UCU’s national democratic structures: a case for reform

Number 23: #USSbriefs23

Rachel Cohen, City, University of London

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This brief describes UCU’s national governance structures and processes, examining where and to what extent they are accountable and responsive to individual members or branches.

Who comprises the UCU national ‘leadership’ and how it operates is relatively opaque. In the aftermath of the April 2018 USS ballot, UCU’s national leadership and democratic processes have come under scrutiny. The Union has powers and resources located in the centre, and much of what is happening to our sector requires a national campaign to respond to it. But while national industrial action is our strongest weapon, it is currently the one over which individual members and branches exercise least control. For these reasons it is important that we inform ourselves about, engage with and further democratise our national structures.

Part 1 of this brief is a primer on structures, or who does what and within what parameters. If we know how things work, and what does not work, we have scope to create change. Part 2 draws on this description to highlight six interconnected types of democratic deficit in UCU, and suggest possible responses, summarised as follows:

  1. Electoral participation. We need to raise the profile of, and participation in, UCU electoral processes by introducing debates and hustings and providing members with more information about candidates’ records.
  2. Local intervention in national governance. We need to make it easier for branches and regional committees to shape what happens in between our annual national Congresses and during industrial disputes.
  3. Overhauling national committees. National committees themselves should be structured to encourage elected members to participate, contribute, and deliberate collectively.
  4. Accountability for full-time officials and officers. UCU relies heavily on unelected full-time officials, who work with the General Secretary and Presidential Team on day-to-day business, including industrial dispute negotiations, but members get little information about or control over the work they do.
  5. Widening and diversifying the Union. We need to make it easier for members without permanent posts to participate in national governance, and increase the proportion not just of casualised but also of BAME, female, LGBT+ and disabled leaders in the Union.
  6. Harnessing members’ energy and expertise. UCU members have an impressive range of skills in every aspect of industrial relations, but our current national structures prevent UCU from making the most of them.

1. Structures

Roles and relationships

UCU is a membership organisation in which membership minimally requires paying a subscription and adhering to a code of conduct. Members are not required to participate further, but can become involved in organising union activities as activists. ‘Activist’ is an informal term denoting a greater level of union-related activity, without necessarily meaning that the member holds an elected office. The Union is organised into branches. There is usually one branch per institution (university or college). Members elected to local positions become branch officers. Members elected to national positions are national officers or national committee members. These are all lay roles, undertaken by members of the Union, currently or recently working in the sector, rather than by professional Union employees. There is also, however, a group of national (and sometimes regional) officials who are paid employees of the Union.

The General Secretary (GS) is elected every five years, with no limits on the number of terms they can serve. Although elected, the GS is a full-time member of UCU staff, currently paid over £130,000. GS candidates are exceptional in not needing to have worked in FE or HE, and in Hunt’s case, she has not. The GS is involved in all UCU negotiating. The GS also manages the Union’s paid employees. Since UCU was founded by the merging of AUT and NATFE in June 2006, Sally Hunt has been GS. She has won three elections. In the most recent in 2017, Hunt beat Jo McNeill, a branch activist from the University of Liverpool, gaining about 59 percent vote share. Notably, although turnout was up on the previous GS election, fewer than 14 percent of UCU members voted — a tiny fraction of those who participate in industrial action ballots. As in General Elections, there are rules that regulate the distribution of election material, but the sitting GS has a huge incumbency advantage. For instance, an incumbent GS can send out (non-election-related) press releases and emails to all members over the election period, gaining visibility that a challenger cannot. UCU does not organise national hustings between the GS and challenger candidates, and Sally Hunt has not agreed to participate in public debates during election periods.

After the GS the Vice President is the most important, and influential, elected role. A Vice President (VP) is elected annually, in alternating years from FE and HE, but always by the whole membership. Once elected, the VP serves four years: the first as VP, the second as President-Elect, the third as President, and fourth as Immediate Past President. All four members of the Presidential Team are heavily involved in decision making. Each chairs National Executive Committee (NEC)/Congress for one year, and the Higher Education Committee (HEC)/Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC) or Further Education Committee (FEC)/Further Education Sector Conference (FESC), depending on sector, for two years. They also become members of the pay negotiating teams for their sector, along with various other sub-committees (see below for more on these bodies). These are lay roles: office holders work in HE or FE, or have done so very recently and, unlike the GS, they are not paid staff. However, in the first two years the VP/President Elect typically negotiates 0.5 of their time for Union duties. In the third, presidential, year, they may be committed to national Union duties full-time and can access basic UCU-owned accommodation in London if they are from outside the capital. Despite their central position as the senior lay officers, the UCU Presidential team maintains a low profile: for instance, they hardly ever communicate directly with members and their identities, and contact details and information about their activities are not easily located on the UCU website. Consequently, their actions are rarely subject to effective member scrutiny.

