England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

UCU Conference: Fighting redundancies, rebuilding confidence in Higher Education 

By Socialist Alternative members in UCU

UCU Congress would normally be having sectoral conferences today, however due to Unite UCU workers taking strike action, these will not be taking place. Socialist Alternative sends full solidarity to the Unite UCU workers, however there are important points that need to be raised that would’ve been raised in the sectoral conferences. To action this, branches should be calling for a recall conference and in the meantime, activists organising to implement some of the plans eg a national meeting for outsourced HE workers.

We have to acknowledge that the pattern of undemocratic de-escalations, compromises and sell-outs in recent disputes on pay and conditions has demoralised our members across HE. This fact is not lost on the employers, who have gone on the offensive because they sense weakness. Cuts and redundancies are proposed at over 50 universities and the number is growing all the time. 

This does not mean that campaigns cannot be built to defend jobs and education. The recent success at Sheffield Hallam, who have won a ballot for industrial action despite many reps being targeted for redundancy, shows that despite all of the failures of the national leadership, members are still willing to fight. Positive indicative ballots at Leeds Beckett, a branch which has rarely met thresholds in the past, also give an indication of what is possible. 

Formally, these are local disputes, with local ballots and local demands. But politically, they are all part of the same national attack on education, and this requires a national coordinated response. We should be discussing coordinating support for branches balloting, which can give confidence to others to resist attacks. Wherever possible we should seek to coordinate industrial action as well in branches where we win ballots, to increase the impact of strike action and make clear that the problem is not just local institutions who have overspent on shiny buildings and satellite campuses, but the marketised Higher Education system and the tuition fee regime. 

As the General Election approaches, Labour is considering increasing fees in order to plug the huge gaps in finance which many universities are experiencing. But this completely misses the point – it is marketisation and the fee regime which is the cause of the dire financial state of many universities. Fees must be replaced by public funding of all research and teaching, with tuition fees scrapped, cancellation of any student debt and refunded.

Recently, UCU released a statement based on research the union commissioned showing that a 1% national insurance levy on graduate employers could fund scrapping tuition fees. While it is positive that the union is looking at ways to challenge the fee regime, it is important to say that this is not democratically agreed union policy, and furthermore is insufficient. We should not be discussing what is needed to keep the current system going, but instead taking the vast wealth off the wealthiest organisations and individuals in this country and using this to provide high-quality healthcare, education and housing for all.

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