A Different Education is Possible: but only if we fight for it

The ongoing Marking & Assessment Boycott (MAB) has hit the employers, exposing splits and divisions amongst them. But to date has not yet broken through. This isn’t because the form of action – backed up by strikes in response to pay docking – can’t work. It has a real possibility of creating a political crisis for the employers and the government. It is increasingly apparent that our General Secretary and our union’s leadership has failed to consolidate the successes with a co-ordinated response to punishing deductions that most Universities are making.

We have to learn from what has happened in the dispute so far.  Our members are magnificent, industrial action can clearly push the employers to seek an acceptable resolution to the dispute but our leadership has failed to match the determination of the union’s rank and file. Whether our leaders come from the left like Jo Grady or from the more traditional centre like Sally Hunt, our previous GS, it’s only grassroots organisation – such as the USS #NoCapitulation moment that can keep our disputes on track. 

The MAB has exposed something rotten at the core of the UK Higher Education system.

This is not something new, nor unknown, but it is something that has hit public headlines in a new and still more powerful way than previously. Marketisation has failed. The neoliberal mantra of students as consumers backfires when the service providers are incapable of completing the contract they have committed to: graduating students with higher education qualifications that meet the academic standards expected of a university given Charter status.

At the same time as the sector raked in surpluses of billions of pounds Principals and Vice Chancellors awarded themselves salaries far beyond those of top civil servants, government ministers or those running other public bodies managements while Increasing staff student ratios, cutting student support and increasing casualisation across the sector. In every UK HEI the percentage of income spent on staff salaries has fallen, and a preference for spending money on vanity building projects has increased.

The introduction of a market for university education, and particularly the introduction of home fees of £10K for English and Welsh students, saw the rapid emergence of universities as businesses with income maximation as their sole goal. The MAB has shown that marketisation has failed.

The impact of the MAB should not be underestimated. The very driving down of pay and conditions of the staff in the sector along with the extreme levels of casualisation has led to staff having more, not less, power in a service-led sector. A university education is a process that requires the final marks to arrive on time. University workers are part of a working class that has the agency to disrupt this process when they withdraw their labour.

Yet, again, the UCU leadership is failing to deliver a strategy that can lead to victory.

The MAB has also shown the weakness of the leadership of our union in fighting for the changes needed in Higher Education. UCU Congress in May 2023 voted for a summer ballot and industrial action at the beginning of the academic year. It did so because Congress realised the strength of the MAB is time limited: once exam boards have met the pressure on managements dwindles. But there is no sign of the membership willing to give up. Quite the opposite. UCU members have had to struggle continuously for 5 years since 2018 to retain their USS pensions in the pre-92 universities. That same resilience is evident in the #FourFights dispute in both pre- and post-92 institutions. This is not UCU’s first pay dispute, nor will it be the last, for the simple reason that the neoliberal university is the cause of the unrest.

The GS ensured the summer ballot called at last year’s Congress was delayed until late August/ September delaying any action till late November. When the HEC voted for indefinite strikes, she ensured that this was not notified, nor campaigned around amongst members. We could have won before the MAB if HEC decisions were enacted, and our members agency had been utilised to not simply remove marking but removing all activities in the universities.

Even today, the first act of the new HEC was to vote overwhelmingly for the ‘greylisting’ of Brighton University over its compulsory redundancies of 25 staff. Yet to date this has not been acted upon. Nor, have the cuts in other universities, including UEA been the focus of campaigning.  So, we have a General Secretary who stood for election to represent and campaign for members but is convinced of the inability to defend the sector without higher union membership density and ‘super majorities’. It is no wonder that Congress voted to censure the GS and that the no-confidence motion only narrowly missed gaining a majority.

Jo Grady must stand for re-election next year and, though we clearly need a change, a new General Secretary will not solve the problem. The conservatism goes deeper than that. The GS, even now, has support from both the traditional and the new rightwing of the union in the IBL and Commons factions respectively. Despite their differences in some areas, they both share pessimism about the effectiveness of industrial action, and regard action by members as subsidiary to negotiations. 

Why does this happen? Once any activist moves from the workplace to union HQ their experiences and their wage packets look very different. The words ‘trade union bureaucracy’ are not an insult. They are a description of the specific role our GS and unelected officials play. That role separates them from the grassroots membership – no matter how good and no matter how left wing they are. In a serious fight the temptation is always to wind the battle up – and ‘protect the union’ and its funds – as they don’t have to put their own wage packets on the line. 

That’s why organisation amongst rank and file activists is so key. 

The strength of our union lies with the active participation of our membership. Our members have had to fight to put ballots on, to demand democratic decision making and to resist management’s draconian attempts to break the MAB. They have shown courage and determination far beyond that of the UCU leadership and their supporters on the HEC.

Crucial to ability to do this has been the development of rank and file organisation. Unofficial Branch Delegate Meetings have been called from Newcastle UCU and UCU regions, to create the forum for discussion that the BDM’s were supposed to be, and solidarity networks, such as the UCU Solidarity Movement, has provided networks of solidarity for branches in dispute. Democracy over the running of our dispute, putting into practice being a ‘member-led’ union, is thus central to how the dispute should be run. What’s needed more than anything is the establishment of a democratic strike committee of all branches taking action that can end the stop start and prevarications from head office.

How do we win?

We have to address the lack of strategy at the heart of our union. The GS is seeking to end the MAB by allowing, as she did last year, branches to fight on their own. Attempts to negotiate ‘an interim agreement’ without balloting over the summer or declaring strike action before the current mandate runs out would lift the pressure on the employers. The GS’s only strategy is to repeat the timetable used for 2023 in 2024. This time, however, it will also allow for the General Secretary’s electioneering and rhetoric to coincide with a re-election ballot.

Instead, we have to have a strategy which keeps the pressure up. First, and foremost, this means beginning the ballot over the summer to ensure the mandate remains live. Second, it means notifying employers that, as the Brighton strikers have stated ‘the autumn term will not start’. Strike action has to be notified now to ensure employers know that induction and the beginning of the Autumn semester will be disrupted within the current mandate. Finally, we must recognise that, as with all time-dependent action and no matter what the reputational damage, the employers are willing to wait out action. What they cannot wait out is indefinite strike action.

Indefinite action in the autumn would again pile on the pressure on the employers and also link us to the wider FE sector, the other education unions’ plans for strike action and the wider trade union movement’s campaign against cuts to living standards. Our argument challenging our own union’s failure to lead is itself reflected in many other unions, such as the CWU, the RCN, the NEU and the RMT.

Indefinite action, controlled by the rank and file of the union has the power to win, precisely because it galvanises what management fear the most: our own agency.

We have been through an unprecedented period of industrial action over recent years across the university sector.

The employers have learnt much, but so have we. This fight is clearly about the future of the sector for us and our students. We have to be prepared to take unprecedented levels of action to break the log jam and make sure we haven’t sacrificed for nothing. That means going beyond the politics of the General Secretary. The ‘business as usual’ approach won’t work. Nor will putting the fight off to some distant future while we write off our present losses. We have to win this fight quickly now so our members, and other Trade Union members, know that when have an effective plan, we can win.

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