National Executive Committee (NEC) members are elected for two-year terms across FE and HE and can be elected to a maximum of three consecutive terms. Some NEC members are elected UK-wide, some to represent regions (or nations in the case of the devolved nations) and some to represent specific groups, including equality groups and casualised workers. Within HE, criteria ensure that both pre- and post-92 members are elected and that academic-related as well as academic staff are represented. Within FE, criteria ensure that specific constituencies, such as Adult and Continuing Education and Prison Education, are represented. Once elected, NEC members are automatically members of the Further Education Committee (FEC) or Higher Education Committee (HEC) as relevant. NEC members have little obligation other than participation in these committees, but can also stand for election to specialist sub-committees (Education, Recruitment Organising and Campaigning (ROCC), Equality, and Strategy and Finance), the membership and Chairs of which are voted on by the NEC.

Depending on their electoral constituencies, NEC members are automatically members of their local National and Regional Committees and/or relevant Equality Standing Committees (SCs) (Black Members’ SC; Women Members’ SC; Disabled Members’ SC; LGBT Members’ SC) and/or Specialist Committees (Anti-Casualisation Committee; and Academic-Related Professional Staff Committee). Each of these Committees occupies a position between branches and the NEC and might potentially be a vital intermediary. NEC members with specific mandates (e.g. the West Midlands HE representative, or the Disabled member FE representative) are members of, and develop relationships with, the relevant specialist or regional committee, allowing them to report back from NEC/HEC/FEC and to canvass the views of defined constituencies. In some cases, expectations for how this is done are well laid out. For instance, relationships between the NEC representatives for casualised staff and the Anti-Casualisation Committee are formalised and typically strong. In many other cases, however, the relationships are informal and there is no oversight. That means links between national elected members and regional/equality/specialist constituencies vary in strength. In addition, there are no direct links between NEC members and branches or members: NEC members cannot report back to branches because they have no contact information for branch officers (nor lists of members). Similarly, members and branches are not provided with ways to contact NEC members, nor with information about who is a relevant elected representative for what.

National Negotiators (involved in pay negotiation) and members of the Superannuation Working Group (involved in pensions negotiation) self-nominate in the spring and are elected annually at Congress by branch delegates (see below for more on Congress). Negotiators may be, and sometimes are, also members of NEC. Negotiation teams and the SWG also include sector-relevant members of the Presidential Team, the GS, and unelected staff. The SWG, moreover, includes the three UCU-appointed USS trustees. Elected negotiators and SWG members are unpaid.

Some NEC members/negotiators/SWG members have ‘facilities time’ to participate in national Union matters, but others do not, in part because national Union work may not form part of a local branch’s time-off and facilities agreement. That means that elected roles are managed alongside full-time day jobs. A lack of dedicated time, or insufficient time, makes it difficult for members elected to national roles to participate fully, especially when they have insecure contracts. This increases the Union’s dependence on unelected officials. Moreover, because the time demands of national elected roles are hard to meet alongside day jobs with exacting performance management and ever-expanding targets, those who are less constrained by metrics or who have predictable schedules, including those in secure employment or approaching retirement, are over-represented on our national bodies.

A note on factions

Although not the focus of this brief, it is useful to highlight that there are two loosely organised groups among nationally elected members of the Union: the Independent Broad Left (or IBL), and UCU Left. Not all NEC members belong to one or the other, but most do. The IBL has dominated the UCU national leadership since the early days of UCU. Sally Hunt is supported by the IBL. This has been reciprocated: in the 2012 elections she emailed all members to endorse a list of ‘independent’ (IBL) NEC candidates. IBL members make up all four of the current Presidential Team: Douglas Chalmers (HE, VP), Vicky Knight (FE, President-Elect), Joanna de Groot (HE, President) and Rob Goodfellow (FE, Immediate Past President). However, earlier this year Nita Sanghera (FE), a member of UCU Left, was elected. She is currently VP-Elect and will take over as VP after Congress. She will be UCU’s first black President. Prior to Nita, the last UCU Left member of the Presidential Team was Liz Lawrence (HE). The IBL has also consistently held a small majority on the NEC.

