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What are UCU’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and Higher Education Committee (HEC)?

Number 74: #USSbriefs74

Kirsten Forkert, Birmingham City University
Nick Hardy, University of Birmingham

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In the past few weeks we have attended our first meetings as elected members of UCU’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and its Higher Education Committee (HEC). What follows is an attempt to explain what NEC and HEC are and why they matter, as well as what happened in the meetings in question on 21 and 28 June 2019.

The summary of NEC and HEC we’re offering is quite high-level, and so if you’d like to know more about how UCU’s central committees and other structures function (or don’t), we recommend reading Rachel Cohen’s USSbriefs23.

What are NEC and HEC?

  • The NEC has several functions. Unlike UCU’s Congress and Sector Conferences, which happen by default only once a year, it meets several times a year at UCU HQ in London. Another way in which it differs from Congress is that its job is not to create UCU policy on any given issue, but to interpret and implement policies decided by Congress. We will see some examples of how this works later on in this report.
  • The HEC is similar to the NEC, and all NEC members in HE institutions are automatically HEC members. The difference is that HEC concentrates on areas that are specific to the higher education sector and not the further education sector, which has its own, separate Committee made up of NEC members in further education and other areas of tertiary education.

NEC/HEC are attended and assisted in various ways by UCU’s paid officials, but all voting members of NEC and HEC are elected from the membership, by the membership. Membership lasts for two years, but elections take place in instalments, so there is at least one round of elections for various seats each year. The General Secretary (GS) attends and provides a report to NEC, and can speak in debates but does not have a vote. UCU’s Head of Higher Education, an unelected paid official (currently Paul Bridge), similarly provides reports to and attends HEC, and makes recommendations for members to vote on (usually in consultation with the GS), but does not vote. At the same time, as well as debating, amending, and voting on reports provided by officials, members can also submit motions of their own to each meeting. The result is that the members of NEC and HEC can end up having a huge influence on the strategy of UCU and the direction it takes in industrial disputes and campaigns, even if they can’t initiate those disputes or campaigns single-handedly.

Despite the importance and power of NEC and HEC, elections to them are not very hotly contested and turnout in those elections is disappointingly low. UCU members tend not to know very much about how they work, even if they have played an active role in their branch committees. There may also be a perception that running for election and serving on the committees is a Herculean task, but it really isn’t. Meetings are infrequent (usually just once or twice a term) and serving on NEC/HEC takes less time on average than a lot of branch committee roles — though it is worth saying that as things stand, membership of national committees is unfortunately rarely compensated with facilities time in the way that a lot of branch roles are.

Opening up the NEC and HEC to members

In lieu of widespread member interest and engagement, what tends to happen is that most NEC/HEC seats are filled by self-identifying members of the two organised factions inside UCU. A lot of members don’t know much about the factions or how they operate, and so it is worth saying a bit about them here. For further details about factions you can also see Rachel Cohen’s USSbriefs23.

UCU Left
The easier place to start is with UCU Left, who put forward Jo McNeill as their candidate in the 2019 GS election. UCU Left are a coherent grouping who have their own website and have even been known to collect dues from members. Politically, their preferences tend to be for a militant, campaigning union that takes regular industrial action, makes key decisions via face-to-face meetings of members, and puts power in the hands of members rather than paid officials. Finally, although McNeill is a Labour Party member, some of UCU Left’s other most prominent and influential members, including members of the NEC, are members of the Socialist Workers Party. This makes UCU members, even those who would otherwise identify with much of UCU Left’s political agenda, reluctant to vote for or work with them, owing to the SWP’s appalling record with respect to sexual violence in its ranks and more generally their authoritarian decision-making processes.

In the interests of disclosure, we are both non-aligned and both supported Jo Grady over Jo McNeill in the GS election, but have enjoyed productive relationships with various UCU Left members and find ourselves voting and agreeing with UCU Left more often than not.

