By any standards, Jo Grady has been through an eventful 80 days. On 5 March, she posted a "blunt" tweet, asking her fellow members of the University and College Union (UCU) if there was any appetite for a "wildcard, rank and file candidate from the HE sector" to stand to be its next general secretary.
On Friday, the academic was announced as the union's next leader. She claimed almost two-thirds of the vote in the second round of voting, beating two established contenders in the shape of head of policy and campaigns Matt Waddup and Jo McNeil, the president of the University of Liverpool UCU branch who previously ran for the general secretary job in 2017.
"Wildcard" certainly sums up Grady's extraordinary rise to the top. She was only elected to the union's national executive committee for the first time this year. Yet she has skilfully managed a grassroots campaign, which tapped into widespread dissatisfaction among UCU members – complete with eyecatching badges and posters that have been spotted in university and college campuses across the country.
This sense of unease among members came to a head at the UCU's annual congress in 2018, when members of the union's staff walked out in protest at motions calling for the resignation of then general secretary Sally Hunt. A year on, the mood among delegates in Harrogate could not be more different.
Read more: Jo Grady named next UCU general secretary
Background: Revealed: The candidates bidding to lead UCU
Since the election results were announced on Friday, Grady has been out and about speaking to members, as well as giving her first speech as general secretary-elect at the biggest event in the union’s calendar.
The response to Grady winning the member’s vote in the race to replace Sally Hunt – the only leader UCU has had since it was created – has been overwhelmingly positive, she says.
“It has been really invigorating. When we did the campaign, we met lots of people and got lots of emails and there was lots of social media – which characterised this election – but we didn’t do any polling, so you don’t have any idea if the message that seems to resonate with a lot of people actually is doing.”
Grady, a senior lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield, joined the UCU in 2006 and in 2016 became co-branch secretary at the Leicester UCU branch, before moving to Sheffield UCU where she became a pensions officer. In 2018, she was also elected on to the UCU national dispute committee for the universities pensions scheme (USS).
Turnout for the vote was, according to the UCU, the highest in the union’s history – something that Grady is particularly proud of. She won 64 per cent of the vote after the second round of counting, and turnout was 20.5 per cent, compared with a previous high of 14.4 per cent in 2007.
“It is a staggering amount of people to bring into the electorate that have never voted before,” Grady says. “People have said they are going to join the union again because they feel they have a general secretary they can believe in.”
'A strong manifesto'
Grady’s presence online was one reason for this, she believes, with about 17,000 visits to her website recorded in around six weeks and many members engaging with the resources she published there. The real key to her success, however, was her manifesto, she says.
“The ballot result was a result of the positive message and the positive campaign. I think people, in general, respond better to you positively telling them what you are going to do. But I ran on a really strong manifesto that is based on the experience that I have from working in education for a decade.”
She says the manifesto offers “a practical road map about how we can start making changes now”, in what she describes as a “reorientation” of the union and the way it works more generally.
And while the manifesto brought together her ideas of how those changes could be made, Grady also wants to “engage as many experts from the different sectors as possible’.
Tackling the 'disconnect' with members
Becoming an active union member was a consequence of her upbringing, Grady says. “I was born during the miners’ strike,” she explains. And her deeprooted respect for the colleagues she has got to know at UCU was at the heart of her manifesto for change.
“I have always been active in my branch,” she says. “Thinking about the manifesto, there is so much collective knowledge and skills and expertise within the union that I think is not being effectively utilised. And that has led to a disconnect. I really think my election was a vindication of that thought. My platform was that we are going to do more with this.”
Grady’s debut speech to congress was well received, she believes: “There was a lot of positivity in the room. It has been a difficult year for people working in education, so to see a room full of colleagues being excited and really hopeful is really invigorating.”
For the union's members in FE, she says pay will continue to be the key issue over the coming months, with many of the motions at this year’s UCU congress centred around the campaign for better pay. However, changes to the teachers’ pension scheme are also important. “I was pleased to see people coming up to speak about that and that people want a campaign together with HE.”
Both the casualisation of education and the changes to pensions, she believes, are "a fundamental attack on the professonalism of the profession".
Augar review ‘potentially disastrous’
Ahead of the publication of the post-18 review, expected in the coming days, Grady is keeping her cards close to her chest. “I will need to see it,” she says. In her speech to congress, however, she was more outspoken, claiming its ramifications “will be mixed at best for FE, and potentially disastrous for HE”.
Grady’s own journey from Wakefield College, where she took her A levels, to becoming a senior lecturer at a Russell Group university would have been much less likely in today’s education system, she argues. “If I was 17 now I would not end up a senior lecturer at 35. I went to college to do A levels. I didn’t get any EMA [education maintenance allowance], but I had friends who, if EMA had not existed, would have had to work. I couldn’t have gone to university with the fees that we have now.”
In Grady’s speech to the union’s annual congress on Saturday, it was not the university sector that she mentioned first. Instead, she talked about the challenges faced by UCU members working in prison education, and FE strike action over pay also got a mention early on in her speech.
The first to go to university
“There was a concern for some people that I am in HE, and that I am from a Russell Group university, but my history is not that. I was the first in my family to go to university,” she explains.
Leading a union that represents a broad range of members – from those in adult education to teachers in prisons, colleges and universities – Grady stresses that she is determined to “represent all of the sectors”.
While Grady’s start date as general secretary is yet to be determined, she intends to get going as soon as she can. “One of the first things I am going to do is meet with the UCU staff in the different regions and nations," she says. "That is really important. And when I am there, I want to meet with branch members. There will be a lot of meetings to be had.”