Address by Sally Hunt, UCU General Secretary

1 June 2016

Address given by UCU general secretary Sally Hunt to UCU Congress 2016.

President, Congress, UCU members:

Today marks the tenth year that I've come here to report to you on the work of the union since our foundation in 2006.

Our tenth anniversary is something to celebrate.

Not least for the people for whom this union exists.

In ten years our reps have supported an amazing 80,000 members with a problem at work.

In ten years our officials and lawyers have won more than £70m for members treated unfairly.

In ten years - ten difficult years - our negotiators have won increases worth an average £7,000 for further education members and £9,000 for higher education members.

So we have something to celebrate all right.

And I hope each and every one of you, especially those who were there at the beginning, pauses to think about the union we helped create, about our victories and defeats and about the thousands of people we have helped..

It is traditional that in this speech I look ahead to the next year. 

And believe me there is much to be done.

Together we must keep pushing for the things that I think matter.

Like proper investment in our colleges, in adult education and in our fantastic prison educators.

Like opposing the march of the market in higher education.

Like standing up for staff on casual contracts - the people who make our universities and colleges tick - and who deserve so much better.

Like fixing our broken admissions system so that the quality of your brain not the size of your or your familys wallet is what counts.

And, yes Congress, forty-six years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act, like men and women being paid the same for doing the same job.

All these things matter to our members so we will campaign on them across this union because these issues of equality, justice and opportunity are in the DNA of UCU; hard wired into everything we do.

But for my tenth address to this Congress, I don't want to talk just about the next year. I want to focus on the next ten years, and beyond.

I want to focus on the future of our union and the people we are here to represent.

We meet at a time of extraordinary change.

The Westminster government is currently legislating on a grand scale across every area where this union organises.

With white papers on schools, skills and higher education, the wrongness of their vision won't make the changes they propose any less real.

And the same is true of the legislation they have already passed like the Prevent Duty and of course like the Trade Union reforms.

Congress we in the trade union movement have met big challenges before.

Our movement was forged in the inequality and unfairness of mid-Victorian Britain. A place where workers had a life expectancy of just 42, and only the very rich were deemed worthy of education.

Every significant step forward taken by people at work since then has come as a result of the endeavour of trade unionists.

Every step. From holidays, to pensions, to working hours, to pay and sick pay and maternity leave.

And we know that these things did not just drop into our laps courtesy of kindly employers or governments.

They were fought for by people like us.

And so when I hear people say that this latest round of trade union legislation will destroy the unions I say look at our history.

We stand on the shoulders of people who fought and overcame much worse.

And we will do it again.

By making ourselves as relevant in this new world as our forebears have been in the past.

By answering the challenges, we face in 2016 not 2006. Or even dare I say it 1906.

And we will do it in UCU by winning the hearts and minds of a new generation f further and higher education staff......

Congress, what was true in the past of our movement can be true again.

Our strength - our unique strength - in the trade union movement- is the spirit of solidarity that permeates everything we do.  It is that commitment to each other and to a common cause which gives us everything we need to fight back.

In fact, it's that spirit that made the progress of these past ten years possible in UCU.

It's why we stood with and helped all those thousands of members at work I have talked about. It's why we trained thousands of reps to defend their colleagues' rights at work; And its why we continue to stand up for academics like Dr Miguel Beltran around the world imprisoned because their views don't meet the approval of their government.

But my argument is not that progress is inevitable.

It is not.

Rather what progress we make is the result of choices we make together.

And we face such choices right now,

And we do have a choice.

Will we respond to the changes and the challenges we now face with fear, turning inward as a union, and even turning away from each other?

Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for, and what we can do when we work together?.......

So let's talk about the future, and four big questions that we as a union have to answer - regardless of who the next general secretary is, or which group may or may not dominate the NEC or Congress.

First, how do we campaign effectively for better professional status for our members and a further and higher education system we can be proud of?

Second, how do we persuade more members to participate in the union and thereby protect our right to strike?

Third, how do we start to recruit the younger members we need if the union is to thrive?

And fourth and finally, how to create an atmosphere in UCU which will encourage unity between members?

Let me start with how we campaign, and a basic fact: the UCU remains, in the Guardian's words, 'the UK's foremost academic lobby'.

Let's take a step back and look again at these last ten years.

It was UCU that fought for academic freedom, opposing the Prevent legislation line by line in the Houses of Parliament.

It was UCU that fought and won for FE members against the Institute for Learning.

