Building new, and better: Defending education under COVID-19
UCU meets at a time when society and the role of education are under intense scrutiny. Education and research should be the vehicle for lifting society out of the crisis of Covid. Instead, the Government’s insistence on business as normal including face to face teaching has turned colleges into petri dishes. According to SAGE, education is the greatest contributor to the spread of infection – a greater contribution than workplaces or the service sector.
UCU has rightly challenged this disastrous policy. Students and staff have voted with their feet. But Congress meets while university managements persist with this “business as usual” fiction.
We now face new challenges: in FE, to ensure a move away to safe remote teaching and access for every student; in HE, to allow students to return safely home from halls of residence and private accommodation. We must defend the USS pension scheme in HE from neoliberal attacks not least because the greatest penalty of pension changes fall on the youngest.
The “leaders” of our institutions have failed. It is up to us to defend education. Our ability to defend our members, to defend education and our students’ rights, will determine the fate of education in the UK. Meanwhile the Conservative Government’s crisis over free school meals exposes just how out of touch they are with the wider population.
UCU – not unlike the rest of the labour movement – is on a learning curve with online conferencing for our democratic processes. We look forward to meeting again at conferences in person. Maybe our future meetings will be in mixed mode, with some meeting in a shared room and others joining remotely. Whatever the outcome, we must maintain our principles of trade union democracy. This means mutual respect, listening to others, free and open debate, voting and – crucially – respecting the outcome of the vote. It also means an NEC that carries out the decisions of Congress and Sector Conferences as the supreme governing bodies of the union.
We are having an Interim Congress. We will not be able to debate rule changes this year nor take all of the motions submitted. We hope for a fuller agenda at next year’s Congress. There are other limitations in the format for Congress this year. The timing of the event has presented challenges for branches in finding delegates, since many members with heavy teaching or administrative loads cannot easily take three days to attend a conference in teaching term time. No doubt all delegates will make the best of the situation and we hope Congress will conduct as much business as possible. We ask all delegates to be supportive to each other, to the Chairs of Congress and Sector Conferences, and to UCU staff.
We call on delegates to vote for composite Motion 1. It should go without saying we all support standards of civility and kindness.
A global pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has to be understood in the context of capitalist globalisation and the ongoing pollution of the environment. It is both a health crisis and an environmental one. We must resist “nationalist” solutions to the crisis, and insist that everyone in the world has access to a vaccine, when a safe one is developed, and to the healthcare they need. Countries led by right-wing populist dictators and would-be dictators have fared particularly badly with high infection and death rates. Defenders of the free market have sought to put “the economy” (read: profit making) above public health. Lockdowns and quarantine have been imposed on poor people, on migrant workers and on students without adequate support. But many people have responded to the pandemic with displays of human solidarity.
Sections of the far right and extreme “libertarians” have denied the dangers of the virus, just as many of them deny the reality of the climate emergency. These social forces oppose vaccination, mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and any other measures to control the virus. They demand the freedom to get infected and to infect others. These groups in the USA have links with right-wing militias, who may not accept the result of the US election, if Trump loses.
The pandemic and inequality
The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities of capitalist societies around the world. Deaths have been disproportionately high amongst BAME communities, working class people in jobs with regular contact with the public, bus workers and nurses, older people in care homes and people living in overcrowded accommodation. The economic costs have fallen hardest on workers in precarious employment and sections of the working population who cannot work from home. Women have faced a greater risk of domestic violence in the home and by the double-load of trying to continue with paid work at home, while also home-schooling and looking after children. Older people and disabled people have had their lives put at risk by eugenical “herd immunity” approaches and by lack of testing and healthcare. Migrant workers and BAME groups have faced discrimination and harassment.
We recommend support for Motions 2, 3, 4 and 5. Motion 2 maps out the response we need to take to defend the lives of university and college staff and students, while the other motions address important equality aspects of the pandemic.