The division between the IBL and UCU Left has been usefully characterised as rooted in different understandings of democracy — plebiscitary versus participatory. Thus, while neither group is monolithic, nor do they vote as a bloc on all matters, they are most polarised with respect to expectations about member passivity or potential for activism. IBL members argue that there is a large separation between members, whom they see as largely passive, and those activists who attend local and national meetings. They have therefore repeatedly argued for e-ballots and other means of gauging the opinion of inactive members, while cautioning against relying on decisions made at meetings. They are cautious about taking industrial action, or even raising subscription fees for well-paid members, on the grounds that such actions might lose member support and result in members leaving the Union. This has been visible recently in the IBL-majority NEC’s extremely tentative approach to redressing UCU’s regressive subscription rates. Currently members earning £60,000 pay just 0.48% of annual income as subs, whereas those earning £10,000 pay nearly 1.37%. In response to pressure and a 2017 Congress motion from the Anti-Casualisation Committee the NEC has submitted a motion to 2018 Congress which will reduce that difference, but only marginally, leaving the difference at 0.51 versus 1.30 percent in favour of the higher paid.

UCU Left has a more dynamic understanding of members and activists, seeing less difference between these groups and arguing that members are likely to become more active as action occurs. Therefore, in contrast to the IBL, they suggest that if the Union engages in effective action more members will join. UCU Left typically argues that meetings involving debate and active participation, and in which views can be interrogated and challenged, are a cornerstone of union activity and that e-ballots are not a substitute, especially e-ballots in which questions are determined by the leadership and members given limited closed-response choices. Critically, because of their different understandings of the role of members/activists, IBL members are typically happier than UCU Left to assign day-to-day issues, and sometimes bigger ones, to the Union’s unelected, paid officials.

Unelected officials: advantages and pitfalls

Unlike some unions, most national UCU business is carried out by unelected officials, managed by and accountable to the GS. These include regional officials, who work closely with branches and attend local negotiations, and officials based at Head Office in London, who work on legal, resource, marketing, press, research, policy and other issues. These staff are often highly skilled, and play a critical role in UCU — for instance, constructing campaigns and developing materials. Relying on them does, however, have drawbacks. First, although a few officials have previously been UCU members or lay activists, others have no experience of work in FE or HE. This occasionally becomes apparent, for instance, when the Union displays a tin ear for sectoral language (e.g. ‘review and resubmit’ rather than ‘revise and resubmit’) or when actions are planned that make little sense in the context of HE or FE (such as 2014’s two hour strikes). Second, the prominence of unelected officials probably makes UCU a more risk-averse Union than it would otherwise be. Unelected officials are less likely to see sectoral fights as existential than members. They may also be less willing to take organisational risks to achieve big wins, or avoid big losses (as with USS). Thus, while UCU officials organise excellent training for local activists, which emphasises the power of grass-roots organising, the national union more often organises for members, rather than with them. This is arguably also because unelected staff, who depend for their livelihoods on the preservation of UCU’s dues-paying membership, are concerned about losing more highly paid (and high-subs-paying), but putatively more conservative, members. These concerns make it harder to launch campaigns which disrupt the status quo. They also have meant that campaigns focused on casualised workers remain peripheral to the Union’s national industrial strategy, despite growing internal pressure from the anti-casualisation standing committee, external pressure from self-organised groups, and UCU’s own research and advocacy in this area.

The consequences of conservatism: UCU’s failure to stop the Teaching Excellence Framework and the Office for Students

UCU’s organisational conservatism and reliance on paid officials was especially evident in 2016–17 when the Union failed to turn widespread anger over marketisation into a populist political or industrial campaign against the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA). This was the legislation that formalised the TEF, introduced the Office for Students (OfS), eased the way for ‘alternative providers’, and broke the link between teaching and research. UCU’s campaign relied on the lobbying of MPs by Union officials, a strategy that neither stopped the bill nor energised and informed members, who were merely asked to sign and send a pre-written email to their MP. Given that HERA was only passed in the 2017 pre-election ‘wash-up’, and therefore required Labour assent, it is at least possible that a more high-profile member-led campaign could have prevented its passage.

