'Worst attacks since 90s' fire up UCU leader

Rallying cry from union president in defence of lecturers' conditions

Joseph Lee

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It was the battle following the incorporation of colleges that made an activist of Kathy Taylor, the new president of the University and College Union (UCU). Now, as the Northumberland College lecturer takes up this role, she says that the attacks on the pay and conditions of lecturers are the worst she has seen since that time.

"We have had massive amounts of redundancies, and even when we fight to stop compulsory redundancies we are haemorrhaging jobs, which means the workload just rises for those who are left," she says.

The work to build lecturers' terms and conditions since contracts were rewritten by newly independent colleges in the 1990s has been undone in the past two or three years, she adds.

Hard times are often good for union membership, but Ms Taylor says the main aim of her presidency will be to go out to branches, convince them that the union is working towards their priorities and encourage them to get involved.

"I want to make sure that the presidential team has a resonance and a sort of presence and accountability to the members that elected them," she says. "We are elected by the whole of the membership. We want to get out to see members, to hear what they've got to say."

The background to this is the union's internal debate over whether it is representing members in the right way. Sally Hunt staked her general secretary re-election campaign on reforming the union and reducing the size of its national executive, which she believed was dominated by "a union within a union" - UCU Left, a caucus aligned with the Socialist Workers Party.

Despite winning a ballot of members endorsing the changes, Ms Hunt was defeated at congress, which voted instead for a commission to draw up reforms. Ms Taylor strikes a conciliatory note, but she is a supporter of the general secretary's changes.

"There was clear evidence from members that they felt that to take things into the 21st century, to ensure the union was totally fit for purpose, to defend their terms and conditions and to fight on their behalf, some review of our structures was necessary," she says. "I don't think that's been denied by anybody."

Ms Taylor, a former court shorthand reporter who found a passion for teaching in the early 1980s after running night-school classes, sees the various battles that UCU faces as having a common core: the professionalism and status of FE lecturers. She considers the argument over lesson observations, which lecturers claim have become increasingly punitive and unfair in some colleges, as a failure to engage properly with teachers as professionals who want to improve at their work.

Similarly, she says that the downgrading of pay and conditions, and the increasing promotion of a second class of lecturing roles with lower salaries, are undermining the status of teaching staff.

"All the issues that we face are about attacks on our professionalism," Ms Taylor says. "It's a big issue about how our members' work is valued. These are attacks on who we are - attempts to change contracts and to introduce different kinds of lecturers."

But if prospects look bleak on many fronts, Ms Taylor says that the union has shown it can win debates, having ended compulsory membership of the Institute for Learning (IfL) through a boycott. That debate was also about professionalism and whether it can be imposed on lecturers without their agreement. It is set to continue on the issue of whether teaching qualifications should be mandatory in FE, a requirement that UCU supports.

Ms Taylor says that the IfL victory offered union members a morale boost. "That was an example of a grass roots reaction - it really was driven by the members."


1983: Part-time lecturer at Northumberland College. Joined National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE).

1988: Full-time lecturer in business and administration at Northumberland College.

1994: Joined NATFHE branch committee.

1997: Elected branch secretary.

2003: Elected northern regional secretary of NATFHE, and later UCU. Joined National Executive Committee.

2010: Elected UCU president and becomes president-elect.

2012: Becomes UCU president.

Photo: Kathy Taylor

Original headline: `Worst attacks since 1990s' fire up new UCU leader

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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