It was a campaign that started with a “blunt” tweet.
That tweet asked whether members of the University and College Union would be interested in a “wildcard, rank and file candidate from the HE sector” for their next general secretary – and Jo Grady was elected to lead UCU with almost two-thirds of the vote in the second round of elections and turnout at an all-time high of 20.5%.
Grady raised her profile on social media as a prominent voice in the USS strike dispute last year, and was on occasion referred to as the “social media candidate” at the beginning of her campaign to stand for the position of UCU general secretary. But what we’re keen to find out is how Grady thinks the sector has lost its way, how she plans to brings her analysis as an academic researching industrial relations to bear in her new role, and her prescription for change.
Grady was elected on a platform of “holding the sector together”. In her view, cooperation between providers is under threat, as is the relationship between those same providers and their own staff, and between staff working in different providers; trends that need to be reversed.
She takes aim at misdirected metrics as the cause of this: “The way in which we are ranked is making us treat each other with suspicion, and you see damaging acts of self-harm by institutions off the back of this. It’s killing the sector and killing what makes HE amazing.”
Grady is a senior lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield and aims to provide students with a critical understanding of the contemporary workplace and labour market, underpinned by theory but also by experiences and observations.
We spoke about the experiences of marginalised groups in the workplace and how policy needs to account for this. Grady strips it back to basics: “When you see inequalities in the employment relationship it’s important to look at who is being marginalised. In UK universities, that’s disproportionately women, BME women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, for example.
“For me, the answer as to why that’s the case is that we have a system that’s built around a male stereotype” – her shorthand for the ways that systems, decisions and processes arguably tend to be be built around traditional (white, able-bodied, heterosexual) male perspectives. Grady’s view is that we cannot make progress within the current system as is; we need to question the basic assumptions that inform it before working in policy can become inclusive in any meaningful way.
You can tinker with the system but as long as it’s based around this stereotype what you’re actually doing is trying to make people who deviate from that stereotype better accommodated into a stereotype that doesn’t work for them.”
For Grady, an employed individual who tends to be marginalised on the basis of their characteristics accumulates the impact of these experiences across their working life, so the theory goes. So how might marginalised groups be disproportionately affected in today’s debates over pensions? “If there are inequalities in an occupational life course, they’re going to get played out in pension arrangements,” Grady explains.
A question of leadership?
We spoke about the role of leadership and governance in driving some of these changes and the wider changes the sector has seen in recent years. According to Grady: “A lot of universities have lost sight of what we are doing in HE and see what we are doing as a business.”
When I ask to what extent universities are simply responding to wider changes in the policy landscape over the years, Grady puts forward her view that responses to policy changes have caused further damage: “The policy landscape has changed but increasingly the role of vice chancellors even within the remit of their role doesn’t tell a good story either.” Likewise, “The poor governance that we see connected to the weakening of representation of university staff on key governing boards, which has definitely made the situation worse.”
This brings us back to Grady’s plans for a UCU under her leadership, which aims to tackle fragmentation within the sector. She argues that UCU needs to be prepared to defend professions within higher education and all that comes with them.
An academic herself, Grady finds that academics she speaks to feel it is “difficult” to be on picket lines when they feel well-paid already compared to other members of society in different jobs – “they felt they couldn’t justify that to the other people that they share a city with.”
For her, this is a problem as it can begin to wear down defences against pay erosion and threaten the sustainability of work that the sector relies on. To Grady, it comes down to one thing: “If you want to defend a profession you have to defend pay.”
Solidarity is a vital part of this equation and, for Grady, it knows no borders: “Universities are at their best when they’re international.”
You can be involved in campaigns and acts of solidarity that have impacts across the world that you can never be aware of, and that’s really important. We never just leave someone else to deal with it.”