Union's private pains are not a pretty picture

18th September 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Alan Thomson

The unions have had a good congress in Liverpool this week, wringing a "no cuts to frontline public services" speech out of Gordon Brown and muscling their way back into the heart of electoral politics.

But, as has often been the case on the Left, the corollary of muscle flexing is a bombastic form of boss-hating, "them and us", brazier-burning rhetoric that, like the smell of Brut 33 and paraffin heaters, can transport you back to the 1970s quicker than you can say "three-day week".

And so it was when Dr Alastair Hunter, president of the University and College Union, spoke to motion number 61 at congress on Tuesday.

It was a decent enough motion. It said things like congress believes that education has inherent value and that it should be accessed by right not privilege. It said colleges and universities are vital to combatting recession. And it called for the proper funding of further and higher education and for campaigns against attacks on jobs, pay and the conditions of college and university staff.

Most across further education, unionised or not, would applaud these words. FE Focus certainly does.

But Dr Hunter - who teaches theology at Glasgow University (presumably with a special interest in Old Testament vengeance) - then spoke of "anti- union" managements "whose unbridled desire for the private sector is as obscene as it is foolish". It was "raw capital" and "victimisation of workers on a calculated and grand scale".

Now Dr Hunter had to sell the motion and did a good job since it was passed unanimously. But, as the spokesman for the Association of Colleges says, do we really recognise the picture he paints?

FE Focus has said before that there is a risk that managers in education borrow too much from the private sector. Not all that is corporate maps on to education effectively.

But education does have a bottom line and it is the students. Colleges must be managed to ensure that the best possible education is delivered to the largest possible number of people, achieving the best possible outcomes.

Dr Hunter put his finger on it when he said that one of the biggest threats of recession is a lost generation of young people: lost to employment, education and training.

Senior managers and staff in further education are currently in the same boat trying to ensure they are not lost. It is hard to see what can be gained by deliberately rocking it.


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