David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

2024 is, clearly, the year of elections.

Most of the UK has an eye on a pending general election, or – perhaps – the local elections in May that will precede it, or a handful of by-elections that will precede them.

However it is fair to argue that the election with the greatest impact on UK higher education this year might well be that of the University and College Union (UCU) General Secretary (GS).

Jo Grady’s five year term of office, that began back in 2019, is coming to a close. And Jo is standing for another five year term, in competition with three other candidates.

State of the union

UCU, and other campus unions, play an important role in maintaining the health of the sector. They’re not just there for industrial action – from dispute resolution at a single employer to national pay and pensions negotiations it is generally unions that speak up for staff and staff needs. Rightly or wrongly, the role of general secretary at UCU (the largest and best known of the campus unions) is perceived by some as a kind of a spokesperson for a certain part of the higher education sector: in the same way as Vivienne Stern speaks up for universities as a whole, and Raj Jethwa speaks up for universities as employers, you could see Jo Grady as speaking up for university staff as a whole (and, perhaps inevitably, university academics in particular).

It is, in other words, a big job – and whether or not you are a UCU member the approach and personality of the person who holds the role will have an impact on the way the sector is perceived and treated. A wily government could use the claims of a general secretary to paint the sector as awash with cash, or irretrievably focused on issues outside of (or opposed to) what the government wants to do.

I’ve written before about some of the ways in which the Jo Grady era has thus far played out for higher education. Working with universities to provide a successful resolution to a stream of problems with the University Superannuation Scheme has been an undoubted highlight – and successfully winning multiple national ballots for industrial action would be cited by many as another.

However, the way in which industrial action played out in practice (with limited impact on pay, and some initial progress on conditions seemingly stalled), and an over-egged pay claim (based on a sector-wide view of “surpluses” that underplayed the perilous financial state of many providers) that never had any hope of being met, are less to her administration’s credit. To be scrupulously fair, Grady was never particularly in favour of the demand from certain factions within UCU for large scale action over a long period – citing a need to build the strength of the union.

Likewise, you can’t really hang the embarrassing dispute between UCU staff (backed by the Unite union) and managers on pay and conditions entirely on her, though it happened on her watch. You could fairly say, however, that the lack of progress on non-pay issues (despite an apparent willingness to participate from employers, and Grady’s own citation of this as a “victory”) should be owned at the top of the management structure. And the lack of progress on an independent review of sector finances (something UCU agreed to back in the autumn) feels like storing up trouble for the next pay round.

What I’d be looking for

I don’t get a vote in this election. I left UCU when I joined Wonkhe (it felt like a bit of a conflict of interest), after many years of membership. As I’m not employed by a university or college – or directly impacted by changes to pay, pensions, and conditions – it could fairly be said that I don’t really have skin in the game. But for what it is worth, here’s my dream candidacy:

  • A commitment to reframing the argument, away from staff against managers (though when VCs do something stupid they do need to be called out) and towards thinking about the sector as it relates to government. There is not going to be a meaningful change in pay or conditions without a change in the way universities are funded – so I’d also be looking for a candidate who is able to work with the politicians of the centre-left who are likely to form the next government, and who is able to work with university managers to find common ground. An early test case would be a campaign to convince government to address the cost of Teacher’s Pension Scheme (TPS) changes to the sector – something that sits behind a lot of recent job cut announcements.
  • A commitment to the better use of data and evidence – the aggregate surplus argument on provider finances and pay affordability is embarrassing and needs to be binned. The promised independent review of finances – allowing 2024-25 pay negotiations with employers to start with an agreed understanding – is a huge opportunity, and my dream candidate would be embracing this. Using this evidence, along with the views of members, it should be possible to generate a well-considered “ask” on pay, conditions, and pensions that focuses on low pay and inequality.
  • A commitment to addressing problems with staff wellbeing and workload, to the fair and equitable treatment of minoritised staff, and to meaningful action on the sector’s environmental impact.
  • A commitment not to harm the interests of students in taking industrial action, and to use targeted action to achieve meaningful and realisable goals rather than putting staff on picket lines for weeks on end for no perceivable benefit and sizable costs to the staff in question.
  • A commitment to reform union democracy to shift power away from the usual factions and interest groups and towards individual members – whether or not they would describe themselves as “activists” or are currently able to hold and maintain positions of power within the UCU structure.

Having set that up as my preference, I don’t want to be marking individual candidate manifestos against it – rather I am supplying it as something you should keep in mind as you read my descriptions of the pitch from each prospective leader.

Jo Grady

Five more years? That’s what she’s asking for here. Like other leaders in post she can’t claim to be a change candidate, though she can and does remind us that back in 2022 she called for a gradual growth of the union into a position where effective action could be taken. This plan was voted down, and instead we saw the “UCU Rising” campaign established – something she brought her leadership and social media facility to bear on despite clearly having doubts about the plan. Her leadership, though criticised in some parts of the union, did win four (two sets of two) national ballots under stringent turnout conditions – though this makes her four-from-five with the loss last autumn.