Decision-making bodies and processes

UCU has various decision-making bodies and processes. These are formally democratic and they afford space for member involvement, as long as members know how they work. There are, however, limitations: decision making is relatively bureaucratic; there are few links between local activists or branches and national bodies; and even nationally elected members of the Union have restricted capacity to intervene.

There are three different annual delegate meetings: UCU Congress, the sector-wide annual meeting of the Union, and the Higher Education Sector Conference (HESC) and Further Education Sector Conference (FESC), which are held in parallel session and set policy for their respective sectors. The three occur together in May/June and are informally and collectively referred to as ‘Congress’. Motions and amendments can be submitted by branches, regional committees and by NEC, its subcommittees, and the Union’s national standing committees. The submission deadline is typically March, but late motions can be submitted in response to developments in the sector or wider world. Once Congress motions are published (as a ‘report of the Congress Business Committee’), branches or committees can submit amendments. Congress delegates have voting rights and are selected by their local branch. The number of delegates allocated is proportionate to branch size. Congress is sovereign, meaning that the motions passed at Congress define Union policy. Critically, therefore, Congress provides a space for branches to directly intervene in and set UCU’s priorities. Where motions call on the Union to enact a policy, NEC and its subcommittees are responsible for overseeing the progress of this over the year and reporting back to Congress the following year. Congress debate is very wide-ranging, but often time-constrained. HESC tends to be particularly rushed, meaning that some motions get timed out at the end of the meeting.

In addition to the annually scheduled meetings, it is possible to call a Special Meeting of Congress, HESC, or FESC either via a vote at one of Congress/NEC, HESC/HEC, or FESC/FEC (as relevant), if it is demanded by at least twenty branches or one tenth of the total relevant membership (see rule 16.11). A special meeting must be for a specific purpose and is only able to transact that business. This is the only mechanism individual members and branches have to directly intervene in national policy between Congresses, but it is slow, typically taking at least two months to pass sufficient motions, have these verified, and call a meeting. This can mean that by the time a Special HESC/FESC occurs, the dispute that triggered it has moved on or even ended.

NEC meetings occur four times a year. NEC only discusses issues that are ‘sector-wide’. This includes equality campaigns as mandated by Congress, such as anti-Prevent work. It also includes internal discussions about Union rules or process. NEC does not focus on disputes, as these tend to be sector-specific. The longest item is typically the GS’s report, on which NEC members can ask questions. Meetings run from 11 to 4.30 with an hour-long lunch break. Any business not complete by 4.30 is dropped from the agenda. Therefore, chairing and agenda-setting matter. HEC and FEC meetings also occur four times a year, but during a dispute they may be convened on additional dates. This can happen only following agreement to do so at a prior meeting or at the Chair’s request: there is no process for individual NEC, HEC, or FEC members to call for an additional meeting, except via a motion at a preceding meeting. The agenda items in NEC, HEC, or FEC typically include topical reports produced by unelected officials and progress reports on Congress-mandated policy or action. In addition, NEC members may submit motions and/or amendments.

There are currently no direct lines from members, branches, or regional committees to NEC, HEC, or FEC. That means that if a group of activists, a branch or regional committee passes a motion or wants to challenge national policy or its implementation between Congresses, there is no way to include an item on the NEC, HEC, or FEC agenda. Informally an individual, branch or region may contact and persuade an NEC member to propose a motion (for example, I put motions to NEC about sexual harassment after informal conversations with the 1752 Group, which eventually led to a statement), but this process is ad-hoc, reliant on informal knowledge and contacts, and requires that a supportive NEC member can be identified.

There are conventions that limit voting rights to those whose institutions are involved in an issue. For instance, those in post-92 institutions can vote on the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS), but not USS, and vice versa. The post-/pre-92 division has generally been respected, but the role of NEC members who have recently retired from jobs in HE is less clear-cut and more controversial. For instance, in the 2015 USS dispute, HEC members already receiving a pension voted to suspend action. Recently, an NEC representative for casualised workers has requested cross-sectoral voting rights to represent casualised workers in various contexts. This remains unresolved.

NEC members can submit a maximum of two 150-word motions a week in advance of the meeting, and can then submit amendments to motions. Motions from NEC members, unless they relate to business scheduled earlier, are taken at the end of NEC meetings and, because of a strict adherence to meeting end-times, are frequently timed-out. Because motions are the only mechanism for making formal demands, they are sometimes employed for mundane purposes: for instance, to ask that national leaflets are produced. Because, however, there is no mechanism to check on the progress of NEC, HEC, or FEC motions between meetings, which may be four or five months apart, mandated tasks may not be completed before they are no longer necessary.

