UCU balloon UCU balloon. Photo: Flickr/Dun.can

There is an urgent need for UCU to develop a national strategy over Covid-19, write Counterfire UCU members

As higher education staff up and down the country worry about the impact of Covid-19 on jobs, conditions and health and safety, UCU members urgently need a national response that is committed to confronting the immediate threats to its members and that is based on rank and file action.

The UCU itself has warned that universities are set to lose £2.47 billion in income as a result of the virus as both home and international students may choose to defer entry for a year. Before the pandemic, 21 universities had net cash flows of less than 5%; now, that number is likely to rise to 91. Without large-scale reserves, UCU claims that these institutions ‘could face significant operational challenges in the medium term’. Not every university, after all, has the endowments of Oxford and Cambridge or the property portfolios of Kings and UCL.

As a result of this, many employers are considering large-scale redundancies, pay, promotions and recruitment freezes, the suspension of any remaining research leave and the scrapping of more specialist programmes. At Roehampton, the introduction of a voluntary severance scheme is widely expected to presage the introduction of compulsory job losses while many institutions are in the process of drawing up ‘recovery plans’ in order to lower pay costs. Casualised staff, in particular, are expected to bear the brunt of the crisis as contracts are not extended and hourly-paid lecturers abandoned. Vibrant campaigns have emerged at Essex, Liverpool and Goldsmiths for example.

Meanwhile, UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) met on Wednesday 27 May to consider its response to the latest offer from the employers in relation to the ‘Four Fights’ dispute around pay and equalities which had seen members take 22 days of strike action since last November. While some limited concessions had been won – not least the acknowledgement by employers that casualisation, high workloads and gender and race pay gaps were ‘important matters’ that were worthy of ‘forward-focussed actions’ – the lack of any legally binding mechanisms to enforce changes (as well as their refusal to move on pay itself) meant that the offer was a long way from acceptable for most members.

Branches were asked, in advance of a national delegates’ meeting to be held the day before HEC, to discuss whether to accept or reject the offer. The union requested that branches consider simply ‘what kind of deal would constitute an acceptable outcome for their members, and what kind of industrial action members would be willing to undertake to get it.’ At the delegates’ meeting, most branches voted to reject the offer – a decision with which we fully agree – but reps were also asked whether they wanted to put the offer to all members in a national ballot, a question that had not been part of branch consultation. Despite the lack of advance warning, a majority indicated their support for a ballot. 

This is reminiscent of a previous era – when Sally Hunt was general secretary during the 2018 USS strikes and the HEC tried to force a national ballot on members in response to a badly flawed deal – and is a shift away from participatory democracy. Having asked branches to organise meetings in their institutions to decide whether to reject or accept the current offer, it seems that the national leadership has now decided to ignore the result of these meetings and take the question again to the whole membership via an eballot. While it may appear more democratic as, in theory, it involves everyone, it only does so in a vacuum where the debate is lost, members are isolated at home and the sense of collective action also disappears. A core principle of participatory trade unionism is collectivity: where members come together to make decisions and to decide on action and so the most democratic decision-making forums are branches. These disputes have been all about members working and arguing together over the way forward. The future of the dispute shouldn’t now be reduced to an atomised electronic vote in your own house removed from everyone else.

This course of action split the HEC and prevented any decisive decisions being taken from that point on. Reps were then emailed the same evening warning that, because of the impasse at that day’s HEC, the decision of a previous HEC to reballot branches in June for industrial action over the ‘Four Fights’ dispute ‘still stands.

Given the fact that most members are preoccupied with resisting the immediate cuts and redundancies that are heading our way because of coronavirus – cuts that are likely to fall disproportionately on women and BAME staff – there is very little appetite for a June reballot. The full resources of the union and local branches should be devoted to resisting the challenges we face in the short term. After all, the issues at the heart of the ‘Four Fights’ dispute – of equalities, anti-casualisation and increased workload – are precisely those highlighted by Covid-induced cuts and restructures.

Neither a June reballot for industrial action nor a national ballot to accept or reject the employers’ offer should be the focus of our action at the moment. There is an urgent need to develop a national strategy over Covid: to develop a post-pandemic vision of higher education at the same time as responding to health and safety breaches, redundancies and course closures. Attending to these issues should be the priority of all branches as well as the UCU’s leadership which has so far offered little more than ‘guidance’ to branches. Comprehensive support and advice, while useful, is no substitute for coordinating resistance at a national level. Meanwhile, focusing on the immediate challenges would still allow members to return in the autumn to the ‘Four Fights’ dispute (and, in pre-1992 universities, to the issue of our USS pension scheme) when we will have a better idea of the state of play in higher education.

The future will be decided less by entanglements in the HEC and more by local resistance backed by national campaigns. Branches need urgently to meet in order to organise the most effective responses not simply to possible redundancies but also to the intensification or work due to online delivery and any reopening of universities before five essential tests are met. This might involve initiatives like joint action with students about the need for safe campuses and the development of institution-specific action plans like the ‘Corona Charters’ suggested by the Branch Solidarity Network’s Manifesto for Resistance. We should also support #CoronaContract, the grassroots campaign in defence of casualised staff, and the Convention on Higher Education’s new statement calling for a ‘new future’ for HE. The statement challenges the market logic that has so damaged universities in the last decade and poses a series of concrete demands on government and employers including restoration of maintenance grants and adequate levels of public funding. 

Above all, we should draw inspiration from activists in the National Education Union whose militant leadership, creative energy and mass meetings have seen a huge increase in membership and impacted the government’s determination to force children back to schools at the start of June. ‘Who runs Britain?’, asked Richard Littlejohn in a Daily Mail column in which he attacked the NEU for daring to put safety first. UCU members need to learn from the NEU and to pose a similar question: who runs our universities and in whose interests and what can we do collectively to defend both staff and students in the here and now?

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