So Grady’s big plan is essentially a repeat of the 2022 proposals — which can be boiled down to actually having a plan rather than just taking one industrial action after another. She sees employers “entrenched” in an anti-union position (rather than, say, literally unable to afford the 12 per cent pay rise she was asking for), something that underplays the progress she did make on casualisation, the pay spine, equality, workload and – less directly but perhaps more notably – on USS.

To back up her plan, she calls for better coordination with the other four campus trade unions, better local bargaining (there have been some key wins, for example at the Open University, from this approach), and strengthening member support for action. The latter would clearly be a key component in planning for future disputes – her manifesto is light on how this would be achieved.

Otherwise, Grady calls for (loosely sketched) action on TPS and its impacts on other university spending, she comes down in favour of student number controls (a rare moment of agreement between UCU and Policy Exchange’s Iain Mansfield), and local action on university and course closures.

So a second Grady term would, if she gets her way, be less focused on large scale industrial action and more focused on tangible local wins to grow the union. But as we saw from the last term, how much she gets her way is very much open to question.

Vicky Blake

Vicky Blake stands without a clear link to any of the known UCU factions, and is keen to emphasise her 15 years in the union and her activism during this time (including as Vice President in 2019-20, and UK President in 2020-21 and 2021-22). These latter roles situate her as a major player within the existing democratic structures of the union – and as that may suggest her key pledges concern respecting and strengthening these structures.

One of the common criticisms of the Jo Grady era is the way she and her staff have occasionally appeared to stand publicly in opposition to key democratic forums, such as the national executive committee (NEC) and higher education committee (HEC). The rules of the union give these bodies a clear role in determining what the union does in terms of actions. Vicky’s position here is that of a rules geek – she will “support and uphold the democratic structures of the union as laid down in rules and standing orders” and “at no stage” attempt to undermine those structures or the decisions they make.

A good thing, right? To be clear, she’s not saying these structures are perfect – indeed they “require improvement”, but again it is for members to decide how that happens.

This all falls down when you consider who gets to be on these groups, and how closely they represent the members that are actively engaged in union structures rather than the wider membership. As with any quasi-political organisation the activist base is very different in character than the larger pool of voters and adherents – the latter group may well vote for a general secretary, but would perhaps not be as engaged in democratic exercises lower down the hierarchy. For me, the GS has a legitimate role in moderating any excess of enthusiasm or lack of pragmatism at the NEC and HEC, although I concede it is a very difficult line to walk.

Unlike the other manifestos, Blake’s has an emphasis on union structures rather than wider aims or issues – it is likely she would argue that these are decided on by the wider union. It’s not quite an entire step back – there’s sensible stuff on advocating for providers as anchor institutions, and rebuilding links with policy makers and the media (getting a piece in Squawkbox or the Morning Star hasn’t really helped things, to be honest). But it’s difficult not to assume that a vote for Blake might be a vote for the kind of people who tend to get on to HEC and NEC (the people who called for last academic year’s action, don’t forget) rather than a vote for her, which adds a layer of uncertainty for people who may be attracted by her history of support for the union and her reputation for plain speaking.

Saira Weiner

Weiner is the only explicitly factional candidate for general secretary, boasting the support of UCU Left. If you are not up on your factions UCU Left has a reputation for militancy and for ideological purity, both of which colour the contents of her manifesto.

She makes similar points to Vicky Blake on restoring and respecting democratic union structures, and on solidarity – there’s similar points about members having the final say and “individuals and committees” not blocking, delaying, or undermining them. She adds a direct criticism of the e-ballots that characterised the latter months of the Grady tenure – describing the process of asking members what they think directly confusing and “profoundly undemocratic”.

Unlike Blake, we get a solid list of actions alongside the democratic promises – a strategy based on (you guessed it) militancy. “We won’t win,” she says, “unless we fight”, and this comes with a list of failures from the summer, and cites UCU industrial action as a key driver of changes to USS contributions. This comes with the development of a “culture of participation” in strikes and other actions.

Alongside this, there is sensible stuff on the need to give greater regard to policy differences in devolved nations, and commitments on the full spectrum of liberation and the climate crisis. There’s a call to work more closely with other campus unions, and with relevant campaign groups.

But fundamentally, this manifesto is a presumption of the power and efficacy of direct industrial action – there’s nothing here, for example, about approaches to pay negotiations or to influencing government. I suspect that those in the union with a desire for more and longer strikes and boycotts will vote for Saira, but I don’t know what proportion of current members would be in that group.

