Un­ease in the UCU ranks over lead­er­ship and its di­rec­tion

Grow­ing dis­con­tent among UCU mem­bers about lead­ers’ han­dling of talks. So­phie Inge re­ports

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CON­TENTS - So­phie.inge@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The dis­pute over UK higher education pen­sions has been char­ac­terised by strong turnout on picket lines and wide­spread sup­port for aca­demics’ plight. But, in­creas­ingly, it is also be­ing marked by deep di­vides among mem­bers of the Univer­sity and Col­lege Union about the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tics.

These ten­sions were com­ing to a head this week as mem­bers voted on whether to ac­cept Univer­si­ties UK’s of­fer to set up a joint ex­pert panel that would re- ex­am­ine the val­u­a­tion of the Univer­si­ties Su­per­an­nu­a­tion Scheme.

With UUK hav­ing dropped pro­pos­als to scrap the de­fined­ben­e­fits el­e­ment of USS pen­sions that guar­an­tees a set level of in­come in re­tire­ment, Sally Hunt (pic­tured), the UCU gen­eral sec­re­tary, has urged mem­bers to “bank the sub­stan­tial con­ces­sions” achieved by 14 days of strike ac­tion on the is­sue.

How­ever, many union branches have urged their mem­bers to vote “no” to the deal in a bal­lot that runs un­til 2pm on 13 April.

These con­cerns fo­cus on whether the ex­pert panel – even if it de­cides that the £6.1 bil­lion deficit that was es­ti­mated by the USS and that led to UUK’s propos­ing that the end of de­fined ben­e­fits is wrong – can per­suade the USS and the Pen­sions Reg­u­la­tor that this is the case, and there­fore win backing for pro­tect­ing a broadly sim­i­lar level of con­tri­bu­tions and pay­outs.

More­over, many aca­demics are re­luc­tant to aban­don the picket line with­out a clear of­fer out­lin­ing what level of con­tri­bu­tions and ben­e­fits can be ex­pected in fu­ture.

Gre­gor Gall, pro­fes­sor of in­dus­trial re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of Brad­ford, said that it “would not be un­fair to say that there is a wide­spread de­gree of un­ease and dis­con­tent”.

“While it is the view among many of the ac­tivists that this [deal] was an im­prove­ment on the pre­vi­ous sit­u­a­tion, it doesn’t ac­tu­ally give a de­fin­i­tive of­fer,” he said.

In­creas­ingly, dis­con­tent has fo­cused on Ms Hunt and the UCU lead­er­ship. A pre­vi­ous deal be­tween UUK and the USS ne­go­tia­tors was re­jected by union branches last month and, with the lat­est of­fer now be­ing de­bated, UCU mem­bers at the Univer­sity of Kent be­came the first to pass a vote of no con­fi­dence in their gen­eral sec­re­tary.

Ben Hick­man, se­nior lec­turer in mod­ern po­etry at Kent, said that the UCU lead­er­ship could have pressed UUK for a bet­ter deal.

“I think it’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that Sally Hunt is ne­go­ti­at­ing on be­half of UUK and is try­ing to get UCU mem­bers to ac­cept their terms – rather than the other way round, which is what we would like the gen­eral sec­re­tary of a union to be do­ing,” Dr Hick­man said. “She’s re­ally only con­cerned with the pur­ported lim­its of UUK rather than our own union set­ting our own lim­its.”

Ali­son Cameron, lec­turer in zo­ol­ogy at Ban­gor Univer­sity, agreed.

“I’ve paid 10 years of [UCU] mem­ber­ship and I am frankly quite dis­ap­pointed,” she said. “I find them [the union] re­ally lack­ing this time and don’t feel that Sally Hunt is do­ing a very good job of rep­re­sent­ing any­body. She seems to be se­ri­ously sur­prised by the re­jec­tion of the last of­fer and I don’t un­der­stand why she wouldn’t try to squeeze more out of UUK be­fore putting this to bal­lot.”

Andy Wil­liams, a se­nior lec­turer in Cardiff Univer­sity School of Jour­nal­ism, Me­dia and Cul­ture, said that he thought that the UCU lead­er­ship had been “blind­sided by a very ac­tive, par­tic­i­pa­tory and mil­i­tant base, which they aren’t re­ally used to deal­ing with”.

“I don’t think it’s pos­si­ble for a lead­er­ship to rep­re­sent the views of all mem­bers, but I think they should be open to lis­ten­ing as broadly as pos­si­ble,” Dr Wil­liams said. “And there should be mech­a­nisms in place for two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion, wide de­lib­er­a­tion, and demo­cratic in­flu­ence and ac­count­abil­ity to help this hap­pen.”

Carlo Morelli, se­nior lec­turer in busi­ness and eco­nomic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Dundee and a mem­ber of the UCU’s na­tional ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee, praised the way that the union had in­volved branches in de­ci­sion-mak­ing as the strikes be­gan.

How­ever, as ne­go­ti­a­tions have pro­gressed, elected union of­fi­cials have be­come in­creas­ingly un­ac­count­able to mem­bers, he claimed.

“It is not ac­cept­able to say one thing in pub­lic but vote a dif­fer­ent way be­hind closed doors,” Dr Morelli said. “As elected mem­bers, no one should be in any doubt what your views are on these im­por­tant is­sues. Oth­er­wise ac­count­abil­ity is mean­ing­less.”

Ul­ti­mately, much will hinge on whether union mem­bers vote to ac­cept the UUK of­fer or not.

Re­spond­ing to re­ports of dif­fer­ing opin­ion in the union, Ms Hunt ac­knowl­edged that there were “very strong views about what hap­pens next in the pen­sions dis­pute”.

“It is the strike ac­tion taken by UCU mem­bers that has de­liv­ered the changes from UUK and it is right that they de­cide what hap­pens next,” she told Times Higher Education.

If mem­bers ac­cept the UUK of­fer, 14 days of strikes tar­get­ing the exam and as­sess­ment pe­riod – in­clud­ing week- long walk­outs due to start on 16 April – would be sus­pended.

If they re­ject it, Ms Hunt has said that the union will ask em­ploy­ers to of­fer a “no-detri­ment” clause, guar­an­tee­ing ex­ist­ing ben­e­fits and con­tri­bu­tion lev­els. But, in this sce­nario, ques­tions about the UCU’s han­dling of the dis­pute would seem likely to reach a cri­sis point, too.

On­side stu­dents demon­strate at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge to sup­port staff on strike over changes to the USS scheme

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