We've spent five years preparing for this battle

27th May 2011 at 01:00

In Harrogate this weekend, members of the University and College Union (UCU) will celebrate its fifth birthday. While we have achieved much since 2006, the last year has stretched an already overburdened group of staff in FE.

The sector's enduring ability to realign and refocus itself as successive ministers shift the goalposts is testament to the hard work of staff in colleges across the UK. However, the severity of the cuts ensures that we are facing some of our toughest challenges yet.

When we chose to merge, it was about building a union to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The UCU is now needed more than ever to draw attention to all sorts of issues that the Government and employers would prefer went unchallenged.

We have seen an onslaught of redundancies. While we were successful in warding off many compulsory job losses, there were still voluntary redundancies - and these will have serious ramifications.

As the new term began, it initially seemed that FE had fared relatively well in comparison to higher education, where teaching budgets were dramatically slashed, but it soon became clear that the devil was in the detail.

In a single stroke, thousands of welfare recipients were denied the chance to learn new skills or improve academic qualifications, with students of English for speakers of other languages hit particularly hard, even as prime minister David Cameron called on immigrants to learn English.

UCU research this year showed how the abolition of the education maintenance allowance will damage many students' chances of staying in post-16 education. There have also been attacks on our pensions, and I am proud that the UCU has been at the forefront of the campaign to preserve the teachers' pension scheme. Now the NUT and the ATL are balloting their members, and we may mount co-ordinated action later this term. That action would take place against a backdrop of unprecedented levels of anger among members over the Institute for Learning's plans for a compulsory pound;68-a- year membership fee.

Things are not going to get any easier. In the North East alone, three colleges have recently announced plans for mass redundancies. At the same time, we are seeing employers trying to drive forward worsening conditions of service.

The coalition Government's policies are a real challenge to education as a public good. Mr Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg may speak warmly about social mobility, but since this Government took power we have seen major financial barriers erected in the faces of those from low and average-income backgrounds.

We need to be making the case for high-quality education from cradle to grave and ensuring everyone has the opportunity to get on in life. To achieve that, staff in FE need a union that genuinely listens to its members. That is why one of my priorities for the coming year will be to encourage members' participation in our decision-making.

That means making it easier for members to have their say, looking at our structures to ensure they encourage participation rather than put members off, and seeking to ensure members' priorities are reflected in what we spend their subscriptions on.

I am very proud of the UCU's first five years, but we can do better still. At this weekend's Congress I want to start the debate about where our union goes next in order to defend our members. The challenges are immense, but together we can build a union fit to face the future head on.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.

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