Ewan McGaughey

McGaughey is the wild card candidate in this election. He’s branch president of King’s College London UCU, and a professor of law specialising in labour and pensions. He’s had a decent record in both of these fields, but is probably best known nationally for his part in a CrowdJustice campaign which sought a legal remedy for breach of trust on behalf of USS directors for a failure to act in beneficiaries interests. This is a complex area of law that I don’t claim any understanding of, but the facts are clear – the case was heard by the Court of Appeal on 13 June and the campaign did not win, so would have had to pay the full legal costs of USS directors, had USS claimed them as it was entitled to. The campaign claimed a partial win (in that it is now clear that it is possible to sue individual directors of pension schemes) but this fooled no-one. Even if you are generous enough to grant them that one small success, it was far from the slam-dunk that was originally promised. As the judgement noted:

In the light of my conclusions, I consider that the appeal should be dismissed on all grounds. I have been surprised that Dr McGaughey and Prof. Davies chose to bring this action in the form they did and to pursue it despite the fact that the judge flagged up what he saw as the difficulties at the initial stage when he considered it on paper

The campaign also claims that these proceedings did have an impact on the later changes to USS contributions, but this is not a claim that is easily measured. What’s clear is that £473,021 in donations have been spent with nothing tangible to show for it, and that this amount was not enough even to have paid the full costs of USS directors (although some of the money initially raised was used to cover a part of these costs) .

That’s probably all something you’d want to bear in mind as you make your decision. The manifesto itself (an “eight-point platform”) has some interesting points to make on democracy in university governance, and says helpful things on clean energy, pay gaps, and job security. As you would probably expect there’s a boost to the UCU legal department and a more democratic USS board, but as you might not expect there’s big statements on funding reforms in England and fair pay (“pay back to 2010 real levels, no more waste on fancy buildings or management bureaucracy”).

Alongside two candidates arguing for union democracy, McGaughey represents the kind of union member Blake and Weiner are keen to hear more from, and the promises more than make up in ambition what they lack in plausibility.

UCU members who have not already received a ballot paper should contact the union to arrange for a duplicate before 22 February. The ballot closes at noon on 1 March 2024.

3 responses to “Your next UCU general secretary might hold the key to the future of the sector

  1. So it’s a choice of: someone who absolutely loves going on strike and is openly part of a faction which organises wherever possible to be on strike; someone who absolutely loves going on strike but pretends to be slightly less keen and seemingly more or less always goes along with the line of the above faction while not being a member (this via stated positions on social media) and whose campaign the above faction had advance warning of; someone who runs a branch which absolutely loves going on strike plus did some cackhanded unhelpful stuff re the USS dispute, so a track record of recklessness; and someone who in 2019 claimed to love going on strike, so much so that once elected she consistently advocated for action on 5 disputes (3 of which were unwinnable) simultaneously, and is now claiming not to love this quite so much as it turns out.

    Really spoiling a ballot seems the best bet here, though in the end a vote for Grady and nobody else is probably the only way to stop ucu becoming a complete basket case union as opposed to the almost-complete one it is now. Until the decision making processes are comprehensively changed, ucu will remain a union that’s in dispute the entire time about everything, but with small %s of members willing to actually participate – or rather, maybe a clear minority that is willing to participate, but a minority whose impact is not felt heavily because they are often non permanent staff who teach very little, working mostly at a few elite uni’s, and because the nature of a toon is decided via ideology rather than tactics and realism. Of course the people whose action is lower impact have a place in the union; but if that’s your base of reliable participants in IA, it’s never going to have huge impact, not least if it’s intended to do something totally impossible like giving all PhD students permanent jobs. And so it’s proven re the 4 fights which none of the candidates seem to properly acknowledge, with the exception of Grady – but her own performances have been so reckless, especially in the media, that I don’t think it’s possible to have much faith in her ability to reshape things.

    But if Grady doesn’t win, members can look forward to 5 more years of permastrikes. Nice if you like that sort of thing I guess.

  2. The article glosses over a significant issue. All the candidates are signed up to ‘trans liberation’, which turns out to mean the censure and censorship of staff/students who are gender critical. This means that opponents of the Stonewall outlook (‘no debate’ on sex/gender, advocacy for & policing of gender neutral language, GC view are ‘transphobic’, kids can be ‘born in the wrong body’, no single sex spaces, readily affirm life altering medical intervention for children experiencing gender dysphoria) have no union as such – no one who will defend their academic freedom within the law, or defend from harassment from activists. It means cliques publicly labelling colleagues as a threat to staff simply for seeing sex as binary. It’s damaged a lot of basic solidarity at local level. GC staff have left the union, and/ or find remaining as activists almost impossible. The majority of staff will be disengaged from the election, and the politicking is all over 10 % of votes, those of the activists. We’ll have a union as divisive as ever, more interested in identity politics & policing members’ views than defending basic freedoms of all staff on a non partisan basis. It’s a disaster.

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