As the attacks on further and higher education workers increase, Counterfire UCU members outline the need for a better strategy on the ground
The Fund the Future campaign launched by UCU to take up the issues affecting further and higher education is a welcome step in the development of resistance to the cuts and redundancies facing the two sectors as a result of Covid-19. It has been clear for some time that the problems facing colleges and universities require a nationally coordinated response.
’Fund the Future’ offers the potential for branches to organise politically in the community to defend jobs and to raise the question of what post-16 education is for. Is it merely a commodity to be bought and sold on the market place and delivered by competing providers or should it be viewed as a public good which belongs to everyone?
In parallel with the outward-facing aspects of the campaign is a strategy for branches to develop “jobs first” agreements with their local employers. This sounds fine at first but also presents some serious potential problems.
According to the bargaining note issued to branches, these agreements may, where necessary, accept management proposals for cuts should these prove to be financially necessary. Although the priority is to defend jobs, pay and promotions freezes, voluntary severance schemes and the suspension of salary increments (the list goes on) are all on the cards. The one get-out is that any agreements to accept these cuts should be temporary.
The union has taken this approach in panic. The threats are real and increasing at pace. Full-time officials are worried that branches are being bounced into local deals by employers which threaten to undermine national bargaining. So this approach of some detriment now, to be redressed in the future when the situation is better, is a way of limiting that threat.
But is this really the best we can do?
These attacks come after more than ten years of sustained cuts to our pay and pensions along with increasing workload and the use of precarious employment practices. Little has been done to fix the structural inequalities in pay for women, BAME staff or disabled staff around which UCU is still in dispute with the employers (as well as pensions for pre-92 universities).
So why, once more, are the most vulnerable staff being made to pay for this crisis?
It is undeniable that there is a problem, in particular, with the consequences of an artificially constructed higher education market. The system that has developed over the past decade is one where universities compete against each other for students and for research funding. UCU as a union has never accepted that this should be the case and has long argued that education is a public good and should be treated as such.
The problem with the approach UCU is now taking is that although it allows branches to challenge the marketisation of education in their political campaigning, it is asking them to accept elements of it when it comes to trying to negotiate themselves out of the serious situations they find themselves in.
According to the Higher Educations Statistics Authority data for academic years 2015/16 to 2018/19, the sector is awash with cash. Cambridge University has £733 million sitting in the bank, Oxford University £508 million and UCL £309 million. The UK Higher Education sector as a whole has a bank balance of £8.18 billion.
These are cash reserves which could be used to avoid any redundancies and also give staff secure contracts but only if they are shared across the sector. This has to be our starting point.
The idea that there isn’t enough money available to see us through this crisis is laughable. Higher education needs to be looked at as a whole and the good fortunes of the larger wealthier institutions shared out. Surely we are all in this together, as someone said.
This is just one proposal and there will be many others – not least the idea of a government bailout of both FE and HE to meet the needs of young people whose opportunities will be undermined by the consequences of Covid-19. Branches need to get thinking about both collective and local strategies and to pull the intellectual resources of the union together to plan the way forward.
A special UCU Congress with the sole agenda item of how do we fight back, needs to be convened as soon as possible. This would initiate a process of discussion in branches bringing many more ideas to the fore.
Political campaigning is necessary and welcome and we shouldn’t let the government off the hook. But we need a better strategy on the ground to resist the sheer increasing volume of attacks we are facing. We need a strategy we can all unite around and force the employers to share the wealth they have after all accumulated over the past 20 years on the backs of our labour and out of the pockets of now seriously indebted students.
Two activist meetings in recent weeks of over 500 people organised by Liverpool, Roehampton, Imperial and SOAS UCU branches show that there is a huge groundswell of support for rank and file initiatives. The next step is to instigate and broaden local actions resisting cuts and redundancies by treating these as disputes with national significance – for staff and for post-16 education as a whole.
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