The University and College Union must address the “massive disconnect” between its leadership and members if it is to ensure post-16 education continues to have a future, according to a challenger for the leadership.
The ballot to decide the UCU’s next general secretary opens on Wednesday. Sally Hunt, who has held the role since 2007, will go up against Jo McNeill, president of the University of Liverpool branch and a member of the union’s national executive committee.
The ballot will take place against a backdrop of falling membership. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of UCU members in the FE sector dropped by almost 8 per cent, from 31,922 to 29,420.
Ms McNeill, who is backed by the UCU Left faction, told TES that the union needed to “completely rethink our industrial action strategies” and focus on building the confidence of members through targeting local disputes over key issues.
But Ms Hunt said that the “last thing” UCU members needed was a general secretary “captured” by one political faction.
The UCU held two national one-day strikes in late 2015 and early 2016 in its pay dispute with the Association of Colleges (AoC), after the latter – representing its member colleges across England – offered no pay rise for staff. In 2016-17, however, the AoC tabled a 1 per cent increase. The offer was subsequently accepted by two-thirds of UCU members who voted in an electronic ballot.
'Lack of confidence'
Ms McNeill, a former student at Hugh Baird College, argued that the union should focus on supporting “effective action” by local branches over issues such as pay, casualisation and the gender pay gap.
“It’s not rocket science to develop an effective strategy,” she said. “We’re not seeing high-profile national campaigns prior to the ballots going out. [The UCU can] bring those local wins forward to give us some national strength again and build confidence back, because I think that’s what’s missing.
“There’s been a disconnect between the members and the current leadership, and there’s a lack of confidence and we need to rebuild that…The future of post-16 education across the board is at stake if the UCU doesn’t step up and rise to the challenge.”
'The churn factor'
But Ms Hunt raised concerns about Ms McNeill’s leadership bid. “[Members] need someone who is independent running this union,” she said. “They don’t need someone who is just representing one group, and that, I’m afraid, is where she is going to be coming from. The moment you put yourself into one particular faction, that’s what drives your politics, and you can’t do it as general secretary, in my view.”
Ms Hunt expressed concern about the falling UCU membership. “It’s tough what’s going on out there,” she said. “Where you are seeing a reduction in membership…a lot of it is because of the churn factor: the major issue of funding cuts that means that jobs are walking out the door.
“It is absolutely fundamental that we have a well-funded and well-supported FE sector, so that’s really the focus.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 27 January edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. TES magazine is available at all good newsagents.