HEC discussion focused on negotiations on pay campaigns and pensions. Whilst confidentiality prevents much discussion, it is possible to say the following.
On pay the 0% non-offer in 2020-21 has been repeatedly rejected by UCU members in electronic ballots and in branch delegates meetings. On the 2021-22 pay negotiations employers continue to put forward plans for further pay cuts. A wide-ranging debate took place on how to address this crisis. A late motion to HE Sector Conference from an independent member was supported by UCU Left and was carried. This called for an immediate campaign and further delegate meetings to be held. The forthcoming HESC will be the crucial democratic body to determine UCU strategy and policy in relation to any forthcoming dispute.
Members will be aware that the USS negotiations have not led to a settlement on benefits. Instead a dispute over the 2020 valuation is fast approaching. There is agreement at HEC that the valuation is incapable of producing an outcome which protects the Defined Benefit scheme. This leaves members with a Hobson’s choice between remaining the high cost scheme and baring most of the risk or opting out of the scheme and having no pension to retire on. A wide ranging debate on how to address this. The forthcoming HESC will again be the crucial democratic body that determines UCU strategy in relation to, an almost certain, forthcoming dispute.
An important motion to instigate greylisting and increase solidarity with the 165 members threatened with redundancy at Leicester University was carried nem con.
A motion, subsequently discussed on Twitter, about student number controls was lost on a tied vote: 13:13 with 7 abstentions. The motion on student number controls had been tabled for a previous HEC but was withdrawn by the proposer so was not moved, debated or voted on. On this occasion the convention with tied votes is that the status quo remains, so there is no change to existing policy. The motion is pasted below. The debate centred on the role of caps on student numbers in pre- and post 92 universities. The lifting of the cap on student numbers has led to larger universities, particularly within the Russell Group, to boost their fee income by increasing their student intake. At the same time many post-92 universities have faced increased competition for students.
Opposition to this motion did not centre on the impact of the lifting of these caps, but on campaigning for ending marketisation and the fees regime. The role that fees has played in the increase in student recruitment was emphasised.
Numbers entering higher education have been rising and will continue to do so in the face of rapidly rising unemployment. Youth unemployment rate is now over 14%, a 10% rise during the pandemic, and there are still five million workers on furlough. Higher Education is an important option for current students and those returning to education in the face of the crisis Covid-19 has created. As a union we should not support a view which holds that there is too much higher education in the UK. There is a definite need for further discussion on this but the motion as it stood was not fit for purpose. It conceded too much ground to the notion that the problem is too many students, rather than the marketised fees regime.
UCU policy is for the abolition of fees and access to university for all those wishing to seek a university education. This unites us with students in a demand to challenge the market in higher education. To suggest students’ choices themselves are somehow responsible for the funding crisis in some institutions is to break the link of solidarity we should be building with student groups and student unions.
A further argument was made by supporters of the motion that these increases in student numbers are the driver of casualisation, especially in Russell Group institutions. Again, there was opposition to the notion that we can solve casualisation by cutting student numbers. In the summer of 2020, as the pandemic accelerated, Universities were only too willing to dismiss casualised staff on mass when fearing a drop in student numbers.
As a trade union it is our member’s strength and mobilisation through campaigning and industrial action that protects jobs and improves conditions. Granting employers and government uncritical control over the future of the sector by managing decline is not a solution for members. UCU must campaign for post-92 universities but it must be one which is independent of the employers’ narrative of a shrinking pool of students. As the mover of the motion’s own research recognised “the return of caps … may not necessarily be the silver bullet that we are hoping for” (https://medium.com/ussbriefs/stockpiling-students-covid-19-caps-and-growth-inequalities-in-uk-he-from-2014-5-to-2018-9-f9ab2991cc2e\0.
- Student Number Controls (redux)
HEC notes that:
- the combination of Covid-19 and marketisation of HE has created a ‘perfect storm’ of adverse conditions
- some UK universities over-recruited in 2020, and expect to do the same in 2021, in effect ‘poaching’ from other universities, particularly post-92 institutions
HEC believes that:
- The current uncapped, ‘free-for-all’ system of student places provides undue advantages to highly ranked institutions, and rewards gaming the system
- Fair competition is neither possible nor desirable, and that attempts to induce an education ‘marketplace’ have done enormous harm to the sector, workers and students
HEC resolves to:
- request modelling of student number control mechanisms for UK HE to be reported to the next HEC for further action
- support a robust form of student number controls aligned with UCU’s general opposition to the marketisation of HE
- campaign for caps aimed at the prevention of institutional failure and departmental closure