Progressive Left
Slightly harder to characterise, but equally important, is the other faction within the Union, formerly known as the ‘Independent Broad Left’ (IBL), but recently having rebranded as ‘Progressive Left’ — presumably on the grounds that their role in the infamous shutdown of UCU’s 2018 Congress had tarnished their brand. They have a blog rather than a website, and they do not associate quite as openly as UCU Left or describe themselves as a faction. With that in mind, it is safer to refer not to ‘the IBL’ but to ‘the right’: not because the members we are thinking of are necessarily right-wing in the grand political scheme of things, but because the term does fairly reflect most of the positions they take relative to other tendencies in UCU. This includes a preference for placing political power and decision-making in the hands of full-time officials, with those decisions ratified not by participatory democracy and meetings but through carefully framed consultative ballots and surveys. It also includes a preference for a ‘servicing’ over an ‘organising’ model, and the framing of trade union issues as narrowly about pay and conditions, with equality issues, marginalised groups (such as those on casual contracts) and solidarity campaigns seen as secondary.

The power of the factions on UCU’s NEC and HEC makes for a stark and interesting contrast with UCU’s other democratic bodies and processes. If you attend Congress or a Sector Conference, you can see from the way certain votes play out that neither faction commands a majority of delegates. This was also illustrated by the elections in 2019 for Vice President and GS. Vicky Blake, a non-aligned left-wing candidate for the role of Vice President, one of the most important roles in the Union, beat both the UCU Left and IBL candidate in the most recent election. But the most dramatic illustration of the factions’ organisational and political weakness was the recent GS election. Jo Grady, a candidate without the support of established networks inside UCU, won roughly as many votes in the first round of voting as both of her rivals put together.

So why is it that NEC and HEC are out of alignment with other UCU structures? One answer is that they operate with relatively little transparency, and members do not feel like they have much of a stake in them. NEC and HEC recently started publishing minutes (click here for the minutes of the 21 June 2019 NEC meeting; the HEC minutes were unavailable at time of writing), but it is difficult for a lay member to understand what was actually decided and these are not circulated to the general membership. Neither committee keeps or publishes a voting record. And finally, there is no mechanism whereby UCU members, branches, or regions, can mandate their NEC or HEC representatives to do anything or vote in a certain way.

What can or will be done to change this? UCU Congress 2018 agreed to set up a ‘Democracy Commission’ to review issues like this, but so far the Commission’s recommendations have focused more on the role of the GS than on the NEC or HEC. In fact, the most important recommendation relating to the NEC — to permit NEC members to submit reports as well as motions — would, if anything, increase the power of the NEC without any corresponding increase in its accountability. Hopefully this will change when the Commission issues further recommendations to the special Congress scheduled to discuss the Commission’s work later in 2019, but this remains to be seen.

We have decided to pre-empt the work of the Commission and start developing, informally at first, a more inclusive, accessible, and engaging approach. This report is part of that. As Midlands HE reps, we want to make it possible for HE members, branches, and the regional committees in the East and West Midlands to communicate with us about upcoming and recent NEC and HEC meetings, so that we can try to represent their interests. We will be asking branches to circulate our contact details to their members with this in mind, and using social media to invite further input. At the same time, we will be pushing for NEC and HEC to amend their standing orders to publish not only detailed minutes but also voting records.

Get involved!

Turning all these things into default practices is one way to pluralise NEC and HEC membership and reduce the factional polarisation. But there also needs to be a larger grassroots movement that recognises the significance of these structures and uses its initiative to take them over. Jo Grady’s extraordinary election victory shows that UCU structures don’t always have to be controlled by the usual suspects. If you’re a member who thinks that the Union should be heading in a different direction and you might be able to help steer it that way, don’t listen to the voices inside or outside your head telling you that you need to have been involved for many years or part of an established faction. Often, people with new ideas or unusual backgrounds can earn more support and make bigger contributions than you’d expect. So we encourage you to get involved.

With that long preamble out of the way, we’ll discuss some of the most important discussions and outcomes from our first two meetings as representatives: the 21 June 2019 NEC and 28 June 2019 HEC. We will focus on motions and decisions which we either submitted ourselves or feel were particularly significant.

