David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

So that’s it then.

Just under 20,000 members (of about 68,000 in total – down a fair few from last time) managed to both vote in the most recent University and Colleges Union (UCU) industrial action ballot, and vote in favour of strike action.

However stringent and potentially unfair the 2016 Trade Unions Act rules on aggregated ballots may be, these were rules known to UCU leaders at the time. Having sailed through the same rules on the two previous occasions (for two ballots each time) the 50 per cent turnout requirement was neither an unexpected nor an insurmountable barrier. Knowing this, they chose an aggregated rather than individual ballot.

The largest on-campus union will now head into the 2024-25 New JNCHES pay round (likely to begin early next year) without the benefit of an existing mandate for action.

The state of the union

Elsewhere UCU is managing ongoing industrial action in further education, running a redundancy-plan focused boycott of the University of Brighton, and is gearing up for a new campaign on academic freedom that seems to primarily involve union members resigning from UKRI committee roles. It has made a case for having achieved success in the USS dispute, having recently witnessed agreement on a return to pre-2020 valuation contribution levels.

All this is on top of the aftermath of the lost national ballot, the slow disintegration (and arguably patchy impact outside of a few key providers) of the marking and assessment boycott (MAB), the public opprobrium resulting from the MAB and the high profile individual impact on students, the abortive “freshers week strikes“, the controversial pause in the spring strike action, concerns over access to the strike fund, a running scandal over the terms and conditions of some of UCU’s own staff members, and a general sense that that aspects of union democracy frayed visibly during the past year. Add in a declining membership (the usual aftermath of sustained industrial action) and you might be forgiven for thinking that a period of retrenchment and strategic reflection is on order.

But the election of a general secretary and other key central roles, planned for next spring, is also beginning to exercise the minds of members. Jo Grady will seek a second term of office, and will be challenged by former president Vicky Blake (independent of any organised UCU faction) and Saira Weiner (backed by the influential UCU Left). The centre-left Campaign for UCU Democracy has not announced a candidate, and it’s been a while since we heard from the UCU Agenda (another centre-left faction). It is likely that Grady will retain the approval of the mainstream left UCU Commons.


It’s not just members that are thinking about the election – employers and their representatives will also have a wary eye over the field of runners and riders. With so many recent pay rounds ending in dispute, the likelihood is that the next one will proceed in a similar fashion – but there is also a worldview in which New JNCHES is beginning to look a bit silly. With a couple of high profile large employers leaving the national negotiations (Nottingham Trent, Queen’s University Belfast) in recent times, the idea of local negotiations on pay – as a way to address local issues and build local relationships – is returning to prominence.

The big UCEA idea to address this is a sensible one – an independent review of university finances to put the national negotiations on a firmer footing by basing them on an agreed perspective of what might be affordable. The current UCU leadership have cautiously welcomed this move, as have numerous prominent observers, but we are still waiting for further details to be agreed.

This is important because Grady’s media appearances (and social media presence) during last academic year’s campaign were marred by a decision to rely on an aggregate surplus figure suggesting that university leaders as a whole were sitting on a haul of cash and refusing to use it to top up pay. This was unhelpful as it was entirely inaccurate – it inflated member expectations on potential pay movement to a level that the majority of providers would simply be unable to meet, and it gave the most anti-university government in living memory cover to claim (once again) that the sector was awash with funding.

While this may have bolstered support for industrial action in the short term, it was always going to end in disappointment. There is an alternate timeline in which the union worked with employers to lobby government for additional funding to cover a pay claim (or at the very least, rising Teacher’s Pension Scheme costs, where universities are the only participants not to see government compensation) during a period of high inflation – when unions and employers work together they do tend to use complementary strengths to get things done, as we saw in the USS dispute. For many, however, this would be a bridge too far.

Strength in numbers

It feels counterintuitive, but employers and their representatives would prefer a larger stronger union to a smaller weaker one. A lurch to the left would shrink membership, and would lead to a multitude of small perpetual strikes at individual providers that would be almost entirely intractable. For preference, those involved in pay negotiations would want a union leadership with a focused and facts-based approach – it is much more likely that specific asks will be addressed next year than for workers to enjoy a large pay rise (except if the sector unexpectedly gets a further injection of cash). Universities – and UCEA – get the case for better pay even if the money to cover it isn’t there, so there is a door worth pushing on in terms of non-pay benefits (for example sustained work on casualisation, pay gaps and equality, and working conditions) as a result.