It was UCU that brought the scandal of 'for profit' education to the attention of politicians.

It was UCU in Wales that won a national contract for further education.

It was UCU that helped to change the law in Scotland, reforming higher education governance.

It was UCU that has fought time and time again to defend our colleges against funding cuts.

And yes it was UCU who with our sister organisation the NUS organised the largest education demonstration ever seen in history.

Anyone claiming that this union's influence is in decline or that we somehow can't mobilise our members needs to look at the last ten years and think again.

What is true is that since 2010 we have faced a government in Westminster that couldn't be less interested in our views.

They have tripled fees in higher education.

Removed grants and introduced loans for students across FE and HE.

And introduced legislation which encourages teachers to spy on their students.

Now with a new wave of legislation they are planning to finish the job.

Even in a crowded field, the Teaching Excellence Framework must surely be the daftest idea in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto.

The government claims that teaching in HE is 'lamentable'.

Yet their own figures show that 85% of students disagree.

The government claims that teaching quality can best be determined by looking at what jobs our students get and how much they earn.

Yet the research shows that what that actually measures is how rich our students' parents are.

What they propose simply won't measure quality.

Yet the government seems determined to ignore the evidence.

Just as they ignore the evidence over privatisation too.

UCU's dossier on the damage done by 'for profit' education providers grows bigger year after year.

Yet the government's determination to make it even easier for the for profits to enter the HE 'market' is undimmed by experience here and the evidence abroad.

Another 'quality initiative' which ignores the available evidence is the proposal, this time in the Schools White Paper to axe Qualified Teacher Status, the certificate to practice provided by universities for school teachers.

By removing the QTS, the government is placing in jeopardy not just a tried and trusted qualification but also the jobs of thousands of university staff in education departments.

The pattern continues in further education.  The area reviews programme represents a leap in the dark based on what evidence exactly?

Government says that only through mergers and campus closures will colleges achieve financial sustainability.

Yet it is the cuts to public funding since 2010 that themselves have created this weakness.

Colleges and their staff really can't win under a government that seems to have little understanding of what they do and why they are important to their communities.

So what is to be done by UCU...?

I believe that our central argument in the face of this onslaught must be a simple one.

Governments who really want to improve quality in the lecture theatre or who really want to strengthen our research base or who really want to improve skills should place staff at the centre of policy, not at its periphery.

That is why I have argued loudly in recent months that the issue of quality in our universities and colleges is primarily a matter of the conditions under which our teaching staff are employed.

Why? Because a teacher's working conditions are the conditions that a student learns in.

And when you don't have an office, or proper time to mark papers and when you spend every waking hour looking for your next job those conditions really matter.

Congress, I have met many incredible teachers who happen to be on casual contracts.

The tragedy is that their achievements are all in spite of rather than because of the system.

So I believe that only if UCU insists that the voices of practitioners are heard, will we win the argument for a better education system.

And there are politicians out there ready to listen.

I was proud that Jeremy Corbyn chose UCU's Cradle to Grave conference as the place to make his first big education speech.

Proud too of the relationship the union has built up with Natalie Bennet as leader of the Green Party. Natalie has been a great supporter of our union and as she stands down, I know you will join me in wishing her well.

In fact, the union has been able to build strong relationships with pretty much every party with the exception of the one that holds the power at Westminster.

And that is why I will say again today what I have said to many of you before. No matter how much we all love Jeremy, and Natalie, or Nicola or Carwyn or Leanne we can't afford to wait until 2020 for them to save us.

Now, I want to talk about the impact of the government's Trade Union Act.

We worked with the TUC, the STUC and WTUC this year and last; and fought tooth and nail against this illiberal, anti-democratic and petty piece of legislation.

But now that the Act is on the statute book I am damned if I will let it stop UCU from organising to defend its members.

And that means we have to up our game.

Let me tell you what I mean.

Back in 2006 at the dawn of the new union, myself and others negotiated a 15% pay increase for higher education staff.

It is still the largest no strings public sector pay rise there has been so far in this century.

I would like to tell you it was achieved as a result of my and others dazzling negotiating skills; the brilliant arguments we made and so on.

Well maybe there was a bit of that...

...but the truth is that it was the 52% turnout in the action ballot that made the difference...

It was the mandate that made the employers sit up and take notice....

And it was our willingness to take serious action on the back of that mandate which delivered those pay rises.

Now, achieving this turnout was tough. It was the result of months of single minded planning and campaigning among our members.

But it was worth it.

