose education for profit.

We brought together 500 professors who opposed the proposals and persuaded the Daily Telegraph of all places to run the letter.

We showed films in parliament.

We lobbied Lords.

We even lunched Tory MPs.

And in January when the proposed Higher Education Act was withdrawn, we won.

The so called flagship legislation had turned into the political equivalent of the Titanic.

But this is not a moment for complacency.

The government has not given up on privatisation; just on getting its legislation through parliament.

But what our successful campaign has shown was that when we stand up for an issue that our members care deeply about, we can make a difference.

We made a difference too, in the fight against the compulsory fees introduced by the Institute for Learning.

Our organised boycott led to 80,000 people refusing to pay the fees.

And forced government to act.

The inquiry they set up conceded all UCU's main points, including an end to compulsory membership, and the return of
fees already paid.

Now, the debate is about what happens next in a post-IFL world.

And we in UCU will play our full part.

And in Scotland, UCU has won support from across the political spectrum for wide ranging reforms aimed at democratising university governance.

After decades of universities and colleges increasingly coming to resemble boards of directors, this is no mean achievement.

And UCU must make sure that where Scotland leads, the rest of the UK will follow.


Congress I am proud too that we have fought once again to defend members' jobs.

In the last few weeks alone the national union has supported major campaigns at Chesterfield College; Sunderland College; Gateshead College; Hackney College.

And just a few miles from where we meet today the University of Salford.

I'm proud of our record on jobs. 

But we've supported other local campaigns too.

At De Montfort University, our branch stopped plans to allow privateer INTO onto campus.

At South Bank University, we won back national bargaining rights.

And at Barnsley College we won reinstatement for our Branch Secretary unfairly targeted for redundancy.

We don't win every time, but we always try.

And the same is true of our branch officers themselves.

In the past twelve months, we have again taken up individual cases on behalf of thousands of members.

Last year I was able to tell Congress we had won more than £1m in compensation for members treated unfairly at work.

This year that figure is closer to an unbelievable £4.5m.

That tells you our union is upping its game to support members in the workplace.

It's a real tribute to our branch officers, case workers and regional staff.

But it also tells us something more.

Demand for the union is at unprecedented levels.

The pressure our members are feeling means they are turning to their union for help in ever increasing numbers.

And the union must be ready to respond to this increase in demand; to adapt; and put resources where members really need them.

All of which brings me to the case for reform.

At last year's Congress I set out my stall.

I said I wanted UCU to change and to put its resources where they are most needed - the front line.

I then put my proposals in my election manifesto. And I won with 74% of the vote.

I then did what I had promised to do.

I put my proposals out to ballot.

And every single proposal was supported by at least 80% of those who voted.

They were supported in every single sector - adult, FE, HE, prison ed and retired members - by 80% or more.

They were supported in every single region and nation by 80% or more.

And they were voted down in just five branches out of 605.

So I think this is a pretty big mandate - not for me - but for change.

And to those of you who encouraged your members to vote - even if you recommended rejection of my proposals - thank you!

I have no doubt that whether you recommended rejection or acceptance you will honour your branch's result.

Congress, I made my proposals because I believe we need to change to do even better for our members.

That is the purpose of the reforms.

I want to deliver improvements on the ground in the face of the most difficult political and economic circumstances in a generation.

And to do it now, when members need it, not in two years time.

Extra help for our branch officers.

Extra protection for our members.

Extra support for our staff.

That is my focus.

I understand that change is not always easy, but I have to admit to being bemused at some of the reasons put up against the proposals.

Take a leaflet I read this morning it contains some extraordinary claims. Things I simply have to challenge.

No 1, it said if you vote for reform, I will be back next year to get rid of the annual Congress itself.

Well in front of 500 witnesses let me say: Nope. Absolutely not. Especially as we are at last returning to the seaside next year.

No 2, we are told that the issues put to members were too complicated for them to understand.

Come off it. We represent the most intelligent electorate in Britain.

No 3, it is said that if you allow members to directly elect their negotiators that is going to reduce rather than increase accountability.

Will it? The three elected people who do most negotiating are the general secretary, and the Chairs of Further and Higher Education. Yet we three are all elected, not by Congress, but directly by the members themselves.

That doesn't make us less accountable, it makes us more.

No 4,  the proposals are part of my secret plan to do away with regional committees.

Nope, we need effective regional structures that branches want to be involved with. They are essential to UCU.

No 5, an even more secret plan theme, reform is really - we are told - about recreating the AUT.

Wrong again. But remember too that more than 40% of our current members joined since merger. For them  They are ucu members. Stop trying to create division The union we have built represents the best of both unions and I am proud of that, and our new identity too.

And remember too that support for these reforms was as high in further education and the post-92 sector as in the so called former AUT sections.

No 6, I've heard it argued that the money raised by cutting the NEC  and its structure is a mere trifle which will make no difference.

well I disagree. It will allow us to spend an additional £600k over my term of office.

That means increasing what we spend on direct support of branches and members by 20% a year.

Surely Congress, that must be worth doing.

No 7, The worst insult of all. The leaflet says the problem with my proposals is that - and I quote - "they look like common sense."

Well, perhaps that is because they are common sense.

And last but not least, no 8, it is said that rather than act now, what we need is a commission of the great and good, the in crowd.

Yet since our members have already voted, what exactly would this Commission be deciding except to block the members' wishes?

In truth, as we all know this is simply a delaying tactic whose one major impact would be to delay the extra support I have called for from getting to branches.

Congress our members voted for change, not a commission.

And win or lose tomorrow, I will never stop campaigning for the reforms I believe are necessary and which our members voted for.

Congress, they say that to really change something for the better you have to love it.

And I do love UCU.

I was privileged to be there at the beginning of UCU.

And I am privileged now to be entrusted by members with taking us forward for the next five years.

Let no one doubt the scale of the challenges we face.

But also let no one doubt our determination to meet those challenges head on.

Our members are asking us to change for the better.

Willing us to take the first steps.

We can do it.

We must do it.

And working together I believe we will do it.

Thank you.


Last updated: 12 June 2012