Proposals for UCU accountability and transparency

David Harvie
Jun 10, 2020 · 6 min read

With fellow new NEC members Jo Edge, Ruth Holliday, Claire Marris, Mark Pendleton and Leon Rocha, I’ve produced this report, to be presented to the national executive committee meeting on 19 June. We’ll be submitting an accompanying motion asking the general secretary to investigate ways of operationalising our proposals. (The text of this motion is at the bottom.)

Context: Recent debates

The proposals below are designed to help inform UCU members about their union and its decision-making mechanisms, and to create more productive platforms for debate about substantive political and industrial issues.

These issues would be important at any time. They are even more so now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the union’s highest sovereign body, Congress, is unable to meet. If UCU is to grow into a union that is sufficiently imaginative, resilient and powerful to advance both members’ interests and a vision of post-16 education that is fit for a progressive twenty-first-century society then it is essential that we address them now.

Note: The text below refers to the national executive committee (NEC). This committee has several subcommittees, all of which are important to the healthy functioning of our union’s democratic processes. We believe that our proposals should be applied to all of NEC’s subcommittees as well as the main committee itself.

Proposal 1:
Advance publication of papers, motions and amendments submitted

Currently, any member of NEC can submit (a maximum of two) motions to the committee, up to one week before it meets. However, these motions are not published — they are only circulated to NEC members. Even after the NEC has met, submitted motions are not made public. The brief minutes that are published — not until many weeks after the meeting in some cases — mention only motions that have been passed. Motions that fall off the agenda owing to lack of time, motions that have been ruled out of order by the chair, even motions that are debated but voted down: none of these are included in the published records of NEC meetings. Thus key evidence that might help UCU members judge their representatives’ behaviour, political priorities and competence to perform their roles is never made available to them.

Members of NEC are elected by UCU members to be their representatives. It is a basic matter of transparency and accountability that UCU members should be able to scrutinise in advance all motions (and amendments to motions) submitted by their representatives. These should be published on UCU’s website in advance of the meeting. (This is also in line with the procedure used for UCU’s Congress.) This would allow UCU members, if they so desire, to organise to exert political pressure and discipline on their representatives to use their vote, and their time on the NEC, responsibly. It would also help inform their voting choices in the annual NEC elections

The general secretary (who is elected by the members) and other officials (both elected and unelected) of UCU also present papers and reports to NEC. The same principle should hold with respect to these: they should be published on UCU’s website in advance of the meeting.

In some cases, papers and reports presented to NEC should be confidential. Examples include sensitive legal information and negotiation status reports (where publication would cede advantage to employers or another counterparty). Some exceptions to this principle of openness will therefore be necessary — but openness must be the rule, not the exception.

Proposal 2:
Bring forward deadlines for motions and amendments

To allow the proper scrutiny of NEC motions we consider necessary, we believe greater time as well as well as transparency is necessary. As things stand, the deadline for motions is one week in advance of the meeting; amendments must be submitted two days prior to the meeting.

We believe these lead times must be extended, at least for meetings that are normally scheduled — i.e. not for emergency meetings. We suggest the deadline for motions should be two weeks prior to the meeting, with one week for amendments.

Proposal 3:
Publish NEC members’ voting records

Although UCU members elect their representatives on NEC, there is no formal mechanism for finding out what these representatives do once they are in office. The official minutes include the names of proposers and seconders of motions (that are debated and passed — see Proposal 1), but no record of which NEC members voted for, against or abstained each motion.

Our union’s recent history has included several significant events — not least 36 days of national strike action (at most pre-92 universities) — and many controversial moments and decisions. NEC members have — rightly — been at the heart of much of this history. NEC members’ voting records would have shed tremendous light on their actions and positions.

We acknowledge the argument that publication of voting records could violate the principle of collective responsibility. According to this principle, NEC members should support decisions made by the union in public even when they privately disagree with them. In the case of industrially sensitive issues, this could expose rifts in the union to employers. However, such ‘breaking of ranks’ is already common: many NEC members frequently share views — via blogs, social media and email lists — that differ from the collective position voted on by the committee. Public voting records would provide a more consistent, objective picture that would complement — and at times correct — NEC members’ personal accounts.

Proposal 4:
Live-streaming and recordings of meetings

Without wishing to be uncritical of the UK’s democracy, we can learn from the ‘mother of parliaments’. The House of Commons has viewing galleries for journalists and other members of the public and has allowed television cameras since 1990. Most debates in the chamber and in committees are now screened live.

We believe UCU should consider emulating this, to ensure NEC — and other committee — meetings are as open to all members. For reasons of accessibility, we do not necessarily advocate opening up Carlow Street (post-pandemic), but both remote and in-person meetings can be recorded and live-streamed relatively easily.

In fact, the NEC has already permitted the recording and sharing of the general secretary’s report to NEC — a standing item on the agenda. As with our Proposal 1, some items will necessarily be confidential — for these NEC must sit in camera.

Conclusion

Post-16 education — and the workers who make it possible — face unprecedented challenges. A union that can rise to these challenges — both defending its members’ livelihoods but also opening up and seizing spaces to create a more progressive future — is more important than ever. Democratic structures that are open, accountable and transparent are essential to such a union. Members of UCU’s national executive committee — as well as its general secretary and members of its presidential team — are elected by UCU’s membership. When they act in their roles they should always be asking themselves: what will the members who elected me think about this? Does my behaviour stand up to scrutiny? The five proposals outlined above are designed to allow such scrutiny of NEC members’ behaviour — and to encourage outward-looking thinking by NEC members.

As well as pushing NEC’s members to centre the union’s membership in their thinking, our proposals would also have the practical effect of improving the way the committee functions, of steering it towards the discussion of motions that can be most effective in advancing the interests of the union as a whole, and its membership. We hope that our proposals, if accepted, might even foster a greater desire on the part of NEC members to engage in constructive, substantive debate and to seek consensus, rather than resorting to voting that is frequently divisive (see NEC Standing Orders, §7.1).

Our proposals, although discrete, will be far more effective if adopted as a whole.

Motion for 19.06.20 NEC

NEC notes:

The points and proposals discussed in the report on UCU accountability and transparency, presented to this meeting.

NEC resolves:

To ask the General Secretary to prepare a paper for the next NEC meeting, exploring mechanisms for operationalising the proposals advanced in the report. Specifically we wish to see for NEC and all of its standing committees:

  1. Publication of papers, motions and amendments (subject to confidentiality and privacy) submitted, and of the Chair’s rulings on such items;
  2. Extending the period between the deadline for submission of motions and amendments and the date of the meeting;
  3. Publication of individual members’ voting records;
  4. Full recording and publication of meetings.

David Harvie

Thoughts of a junior hurler on UCU’s National Executive Committee

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