UCU reform: We have had the vote, now let’s have the discussion!


  • 88.6% voted to support reducing the size of the National Executive Committee and spending the savings to improve member services
  • 85.1% voted to be balloted whenever the majority of negotiators believe a final offer is on the table and before a decision is taken to accept or reject
  • 82.4% voted to elect your lay national negotiators by one member one vote rather than by annual conference.


Turnout 19.1%

The result of the general secretary’s member consultation on reform of the UCU have been published finding over 80% in favour on each question and with a turnout of over 19%.

The results are unsurprising as the questions appear reasonable but are accompanied by no consideration of the implications, and no proposals for alternative structures or the composition of the NEC, and no contextualisation of what election of negotiators might imply for the role of the sector conferences of members’ representatives. Nor was there any attempt to engage members in collective discussion through the union’s branches and regional committees.
None could disagree that the union should spend more money supporting members. None would disagree with reducing the size of the NEC subject to no region or sector or constituency being disenfranchised. In the absence of any detail, however, how could one know what the consequences might be? Moreover, it appears sensible to put final offers to members and directly to elect negotiators. Yet the implications of these proposals were not made clear.

The referendum was put in place with inappropriate haste and without serious debate, ignoring the democratic traditions of the union. There must now be a collective and collegial discussion throughout the branches and regions, and at the annual Congress.

It is a mistake to publish branch and regional election data. This gifts the employer with important internal membership information that could expose our members and reps. This should be removed urgently and not happen again.
There should be concern that the vote has preceded the discussion

None are precious about the size of the NEC. Our union is only five year’s old but has proven to have punched above it’s weight and put resistance to the privatisation of post-16 education at the top of the agenda, and made itself one of the most active in the trade union movement. Proportionately, we have achieved among the best year-on-year recruitment figures compared to other unions. In these circumstances, many members have expressed some concern at the degree of introspection in which we are currently engaged, given the demands facing the UCU to defend members’ jobs and the courses and research and services in which they are engaged.

The size of the executive

The UCU does have a larger executive than do other unions. This has been portrayed as a disadvantage without any regard to the benefits in respect of being more representative than the NECs of other unions. The current size and composition of the NEC is the result of careful discussion during the merger between the AUT and Natfhe to make sure that no constituency was marginalised or under-represented.

In the discussions that are now going to take place, we need to protect that careful balance. The UCU represents lecturers, researchers and academic-related staff in pre-92 institutions, lecturers and researchers in post-92 institutions, lecturers and tutors in FE colleges, and lecturers and tutors in prisons and agricultural colleges. When it was formed, the UCU was an amalgamation of the AUT and Natfhe. That is how it must remain. It was not a take-over of the latter by the former.
The current composition of the NEC was designed to ensure that minority groups had a voice. We have to consider how we ensure that equality remains at the heart of the UCU, and that women, black members, LGBT and disabled members continue to be directly represented.

In our discussions we must remember that women make up the majority of those suffering job losses from the public sector, and that unemployment and pay cuts are disproportionately affecting black and minority ethnic communities.

Final offers

It is current policy of the UCU to put final offers to members. This is not new, and the UCU left has always campaigned to ensure this is the case. Under current proposals for change, any final offer would be put to members were a majority of the negotiators to so designate an offer. At the moment, it is the NEC (or the appropriate sector committee) that has this authority.

In the current TPS dispute, the Government has made four ‘final offers’. it would have been a disaster for the UCU to have put each of these out to ballot. That would have been a recipe for paralysing our union, and could have divided us from our sister unions had members taken the decision to ballot as a recommendation to accept the offer.. It would give the tactical advantage to employers and the Government to stall industrial action. It would have been them and not us who had described the offers as ‘final’.

Direct election of national negotiators

This would appear more democratic with one member one vote. It is not clear, however, how the negotiators would be held to account were they to diverge from conference policy. The current model, i.e. electing negotiators at conference, works well. It ensures that the mechanism by which members elect negotiators is the result of a thorough process of selection, and that it takes place in the forum that decides what our objectives are in any dispute.

This ensures that candidates must be drawn from the ranks of delegates to conference. Those delegates have been chosen by members in branches and regions on the basis of their track record of competence. Were this safeguard to be removed there would be little power to hold to account those who do get elected in the future.

Where we go from here

We need a thorough debate over these issues at Congress. Should the Congress decide to proceed then it needs to elect a Commission for the reform of the NEC that can report to the NEC and to members so that a full debate can be held throughout the union in branches and in regions. That Commission should then bring its proposals to the next Congress in 2013 where proposals can be debated and amended as appropriate for implementation in 2014.

Meanwhile, the principles of equality and appropriate sectoral representation should constitute the foundations of the Commissions work. For that reason, in addition to supporting the formation of a Commission to be elected at Congress, branches and their delegates are urged to support the motion from Grand Parade branch, University of Brighton. This motion establishes the principles against which changes to the NEC should be considered, and preserves for the NEC the decision on the finality of any offer, and for the sector conferences the election of national negotiators.

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