I have to tell you that in ten years since then not a single national industrial action ballot in either sector has come close to that turnout.

One reason is  maybe that we have sometimes spent more time debating with each other the claim, the process, the when and whether we should take action than we have spent thinking about how we persuade members it is worth their while to take part.

I don't say that lower turnout ballots have no use.

And I know too how hard we have worked at Newcastle University, Hull College and The Open University and other in recent months, winning ballots and defending our members' interests.

I strongly object to being told by this government that they not our members will decide when strike action can be taken.

But I do know - and you do too - that pay rises of the kind we saw in 2006 are more likely when you get a big turnout. It's a fact.

So I believe one of our defining missions must be to connect again with 'the missing 15%'

The people who back in 2006 voted for action but who ten years later seem to have stopped voting at all in union ballots.

I think that means looking at every aspect of what we do; thinking harder about the arguments we deploy; and planning for the long term.

It means making the Get the Vote Out campaign a central rather than a peripheral part of our planning.

Because realistically what is the alternative?

Forget the Tories' poisonous agenda.

Should we really settle for turnouts of less than one-third of the membership?

And the low pay rises that go with that?

No way, not on my watch.

I want to say something too about what action we take when we do win ballots.

I don't believe in half-hearted action.

And I don't believe in so called demonstrative action.

If we ask members to take action, it should have meaning.

It should hit the employers hard, and fast and it should be used to leverage negotiations.

End of story.

Now, to my third question about our future.

Congress, 60% of eligible staff over 50 are members of UCU.

But this compares to just 10% of eligible staff under 30 who are members.

And the pattern is the same across the union, whoever is in charge of a branch.

We have some clever people in this room but you don't need to be Stephen Hawking to realise that unless we can increase our recruitment of those at the start of their careers, the future will be written without us.

That is why I am a strong supporter of our Continuing Professional Development programme.

So far it has helped more than 20,000 members with their careers; providing face to face courses and advice.

That's a good start but of course it isn't sufficient.

We need to make ourselves as relevant to younger staff as we have been throughout their lives to those now at the end of their careers.

One way to do that is to win the arguments I have talked about on casual contracts.

It is our youngest members who bear the brunt of these dreadful, exploitative contracts which offer no job security and treat people as expendable assets.

But again that is not sufficient either.

So since there is no greater challenge than this to our existence I would like to propose that the union put aside £1m every year earmarked to specifically prioritise the needs of young staff and in particular those on casual contracts.

This may mean economies elsewhere but this money can be used to support a campaign in every workplace across the UK which makes the case for better, more secure academic and teaching careers.

Finally, Congress I want to talk about how we do business with each other and with our allies.

It is a theme I have returned to time and again these last ten years.

This union has the best members in the business and - in my opinion - some of the best activists too.

And if you want to see what we can do when we bury our tactical differences, look no further than that magnificent unity that was the two days of strike action in higher education last week.

A union looking outwards, engaging with our students and with the media in pursuit of one message: fair pay.

Compare that to the other side.

Vice Chancellors and Principals so busy defending their own exorbitant pay that they have forgotten that universities and colleges are nothing without students and staff.

Did you know that last week VCs took more than £15m in docked strike pay from UCU members? 

Not so long ago, most institutions would give that money to student hardship funds, these days = not a chance.

Well I would like to take a moment to thank students up and down the country for their support last week.  And to let them know that this fight is their fight. And that we will support them when they defend education.

Therefore, today I am calling on all vice-chancellors and principals to do the right thing once again and commit every penny they took from our members for striking last week to their student hardship funds.

And if our students have given FE and HE members terrific backing over the past year, it is time for us to return the compliment.

That is why I am pleased to announce that arising from discussions with Malia, the new President of NUS, UCU and NUS are to begin planning together for a national demonstration to defend education in the autumn.  

Now we really must build on that.

Because for all the thousands of members we have helped and supported in these ten years, we simply don't have the luxury today of looking inwards, expending our energy on .fighting each other.

So Congress there you have it.

We are ten today!

That is an achievement in itself.

But like every ten-year-old our greatest challenges lie ahead.

We must articulate a vision which stands up for staff and forces politicians to recognise their importance.

We must win back the missing 15% and more to our cause.

We must become the voice of young, often insecure staff.

And we must stand together as never before to defend our members or divided we will surely fall

My view is clear.

We have it in us to do all these things.

Ten years on, our future is in our hands.

To renew or die, that is the choice.

I choose to renew.

Thank you.

Last updated: 13 June 2016