Union leaders walk a fine line. Banking a small win for members will bring accusations of capitulation or betrayal, taking a pragmatic approach based on the financial position of employers will lead to claims that bosses interpretations are being uncritically accepted. This being a union with many academics as members, ideological purity will be a big sticking point. A leader drawing on a broad coalition of factions is more likely to be bolder in annoying the fringes, and thus more likely to get results that benefit members facing particularly unpleasant terms and conditions.

The case for improving pay and conditions in universities is inarguable. I spend a lot of my time speaking to representatives of professional services staff – again and again I hear that poor pay and painful working conditions are making it harder and harder to recruit the staff that run universities. Data specialists, in particular, are looking elsewhere following the ongoing seven-year shambles that is Data Futures. Staff in finance, estates, human resources, and marketing are beginning to see the attraction of better paid, similar, jobs elsewhere. Do not think for a second that providers – and sector representatives – do not get this.

The work that the trade union does is important and often invisible. The support and advice offered to staff who rub up against poorly designed institutional processes help keep good people in work. The checks and balances that strategic engagement by campus unions at provider level provide a means to ensure that leaders can never forget the human basis of the value of a university, and helps providers make better decisions. And nationally, university staff – who feel attacked by government rhetoric and undervalued by popular discourse – need a strong and respected voice to argue their corner.

Right now, UCU is at a low point – but anyone who cares about universities wants to see it rise again.

12 responses to “Where next for UCU?

  1. I think this article, possibly deliberately, leaves out a massive, massive issue of UCU at branch level.

    Namely that it’s had a complete takeover from the far left, and spends as much time being openly prejudicial against its own members, approving motions for infatida etc than it does fighting for pay and conditions. Useless.

    1. That might be the case at your branch, but other branches will tell a different story. Also, I’d be interested to hear what constitutes ‘far left’ in the above.

      1. It would constitute spending time passing motions on divisive foreign policy issues and deliberately stigmatising and marginalising members – rather than focussing on, say, pay and conditions.

        Is that broad enough?

        1. What Ex-UCU says certainly rings true at my branch. To be fair, there is quite a focus on pay and conditions, but the non-education related stuff can feel weird and is off-putting for many.

          Sadly, 90% of members don’t turn up to branch meetings, so those members who feel passionately about [insert whatever the latest cause is here] get to vote through things that have many members quietly rolling their eyes. The solution, e-votes so everyone in the branch gets a say, gets dismissed by the same people who consistently get their motions passed at the branch meetings. The last time I suggested it I was told that our highly educated members couldn’t be expected to form a view without attending a meeting.

  2. Very useful overview. One related thought is how Grady’s rise and regime embody a shift in UCU’s political culture – one that has everything to do with social media as the main experience and ‘reality’ of trade unionism for the vast majority of members.

    It was a Twitter hashtag (#nocapitulation) that created Jo Grady the politician, as she deftly rode a wave of online anger and pseudo-empowerment to replace Sally Hunt. Using Twitter and video to mobilise and inform has been the colourful signature of her period in office, with good results and bad. Members now roll their eyes about the UCU content machine, but do they really wish to return to the grey realities of a less visible and charismatic leader, cutting backroom deals and then emerging to sell depressing compromises? I doubt it, and tend to think most members actually prefer the shallow and ineffective (but emotionally satisfying) realm of branded clicktivism, clapbacks and pinkly ‘sending messages’.

    UCU is now primarily focused on *performing its values* rather than building its leverage within disputes, or educating its members on the actual conditions of the sector. It has taken Twitter as its template for real-world politics, and can seldom distinguish between the two. Only a tiny fraction of the membership are inclined to ‘participate’ in non-spectatorial ways, which is why the MAB was such a bizarre echo-chamber of copium and manipulation.

    As with any furiously self-selecting online enthusiasm, the larger picture vanished from view almost immediately, and MABers became impossibly detached from the actual (tiny) impact of their action at national level, or the likelihood of its success in shifting the balance of power within the sector (nil). But if you spent all day surfing the #ucurising hashtag, you could easily sustain a comfortable delusion about the strength and energy of the action, and the soaring moral virtue of the cause.

    For most of its participants, MAB was experienced as very expensive phone-entertainment, mainly on Twitter but also as dramatic fodder for poisonous WhatsApp groups (slagging their non-MABing colleagues). Its impact beyond the emotional and interpersonal was pretty much zero, though its failure has seriously damaged the basis for national pay negotiations.