NEC members cannot submit reports, and are therefore unable to develop complex arguments. Additionally, they cannot suggest edits to reports produced by officials, even if they believe these contain inaccuracies: only the section of a report containing ‘recommendations’ can be amended. A case in point is the now infamous report to the 28 March 2018 HEC. This report stated, without evidence and in contradiction of written eyewitness accounts, that 60 percent of branches represented at the Branch Delegate meeting earlier that day wanted to go to ballot on the 23 March UUK offer. The constraint on editing officials’ reports is based on the frequently repeated logic that a report represents the understanding of its author(s). To challenge this implies a challenge to the author’s competence and, where the author is a staff member, impinges upon ‘staffing matters’, outside of NEC members’ purview. This logic is understandable from the perspective of defending UCU’s employees, but leaves NEC members in a conundrum: reject a multi-page report that contains one or two statements with which you disagree, despite most of the report being helpful and uncontroversial, or accept the whole report and implicitly condone things you see as misleading. At the HEC meeting of 27 April 2018 the Chair, Douglas Chalmers, extended this flawed logic still further. Chalmers refused to allow elected HEC members to amend recommendations contained in an official’s report on the USS dispute and the establishment of a Joint Expert Panel (JEP). This went against significant precedent and meant that HEC members were required to vote for or against a long set of recommendations, and the detailed terms of reference and timetable to which these recommendations referred, without any ability to alter these crucial documents.

UCU Left-affiliated or unaffiliated NEC members submit substantially more motions and amendments than IBL-affiliated members. For instance, nine motions were submitted to the 27 April HEC, of which none was submitted by IBL-affiliated members despite this group constituting a majority of the HEC. There are various explanations for this, from UCU Left members’ greater enthusiasm for engaging the Union in a range of social movement campaigns, to differences in the willingness of the IBL and UCU Left to constrain unelected officials who develop the Union’s day-to-day activities and priorities. But it is also likely that the closeness of IBL members to unelected officials and the elected leadership makes it easier for them to exercise informal as opposed to formal influence.

What happens during an industrial dispute?

Decisions about ongoing disputes are made at HEC or FEC, and are subject to the same rules of debate and discussion, with the exception that, because of rapidly changing circumstances, papers from officials are often circulated very late: they may be received 24 hours in advance or even in hard copy at the start of a meeting. In these circumstances, HEC or FEC members are typically given twenty minutes to get up to speed, digesting a dozen pages of report and recommendations. If on reading these an NEC member wishes to respond, they can formulate and submit a motion or amendment so long as they do this by the point in the meeting when the item is discussed. Typically, this involves finding a piece of paper, writing something up quickly and passing it to the Chair. This process leaves little scope for deliberation, or to arrive at decisions following discussion and reflection. As such, it reduces the scope for compromise or detailed amendment, reinforces the control of the GS, presidential team and unelected officials, and exacerbates the tendency to produce binary arguments and votes for and against, thereby reinforcing the salience of the two broad groupings on the NEC.

During ongoing negotiations, written updates are produced by the unelected officials who are part of a negotiating team. These reports are discussed in outline with the full negotiating teams, including elected members, but not in enough detail to allow the elected lay members to make amendments. The negotiating position is usually then presented to other bodies (HEC, FEC, or Branch Delegates’ meetings) by an unelected official or by the GS, rather than by lay members of the negotiating team. The latter may be present and may contribute to discussion from the meeting floor, but are not required to do so. The infrequency of HEC or FEC meetings during the early stages of negotiation (since scheduled meetings of the HEC may be as many as five months apart) results in interim decisions being made by the GS and full-time officials, sometimes in consultation with the Presidential Team or full negotiating teams. These may be ratified at HEC or FEC, but can become a fait accompli.

To take industrial action, UCU is required to ballot members in a way that is tightly controlled by legislation. This mandates the type of question that can be asked, imposes a turnout quota of 50 percent, and means the Electoral Reform Society, rather than the Union, runs the ballot. In addition, UCU has increasingly used ‘consultative’ e-ballots to gauge member opinion. These are unregulated, and have no formal power, but are often used to test the water before a ballot and, more controversially, to end disputes.