21 June 2019 NEC (and emergency HEC)

Strike pay
Nick Hardy submitted a motion for a year-long trial of enhanced strike pay for casualised members and members earning less than £30,000 per annum. The upshot is that members in those categories will now be able to claim for more strike days than was the case in the past. Part of the basis for the motion was that UCU’s financial position is now extremely strong, partly thanks to the boost in membership from the USS strike in 2018. However, the increase in subscriptions was not immediately backed up by a more generous approach to strike fund reimbursement, and this motion was an attempt to fix that. This was one of the few votes that commanded a broad consensus, with 32 in favour and 18 against; most other votes were closer to 26–24.

Sexual harassment
A motion on challenging sexual harassment within the Union’s structures was also passed, although there was some controversy regarding situations that might involve unelected, paid officials as opposed to lay members. In the end the motion passed subject to amendments and clarifications suggesting that such situations would be dealt with by the GS in the same way as other complaints involving officials.

Trans equality
The Committee also passed Kirsten Forkert’s motion to put out a public statement reaffirming its policy on trans equality, which can be seen here. This last motion, intended primarily as a response to a letter in The Times by a small group of academics attacking the Stonewall Diversity Champions Programme, proved controversial. Some saw the motion as undermining academic freedom, which raises some troubling questions about how free speech discourses are being politicised in the current climate. In the end, the motion passed unopposed, although there were several abstentions by right-aligned members, some of whom had raised objections to the motion during the debate.

Other key decisions included motions of support for the campaign to reinstate Dave Muritu and the campaigns against redundancies and low pay at Bradford College.

A report on the Augar review of higher and further education spending was not discussed owing to lack of time; however, we anticipate it being discussed at the next NEC meeting.

Grey-listing Trinity College Cambridge
At lunchtime during the NEC meeting, an emergency meeting of the HEC voted in favour of grey-listing Trinity College Cambridge over their decision, confirmed only that morning, to pull out of the USS pension scheme, on the request of the Cambridge UCU branch. Grey-listing is a very serious sanction. In practice it is an academic boycott, asking us to do the following:

  • not attend, speak at or organise academic or other conferences at Trinity
  • not apply for jobs at Trinity
  • not give lectures at Trinity
  • not accept positions as visiting professors or researchers at Trinity
  • not write for any academic journal which is edited from Trinity
  • not take up new contracts as external examiner

Some of the above advice is more appropriate for other types of institution, and UCU is currently seeking legal advice that conforms more closely to the complex nature of the Cambridge collegiate system and Trinity’s place within it.

The only other time UCU has used this measure was in response to the large-scale redundancies and undermining of conditions at London Metropolitan University. However, Trinity College’s decision to withdraw from USS is dangerous enough to merit it: it could signal the start of a domino effect of other institutions withdrawing from the scheme, depriving it of members and income, leading benefits to worsen and threatening the scheme’s viability. Indeed, USS has already used Trinity’s departure as a pretext for placing the employer covenant on ‘negative watch’. What this means in practice is that it will probably be harder to achieve positive valuation outcomes and contribution rates for USS in the future.

28 June 2019 HEC

This HEC gave us a clearer view of how the factions operate and why UCU’s national committees really matter. There was a revealing moment earlier on when the Committee was tasked with electing its Vice Chairs for the year, one from a pre-92 institution and one from a post-92. The Chair is normally the Vice President, Vicky Blake, although she was only able to participate in the meeting by phone and therefore could not chair in this instance. The Vice Chairs are important not only because they can chair the HEC but also because they automatically join the group of UCU’s national negotiators on pay, equality, anti-casualisation and workload.

For the pre-92 position, the UCU Left candidate, Jo McNeill, comfortably defeated the (broadly speaking) right-wing candidate, Justine Mercer. The post-92 position was more interesting, because it was between another UCU Left candidate, Mark Abel, and another, currently non-aligned, left-wing candidate, Christina Paine. In this case Christina was supported by non-aligned left-wing members, including us. The right might have had enough votes to tip the election in her favour, but they abstained instead.