Equality and Black Lives Matter
We recommend support for Motions 6-19.
Since Congress 2019 the killing of George Floyd has led to a massive upturn in the Black Lives Matter movement. This has become an international movement, as police racism has been challenged in many countries. It has strengthened calls for decolonising the curriculum (critically reviewing curricula), removing statues of slave traders, denaming campus buildings, through to reviewing museum exhibits. Universities, like many institutions, must come to terms with their colonial past, acknowledging their debt to slavery and the case for reparation.
UCU must maintain support for all aspects of its equality agenda.
SFC Business Motions 20-28
We support Motion 20 which affirms the ongoing importance of international solidarity work.
Motions 21, 22 and 23 address the problem of gender-based violence and harassment and how we handle such cases within UCU. We support the recommendations in these motions and the NEC amendment to 22. We need to find a way forward in this area which protects victims and safeguards the rights of all parties.
On Motion 24, we have reservations about the wisdom of extending the life of the democracy commission. While recognising the value of its work, since it was set up as a task and finish group. There may be more work for a future democracy commission, but resurrecting an old one is not the answer.
Motion 25 from Sheffield College calls for published audits of union casework. This is a commendable objective, but represents a significant undertaking. So, while the principle is good, the operation may need further discussion.
We support Motion 26 from the University of Bournemouth, which calls for work with the Health and Safety Executive to tackle work-related stress.
Motion 27 from West Midlands Regional Committee deals with branch records for membership ballots. We suggest delegates listen to the argument on this one. We all want to see procedures improved, but the motion goes into a degree of specification unusual for a Congress motion.
We support Motion 28 from Croydon College which supports the ‘People before Profit’ programme.
ROCC Business 29-36
We support motion 29 from the NEC which continues the union’s work in getting the vote out to win industrial action ballots.
Motion 30 from the University of Cambridge should be opposed. It manages to be simultaneously dangerously prescriptive and vague, and revisits much of the territory discussed in the Commission on Industrial Action. Existing policy offers a far better guide.
We support Motion 31 from City and Islington College, which offers a concrete set of points about how to win industrial action.
Motions 32 and 33 are from the Anti-Casualisation Committee. We support the idea of a Commission on Sustainability, Professional Development and Job Security, so long as the proposals come back to a UCU Congress. We also support the proposals in Motion 33 to improve sick pay and reasonable adjustments.
We support Motions 34 and 35 which deal with the level of the state pension and benefits. They are important in a context where the Government may suggest restrictions of benefits to pensioners to pay for the costs of the Coronavirus pandemic.
We support Motion 36 on the right to a private and family life and the amendment from the LGBT+ committee which helpfully widens the scope of the motion to include people who do not live in families.
Industrial action is still possible. We can win industrial action ballots. The employers need us to run the colleges and universities.
Education Committee Business 37-40
We support all the motions and the amendment in this section of Congress. There are very important issues here, such as how to respond to increased automation, and education around climate change.
Elections at Congress
Congress delegates participate in various elections, including those for national negotiators. These elections are important. We recommend voting for:
HE Pay Negotiators: Marian Mayer, Sean Wallis
HE USS Negotiators: Marion Hersh, Deepa Driver, Sunil Banga
FE negotiators: Julia Roberts, Nina Doran
Appeals Panel: Elizabeth Lawrence
A world to win
As educators and as trade unionists, UCU members can work with others to put forward a much better vision of a “New Normal”.
We do not want a return to the Old Normal with massive amounts of commuting, pollution of the environment and high levels of inequality. We want to see essential workers better valued and better paid.
We must advance our educational agenda based on funding education through general taxation, with an end to tuition fees and restoration of the Education Maintenance Allowance.
Privatisation has failed as a model for funding universities and colleges. It is time to kick the market out of education.
We stand in solidarity with our students, with other workers and with pensioners. None of these groups should be made to pay for the economic problems caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.