It is important to note that unions are not nation-states and have no obligation for neutrality. Rather, in the run up to industrial action members should expect UCU’s leadership to strongly advocate a yes vote on industrial action (strike action and ASOS). On the other hand, the process by which that recommendation is arrived at should be clear. In UCU, that involves HEC or FEC voting to recommend a Yes (or No) vote, which then accompanies the ballot.

Once we are engaged in action, perhaps because the moment of victory is unlikely to be clear-cut, HEC or FEC rarely agree to explicitly advocate for an end to the action. Instead, those members of HEC or FEC or those National Officers seeking to end a dispute reframe the discussion as about balloting, and ‘giving members a say’; while those who want to keep the dispute alive argue that going to ballot will effectively end the action. In these cases, in lieu of an HEC or FEC voting recommendation, officials of the Union (unelected officials and the GS) write the ‘contextual information’ that accompanies an e-ballot, as we saw in the USS dispute. HEC members have, in the past, attempted to control that contextual information, but they usually see neither the text nor the questions in advance. The consequence is that the GS is free to state, as in the USS dispute, that the deal on offer is ‘the best that can be reached’. These informal recommendations have proved effective time and again, resulting in the suspension or end of industrial action. In some cases, ballot question(s) have also been worded in a way that encourages ending the dispute, or produces sufficient confusion that continuation of the action is less likely. A case in point is the November 2016 consultative ballot, which ended a pay dispute that had spotlighted gender inequalities and casualisation, and innovatively mobilised external examiner resignations:

  • Question 1: Do you consider the UCEA revised offer to be a sufficient basis for further detailed joint work with the employers on gender pay and casualisation at both UK and local level?
  • Question 2: Are you prepared to take serious industrial action in order to progress our national claim?

Combining awkward conditional clauses, a requirement for knowledge about ‘the UCEA revised offer’, ‘further detailed joint work on gender pay and casualisation’ and the ‘national claim’, as well as the capacity to predict what ‘serious industrial action’ might involve, just 8,892 members voted (less than half of those who had voted to initiate action). With small minorities voting ‘yes’ on Q1 and ‘no’ on Q2, the action ended.

2. Moving to a member-led Union

The above discussion of national UCU roles, bodies and processes has focused on identification of those spaces where there is scope to increase democratic accountability. Inevitably, therefore, there has been relatively little discussion of what is going right. Yet much is. Otherwise, we would not have been able to mobilise in the way we did in the 2018 USS dispute. More importantly, it is UCU’s democratic structures that make it possible to envisage its transformation — both because the commitment to democracy provides a basis for imagining what is possible and because the structures provide spaces within which change can occur.

In this spirit, the list below identifies six democratic deficits within the national union and suggests possible medium-term responses. This is meant as a pragmatic starting point, not an end. There are undoubtedly other possible responses to these issues and other areas within UCU that would benefit from greater accountability and democracy.

