In the news: 22 September 2017

New TUC president Sally Hunt looks to future of union movement

Following her election as president of the TUC last week, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt has this week said that unions need to evolve and innovate in order to remain relevant to young people.

In an exclusive interview with Left Foot Forward, she said that unions need to start thinking outside the box in terms of recruitment and engagement. 'It's not about going to a meeting once a week,' she said. 'Other methods are equally effective. There isn't an issue about young people's activism - it's where they choose to engage that matters.' 

Speaking about UCU's new offer of free membership to PhD students, Sally said: 'I'm sure other unions will be looking at that. What we have to do is reflect on our structures, how we engage with people who aren't members and change how we communicate with them. Some unions will find that quite challenging but it's essential.'

Looking to the future, Sally said she was positive about movement's continued role as a voice for working people, and said the need for unions in a time of increasing insecurity was as strong as ever; 'We are here and will continue to be here, to change and evolve. We're not interested in being a relic - we're interested in being an active part of our democracy.'

UCU 'disappointed' with 1% pay offer for further education staff

The latest negotiating meeting on FE pay saw the Association of Colleges (AoC) make an offer of 1% for all staff, and £250 for those on the lowest pay points. Responding to the offer, UCU head of further education, Andrew Harden told the TES that UCU members would be 'disappointed' with the offer which is 'substantially below inflation and fails to address the years of pay suppression which further education staff have endured.'

In a statement, the AoC told FE Week it wished it could make a higher offer and pledged to work with unions to campaign for better investment. In response, Andrew Harden said that this commitment was welcome but 'does not ease the immediate hardship faced by many dedicated staff. There is now clear agreement on both sides that pay in further education is a problem, but the real question for the sector is what we are going to do about it.'

Higher education finance to be scrutinised by Education Select Committee

On Friday, the newly constituted Education Select Committee announced that its first inquiry will be into value for money in higher education. UCU said its response to the inquiry would focus on the endemic problem of casualised contracts in universities, which have a real impact on quality. Speaking to the Guardian, Sally Hunt said: 'It cannot be right that the people teaching our students are constantly anxious, not knowing from term to term, or even week to week, whether they will have a job or how much they might earn.'

The real problems of low pay and job insecurity facing academic staff were also set out in today's Guardian HE Network. Writing anonymously, a researcher said that without more investment in staff to make salaries competitive, universities risk losing talent to the private sector. The writer also suggested that mounting tuition fee debts hanging over young academics make secure, well-paid jobs outside academia more appealing.

Yesterday, Sally told to Sky News that higher education remains hugely valuable, but that more public investment is needed to tackle the growing issues with tuition fees which are lumbering young people with decades of debt.

Academics call for transparency on USS calculations

Over 50 academics wrote to the Financial Times earlier this week to call for greater transparency in how decisions are being made on the future of the scheme. The letter said that the limited availability of data and methods made USS's conclusions difficult to judge, adding that 'if the USS reports were academic papers, diligent editors would reject them.'

Meanwhile Professional Pensions reported that a petition started by members at Sheffield UCU, calling for background information to be published to scheme members, has reached over 1700 signatures. Professor Michael Otsuka also took a look at the current debate on the USS valuation for WonkHE, pointing to analysis by First Actuarial for UCU which contradicts the USS assumptions and sets out an alternative strategy for valuing the scheme.

Plans to axe Durham social work courses put on hold

Community Care reported this week that controversial plans to scrap social work courses at the University of Durham have been delayed after UCU and others raised concerns about the proposal. Regional official, Jon Bryan, said: 'Various pressure groups across the region clearly voiced their concerns and this has been listened to. The courses are well-known and highly thought of in the sector, and those who graduate value what they achieve.' A final decision on the future of the courses was due to be taken in June, but will now be taken later in the year. UCU said that if the closures do go ahead the union will be seeking guarantees of no compulsory redundancies.

Building a National Education Service

Ahead of the Labour conference this weekend, UCU general secretary Sally Hunt penned a piece for Education Politics (p8) setting out some key priorities for developing policy on the National Education Service. She suggested that a business education tax, which would restore corporation tax to 2010 levels in order to pay for the abolition of tuition fees, was a fairer way to approach student finance, and suggested that a new national service was also a chance to address the significant funding imbalance between further and higher education. She also pointed to careers advice and admissions reform as priority areas for increasing fairness in the education system as a whole - a sentiment echoed by commentator Laura McInerney in a piece on university admissions for Tuesday's Guardian.

Sally will be speaking at a UCU fringe event at the Labour conference in Brighton on Monday, looking at higher education finance.

Last updated: 22 September 2017