    I doubt much will change. Grady is now pivoting to liberal culture war (scourge of the Home Office, defender of EDI etc), and using social media (again, very skilfully) to repair her image while masking deep failures and divisions. Will any other candidate fare better in the highly-online world she has constructed as UCU’s main ‘reality’ and base? I doubt it, and expect her to be re-elected. The grim realities of the sector are a much harder sell than hashtag chimeras, and people who grasp this are simply leaving UCU.

    Having replaced boring old trade-union politics with a buzzy networked spectacle of self-celebration, it will be a painful comedown when national pay bargaining collapses outright. Local pay negotiations are coming, and they tend to be more reality based.

  3. Thanks for this really interesting and comprehensive analysis.

    (A pedantic factual correction: universities are not the only participants in the TPS not to see government compensation for rising costs. The independent school sector is very much in the same boat, and I understand quite a number of schools have recently moved their teaching staff to DC schemes as a result.)

    1. Well. What an interesting analysis. Yes, employees having an effective union to work WITH and negotiate WITH would be delightful. But that will never be UCU. The delusion of those at the to do both Universities and UCU is too strong. UCU represents wildly different people in wildly different areas of education. The issue that affect Durham are not the same that affect Northampton, it is delusional to think you can bring these together and still be an effective trade union. UCU needs to fall apart so something better, more representative and more accountable can be built.

  4. Grady’s an empty vassal – a performative culture wars warrior who cares little for the bread & butter issues which actually matter to the average union member. If she gets elected again I fully expect UCU to go into a death spiral as members simply drift away whilst she rants about fringe issues to the dribbling lunatic fringe on Twitter for cheap clout.

    1. Grady is probably going to be the moderate option in the elections who is the candidate *least* obsessed with fringe issues; so members who aren’t of the UCU Left-and-adjacent tendencies are going to face a really difficult choice I think. (Not that the GS actually holds much power anyway)

      1. If The Sensibles can’t muster up a viable candidate running under the simple mantra of “not the loony” then death spiral it is.

        If nothing else, it makes you realise what a solid job Sally Hunt did in retrospect.

  5. No matter who is elected as gs, negotiator, or even onto hec (and current gs plus a lot of hec members and negotiators – esp ucu left ones – are manifestly not fit for the roles), the chief problem in ucu has to be the structure of the union, which couldn’t have been designed better if you actively wanted to generate inert strategy, self-contradictory policies, and the possibility for everyone to blame everyone else, along with encouraging people who are only interested in being in dispute to throw additional spanners in the works and claim betrayal. 

    I seriously doubt many members even know that the decision marking process works like this: Congress is meant to meet annually and set policy, its members supposedly elected by each branch but in fact self-selecting as willing to spent 3 days of what for many is half term away from family and friends hence mostly the ultra-committed and thus hardline. HEC are meant to enact that policy, even if it was made 11 months previously and – as it has been recently in some cases – unworkable (running 5 disputes in HE at once), ridiculous (endorsing and encouraging the unworkable policy work on casualisation/PhD students as staff), or abhorrent (Ukraine), and that’s before we get to their interpretation of it and – even on a supposedly good day – the inevitable compromises made as a result of those differing interpretations. Then the gs is meant to just be a frontperson for whatever hec decides, despite everyone always running for that position as if it is a decision making role. Maybe other unions can make this work? UCU however obviously can’t, and the current structure allows far too much coverage for bad faith actors to hide behind rulebooks, claiming to represent democracy while denying their own often selfish and childish agency. The problem is that this strike-loving posturing has real world implications, especially when it so often leads to loyal members being called out on strike again, losing hundreds and hundreds of pounds so a few committee members can pretend they’re being true democrats.

  6. If you followed Grady’s rise in 2018 and GS campaign the following year, you’d struggle to believe this, but in 2023 she is the only vaguely moderate candidate on the ballot. Five years in the job mean that she has had to face up to the hard reality of leading a trade union, and the constraints and compromises that involves. Euan McGaughey has done nothing to build support, other than spearhead the costly disaster that was the USS court action. Saira Weiner is a deliberately weak candidate chosen by the SWP, because what they want is to see Vicky Blake win.

    This is because Vicky Blake likes to present as even-handed and reasonable, but has done nothing over the past few years but facilitate the lunacy of UCU Left. She has consistently pushed the case for more and more industrial action, despite it being supported by fewer and fewer actual members. She probably has the best chance of defeating Grady, but if she does you’ll see the union lurch off in an ever more irrelevant direction.

    A Vicky Blake-led UCU will represent a 1990s student union more than it will an actual trade union.

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