  1. Electoral participation. UCU has processes for electing representatives and passing policy that are democratic and transparent. Congress, Sector Conferences, NEC and its sub-committees all create space for member involvement. But turnout and engagement are low, because members have historically been relatively uninterested and because the Union nationally has made few efforts to interest them. This means that there is a large incumbency advantage, and the status quo (an IBL majority on the NEC, with UCU Left as a sizeable minority) is reproduced. In the wake of the USS dispute, increased member activism (including a new rank and file group) may mean that members pay closer attention to elections and that more local activists are enticed, or angry enough, to stand for national office. But for greater engagement, members need to be more aware of the role played by elected representatives and have information about candidates’ records. This requires a commitment to accountability and, specifically, that those running for national positions participate in pre-election debate via real and virtual hustings.
  2. Local intervention in national governance. There are few mechanisms for individuals and branches to intervene within national policy or follow up on Congress motions over the course of the year (as opposed to just once a year, at Congress). It is even difficult to keep abreast of national meetings or know what they will discuss, since neither agendas nor papers are published in advance. To change this would minimally require: (a) publicising information about what is being debated when in national bodies, including NEC/HEC/FEC and the meetings of negotiators; (b) creating procedures for individuals, branches and regions to submit motions for consideration (and vote) to NEC / HEC / FEC; (c) facilitating direct relationships between members and NEC representatives or negotiators, and prioritising structures that enable two-way communication (potentially via existing regional bodies); (d) speeding up procedures whereby individual members, branches or NEC members call national delegate meetings (with binding voting power) during industrial action; (e) publicising the contribution, role, and voting record of all nationally elected representatives.
  3. Overhauling national committees. National committee meetings involve a very limited type of engagement: the submission of motions and amendments, culminating in a dozen votes per day-long meeting, repeated four times a year. This precludes more thought-out contributions (e.g. reports) by lay representatives. More critically, because motions must be submitted in advance, opportunities for decision-making based on collective deliberation are minimal. Moreover, once NEC passes policy or recommends an action, elected members have little oversight over implementation and cannot again intervene until the next meeting. To address this probably requires rethinking the structure, length and frequency of committee meetings and the process for convening them. It may also mean increasing the use of e-conferencing technology. Additionally, there need to be ways for lay representatives to engage with national activity and follow up issues about which they care between meetings. For this to work, NEC members must be supported in negotiating the time needed to participate.
  4. Accountability for full-time officials and officers. Day-to-day national Union business is largely in the hands of unelected staff, who typically operate in consultation with the GS and sometimes the Presidential Team. They manage campaigns, produce publicity, and write contextual information for industrial ballots. Usually this work is high quality, but members have little knowledge of or control over it. Others have discussed longer-term solutions to this issue, involving transitioning from unelected to elected officials. Absent such radical change, we at least need to identify those decisions and processes that are critical and use Congress and Sector Conference motions to mandate wider democratic oversight of these, especially processes underpinning industrial disputes. For example, City UCU has submitted a motion to 2018 Congress requiring that ‘contextual’ ballot commentary be specified in advance and agreed by HEC.
  5. Widening and diversifying the Union. The structures in our Union prioritise stable, highly-paid workers and provide fewer avenues for the concerns of casualised members to be heard, or to define national priorities. Because women, disabled, BAME and LGBT+ members are most often in casualised roles, this also maintains the homogeneity of members served by core UCU campaigns. But once we recognise this inequality, we can start to design structures that systematically work to counter it. For instance, we can insist that at least one member of every negotiating team is on a casual contract, or that no pay claim can be settled until it has been approved by the Union’s anti-casualisation or equality committees.
  6. Harnessing members’ energy and expertise. Our members are specialists in a range of roles that are critical to trade union work. We include labour relations experts; investigative reporters; digital animators; statisticians; employment lawyers; actuaries; critical race scholars; educationalists; archivists; marketing; social policy experts and many more. Whether it is producing music for the picket line, writing a searing critique of gender inequality in Higher Education or developing an industrial relations strategy, our members have literally written the book on it. Yet there is little to no recognition of this within our structures. Changing this is perhaps our biggest task, but also potentially the most exciting, because it involves thinking about how UCU might not simply replicate the best of other unions, but be made to reflect what is unique about our sector. The various teach-outs, videos, creative material, and the USSbriefs produced as part of the USS dispute have highlighted that members are able and eager to participate in more diverse ways than is currently possible. Nationally UCU needs to create spaces that recognise and exploit the specificity and diversity of our members’ skills and enthusiasm. Proposals and motions to increase the role played by members have, however, been systematically resisted, in part because they might reduce control exercised by the elected leadership, but also because they threaten the roles of UCU employees. What is seen by some as ‘rank-and-file participation’ can be reframed as ‘encouraging unpaid labour’. Achieving wider and more creative member involvement is not, therefore, straightforward, but it is essential if we are to develop a union that effectively represents workers in our sector.

Underpinning all the above is the need to engage and sustain an active and knowledgeable membership. Without this, even the best structures and processes will not effectively hold the leadership to account. This brief has focused on the national bodies of UCU because that is the part of the Union about which members know least and because the national Union has disproportionate power to direct sector-wide campaigns. It has, therefore, paid little attention to local organisation. Yet most forms of organisation and action, as well as the most regular and transformative forms of participatory democratic engagement, occur within branches, and increasingly via informal networks, both online and offline, locally and nationally. That means that branches and informal networks will be essential political spaces for the development and realisation of democratic impulses within UCU.


Bio: The above is drawn from experiences as a UCU member, activist and representative. Rachel Cohen is coming to the end of two years as NEC member for London and the East. She is on the City UCU Executive Committee and is a member of the London Regional Committee. She was previously active on the Warwick and Surrey UCU Committees, and was Chair of the South-East Region HE Committee. Rachel is a member of UCU Left, but this brief does not represent the position of any organisation or individuals beyond its author. In her day job, Rachel is Head of the Department of Sociology at City. Her research is on work and employment.


This paper represents the views of the author only. The author believes all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs23; the author will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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