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November 9th, 2020:

Report from the Higher Education Special Sector Conference (30/09/20) 

Three delegates from Southampton UCU Executive committee attended the online Higher Education Special Sector Conference which took place on 30th September 2020. In this short blog we will report back to SUCU members on some of the main themes in the debates which took place and what we think the decisions made means for our members. 

The remit of the conference was to debate and direct the union’s response to the attack on jobs, pay and conditions resulting from the response of employers to the COVID-19 pandemic and included a draft sector-wide claim. We were able to get through all the business of conference, debating 16 motions and 7 amendments. You can see a breakdown of the motions and results here. 

The conference was broken into three sections: 

Section 1: Covid-19: health, safety, jobs, quality and funding of HE 

A total of eight motions (including the one late motion from the HEC) and a single amendment. All were carried, including the amendment to motion 2. Amendments emphasized the importance of safe workplaces, the lack of confidence in employers’ provision of the same, and pushed for campaigning in relation to these. Motion 4 was directed against the use of the ALAMA ‘COVID-age calculator’ because it individualized risk and could be used to justify passing the risks of COVID onto junior colleagues and those on precarious contracts. Your delegates abstained on this motion on the basis it recognised a genuine problem but wasn’t really aiming at the right issue. 

Motion 5 committed UCU to campaign for disabled members’ working conditions, including the protection of reasonable adjustments and disability equality training of managers. Motion 6 covered the workload implications of the shift to virtual learning environments, calling for updated guidance based on the recent The Automatic University report. Your delegates voted for both of these motions. 

Motion 7 noted the reliance of higher education providers on international student fees due to the sector’s funding model. Whilst the call to undo the latter is welcome, the motion was focused more on the international student side, including the claim that the courses on which they are enrolled tend “not [to] provide a quality learning experience for students”. This was again not the right target. On this basis, your delegates either abstained or voted against the motion. 

Section 2: Fight for jobs 

There were 5 motions in this section focussing on different areas of campaigning including detailed plans on how to fight job losses, reduce inequality and push against casualisationAll motions in this section carried, 2 with amendments.  

Motion 8 (carried) outlined demands for UK-wide redundancy policies in the sector. Part 2 of the motion called for a sector-wide agreement for redeployment between universities and colleges. Your delegates voted against the motion because of part 2 as they felt that this encouraged a perception of the sector as a fluid job market favouring mobile, young academics with few domestic commitments, potentially exacerbating existing inequalities. Conference committed UCU to campaign to end gross pay inequality by introducing a 1:6 pay ratio between the lowest paid and the highest paid, including VCs (Motion 9, as amended by University of Sheffield).  UCU will now call for paid GTA work to be included in national bargaining and campaign for better working conditions and employment rights for GTAs in line with permanent members of staff (motion 10, as amended by University of Sheffield). PGRs will be recognised as staff (Motion 11. See new UCU campaign on this). It is UCU policy to support FTC staff and establish nationwide campaign to secure fair and equal treatment for FTC staff, leading to permanency where legally entitledUCU will explore the possibilities for legal action against employers who refuse to abide by the Fixed Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 (Motion 12). 

Your delegates voted for all motions except motion 8.  

Section 3: Industrial action strategy 

There were four motions debated in this section of the conference, all directing the future of Industrial Action (IA) within HE disputes. Of the Four, two were carried and one carried with amendments 

As a result of the conference decisions, it is now UCU policy to include national employment standards a part of any new UCEA claims (motion 13). It has also been decided to continue using disaggregated ballots (motion 16) and to build a campaign of escalating industrial action this academic year (motion 13). However, Motion 15, which carried, makes it UCU policy to conduct a qualitative survey of members to determine support for different types of Industrial Action (IA) as well as the potential impacts of different actions on employers. It is policy to run this survey prior to balloting for further action and to use results of this survey to inform the strategy moving forward  

Your delegates either abstained or voted against the motions except for motion 15. 

The Higher Education Special Sector Committee, responsible for the general conduct of union business specific to the HE sector between HE conferences, is next due to meet on 26th February 2020. We will update members if this meeting is moved forward or we are invited to any further consultation on matters discussed at the HE conference.