Low pay in further education is probably the single most urgent issue currently facing UCU. Nobody can ignore what years of Tory austerity, combined with rapacious managers, have done to the sector. Without a meaningful national bargaining framework, branches have been forced to act locally.
The low turnout among FE members in recent elections to UCU's National Executive Committee (NEC) indicates a collapse of confidence in the union’s ability to fight for FE on a national level. This makes the local action which many FE branches are taking against their employers all the more impressive.
Members in FE are determined to withstand the systematic onslaughts we have seen to the sector: in terms of funding cuts from government, appalling management of colleges and institutions, the degradation of pay, and slashing of terms and conditions. As a union we have to work harder to support the current FE fightback, and rebuild the sector. I am running for general secretary because UCU has been letting its FE branches down, and it’s time for that to change.
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A position to win
There are several things UCU can do on a national level to put branches in a position to win. We know that when branches take, or threaten to take, industrial action, it works. The first thing I will do as general secretary is incentivise industrial action by opening up the Fighting Fund. UCU has accumulated a huge reserve by running up annual surpluses in the millions of pounds, but its strike fund is proportionally smaller than those of other unions (for example, Unite). Worse still, the payouts it makes to members who take strike action are minimal, as I have already pointed out.
We can afford to do much better. Imagine the results colleges could get if UCU HQ gave them the confidence to go on strike for sustained periods, knowing that they wouldn’t suffer financially for it. We need to recognise how urgent the situation is in FE, and give branches the financial backing to take the kind of action we saw HE branches take during the USS strike. If we put intense pressure on some of the consolidated college groups through local action, we’ll have a chance of returning to a genuine, binding national pay agreement.
The next thing we need to do is build up UCU’s FE membership. The ratio of FE to HE members has changed radically since UCU was formed in 2006, and we are now dominated not just by HE but even by the elite, pre-92 HE institutions. The fact I am the only candidate with significant experience of working in tertiary education outside the Russell Group is a sign of this imbalance.
Pay offer for FE
As I argue in my manifesto, we need to embrace far-reaching reform of UCU’s subscription rates in order to encourage more FE staff to join, or rejoin, the union. The tentative moves UCU has made towards a progressive system aren’t ambitious or wide-ranging enough. We need flexible rates that recognise the extent of casualisation and enforced part-time contracts in the FE sector.
Finally, we need a general secretary who stands in genuine, concrete solidarity with all their members. I could talk as easily as any other candidate about my own experience of FE, and the opportunities I got from doing my A-Levels at Wakefield College. It put me where I am today. But actions speak louder than words. I have already promised that if elected, I will donate a portion of my annual salary to UCU’s Fighting Fund, and publish the amount donated.
But most importantly, I will ensure that my annual salary increase is never higher than the national pay offer to FE colleges. As general secretary, I will not be satisfied until your managers start to reverse the damage they have done and put you where you deserve to be.
Jo Grady is UCU general secretary candidate. She is senior lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield