A dereliction of duty – HEC fails to give a lead

15 December 2023

This Friday’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) meeting was called to discuss next steps in the current 2023/24 Four Fights dispute. It follows Wednesday’s Branch Delegate Meeting, which showed a very wide consensus among the 110 UCU reps present that the Four Fights dispute has been sabotaged by the conduct of the General Secretary Jo Grady and her supporters. On the HEC, her supporters are the IBL and Commons factions – which represent the right of the union. The ‘Grady Slate’ is increasingly open about having a common election platform, and they frequently vote en bloc.

The message from the HEC meeting is clear – if you want a union that fights, you need to get organised to call for a Special HE Sector Conference, and vote for representatives on the HEC that stand by the decisions of Conference. 

Members are livid to discover that, after 18 months of campaigning and action, leading members of the union are attempting to kill off the dispute – even if that means sabotaging union democracy in the process.

The right in the union are allying with the General Secretary’s supporters in an attempt to undermine our union by stopping any national dispute. They don’t want a Sector Conference taking place during the elections – and it’s the elections they see as the priority, not the future of the dispute and our union.

Elections are important because they are a chance to replace our current weak leadership. But that same weak leadership want everything to stop for elections.

The employer’s offensive

Nature abhors a vacuum. Employers are beginning a major counter-offensive over jobs, which the national employers’ organisation, UCEA, will use as a reason to make low pay offers.

We are seeing a developing offensive, from Sheffield, Staffordshire and Oxford Brookes to Aberdeen and Sheffield Hallam, involving job cuts blamed on a range of factors from increased TPS pension costs, lower than expected student recruitment, poor historic management decisions and speculative expansion projects. 

However, fighting job cuts branch-by-branch forces local officers and reps into disputes focused on minimising compulsory redundancies, while the rest of the union is left on the sidelines. On the other hand, rebuilding the national dispute can bring the whole union together. Members in the worst-affected institutions can see other members taking action alongside them, which naturally boosts their own confidence and willingness to take action.

How do we turn things around?

After the BDM, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to reassert branch democracy over the top of our union. We need a Special Higher Education Sector Conference (SHESC) in the spring, but the General Secretary and her supporters are determined to stop it happening. 

Two motions in front of Friday’s HEC called for a Sector Conference.

A SHESC is the only mechanism that the union has for allowing branches to make decisions about the future of the dispute, instead of being ‘consulted’ with arbitrary questions. This is neither a radical proposition nor, if online, a costly one. But it can’t be controlled top-down by the General Secretary. 

There were challenges to the chair from one of the Commons members who managed (by a single vote) to get both of these motions removed, on the specious argument that calling a SHESC was not in line with the calling notice of the meeting.  This was despite a statement from the Head of Bargaining that ‘all forms’ of consultation with members would be employed!

Other motions from the right of the union showed just how far they were prepared to go to undermine the union’s ability to make independent decisions, i.e. proposals from elected representatives rather than from officials.

One motion from a General Secretary supporter called for everyone else’s motions at this HEC meeting to be removed from the agenda to allow just a ‘discussion’ with no decision-making! This was an extraordinary intervention in a meeting called to make decisions – it should have been ruled ultra vires, but in any case it is profoundly anti-democratic. Indeed, the mover called for ‘consensus’ rather than democracy.

Although we ran out of time and the motions were not reached, it is worth noting the level of backward thinking from some on the union’s right wing. Another motion from a supporter of the General Secretary called for us to to wait until the union has 50% density in the sector before balloting members.

This is a call for UCU to become a no-strike union, at least on a national stage. This is in the context of a sector with very high casualisation and turnover, mergers, medical schools (where staff may be in the BMA), competing unions like EIS, and often no formal demarcation between UNISON, UNITE and UCU. So it is not always clear what our ‘density’ is. 

Having high density is of course desirable, but it is not key to winning disputes. Employers do not concede to a large and inactive membership – as the history of previously no-strike unions like the RCN has demonstrated. Rather, when unions stand up for members and take action, they gain both credibility and membership. The USS 2017-18 campaign saw pre-92 branches who got over the threshold gain another 50% in membership after the ballot had closed. Those pre-92 branches that did not get over the threshold missed out. Once UCU was standing up for members and their pensions, non-members flocked to the union to take part.

This motion would stop us fighting back. Instead of putting such a major proposition out to a branch meeting and then to Sector Conference, the motion seeks to introduce a major industrial policy change at HEC, whose obligation is to carry out the decisions of Sector Conferences.

The union is at a very dangerous point. The supporters of the General Secretary are beginning to spell out just what kind of union they want to see – one that has large numbers of fee-paying members but is unprepared to fight back and is at the mercy of the employers.

Members deserve a lot better than this.

What everyone can do

  • Call a branch meeting and pass a motion for a Special Higher Education Sector Conference. An outline motion suggested by the UCU Solidarity Movement is below. The key words are “[this branch] Resolves to … Call for a SHESC on ‘the future of the Four Fights/JNCHES disputes, including a potential TPS dispute’.” 
  • Begin a debate in the branch about the kind of action and campaigning that we need. Note that we must not limit our horizons to our own individual branches. We need to build a campaign of solidarity between USS branches (where employers are receiving a windfall in reduced contributions) and TPS branches (where employers are being made to pay more). The solidarity motion below is a possible starting point for this.
  • Campaign for a vote for UCU Left candidates on HEC – once the left lost our majority after the May Congress, we saw the dispute sabotaged, from the refusal to reballot to ill-judged calls for negotiations over deductions and wobbling over strikes. Now we are seeing even more stalling and member-blaming from the same people.
  • Campaign for a vote for Saira Weiner for General Secretary – she is the UCU Left candidate and the candidate who unequivocally emphasises the importance of democracy from the bottom up. Invite her to speak at branch meetings and hustings.
  • Vote for UCU Left candidates. Remember that HE members can also vote for the incoming Vice President – vote for Peter Evans.


This branch notes

  1. The current state of the Four Fights (UCU Rising) dispute.
  2. The crisis in the TPS pension scheme arising from the 2020 TPS valuation.
  3. The Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) is the national bargaining machinery for pre- and post-92 sector pay.
  4. That post-92 universities are beginning to announce redundancies before the end of 2023, citing increased TPS costs, including Oxford Brookes University and Staffordshire.

This branch believes

  1. That the combination of the USS windfall of +5% of salary in pre-92s and the TPS surcharge of between 3 and 5% in post-92s will divide our sector and presents the biggest threat to national bargaining in a generation.
  2. That in the absence of an alternative bargaining framework, a UK-wide dispute could be submitted calling for a UK-wide No Compulsory Redundancies agreement arising from the TPS cost increase.

The branch resolves to:

  1. [POST 92] Demand the employer commits to making No Compulsory Redundancies arising from the TPS surcharge.
    [PRE 92] Twin with post-92 branches in our Region to support them in their fight.
  2. Call on HEC to trigger a UK-wide dispute over TPS at JNCHES and to support post-92 branches.
  3. Call for a SHESC on ‘the future of the Four Fights/JNCHES disputes, including a potential TPS dispute’.
  4. Call on HEC to commit publicly to implementing the decisions at that Conference in the first post-HEC communications.

Note: It is really important not to change the wording of Resolves 3.

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