(At this point, Kirsten had to leave — so from now on the report should be attributed to Nick only.)

Strike ballots for USS and for pay/workload
Soon after the Vice Chair election, HEC was faced with a really important and difficult decision. A month previously at Congress, the HE Sector Conference had voted to commence a strike ballot over USS pensions on 1 September 2019, and a campaign involving a strike ballot over pay, workload and other issues ‘in the autumn’. Broadly in line with these votes, Paul Bridge’s report recommended that HEC approve a September start for the USS ballot and a late October start for the other ballot. However, a motion from two UCU Left members proposed to run both ballots at the same time, and on a disaggregated basis (so that an individual branch cannot go on strike unless its own members beat the 50% ballot turnout requirement).

Simultaneous balloting has merits and it has worked in the case of individual branches: for instance, Bradford College recently beat the turnout threshold in two simultaneous ballots, on redundancies and pay. But there are questions about whether it can be scaled up to the whole union, given the immense resource demands which it will place on UCU HQ. Most importantly, we did not hear many practical ideas during the debate about how UCU’s sub-par performance in the last two pay ballots, with an average turnout of about 42% in each one, could be improved. The discussion was reminiscent of the arguments which UCU Left were making in the autumn of 2018 about the need for an immediate reballot on pay, after an overwhelming majority of branches had failed to make turnout in the initial ballot. It suggested a lack of awareness of what most branches are actually capable of at present. The member seconding the simultaneous ballot motion claimed that it was necessary to ‘help post-92 branches’ and prevent them from being left behind. But no solutions were offered to the central problem with that argument: in the last disaggregated pay ballot, the majority of post-92 branches performed poorly, with turnouts around 30%. Will their results improve by 20 percentage points simply because they are balloting in September–October rather than November, and because pre-92 branches are also balloting on USS? It seems unlikely. It would be more helpful to post-92 branches if the pay ballot were conducted on an aggregated basis, so that a good performance overall would permit them to go on strike even after a lower turnout in those branches — but the motion explicitly proscribed this. Otherwise, all we heard were broad arguments that all these issues — pay, pensions, equality etc. — were interlinked, and if we explained to members how closely related they are, they would support both campaigns. They are interlinked, and we have a GS Elect who will explain that very effectively, but it remains to be seen whether that will make enough of a difference to the final turnout.

During the debate, the GS Elect (who did not have a vote) explained that running two consecutive campaigns might allow more time to strategise and build capacity for a pay ballot: the USS campaign, and particularly her planned tour of nations, regions, and branches for that campaign, would be an opportunity to hold advance discussions of the pay campaign as well, and work out what branches needed in order to get the vote out more effectively. In the end, however, UCU Left voted en bloc for the simultaneous ballot motion, and it was carried by 17 votes to 13, with right and non-aligned left members, including myself, dissenting.

Timing of strike ballots
The rest of the business of this HEC was less momentous. The other main source of debate was over the timing of both ballots. My own preference was to start mid-September 2019 and finish in the first or second week of November. Branch committees are not ready to start a ballot in early September, and staff, including professional services staff, tend to be out of office or on annual leave. The ballot period would need to run on to early November in order to accommodate large branches, such as Oxford and Cambridge, where term starts in mid-October — or at the very least, such branches should be allowed to ballot on a separate, extended timetable. In the end, though, HEC agreed a start date of 9 September and end date of 30 October. The counter-argument was that a later end date would make it harder to take serious strike action before the end of the first term, which might be true — though it depends on the nature and timing of the action taken, and whether it really is crucial to take action as early as possible within the six-month window in which it can be scheduled once the ballot closes. Personally I wasn’t sure.

Senate House boycott
Later on, there was a motion affirming the Senate House boycott, which I was happy to vote for. However, the boycott clearly needs to be managed very carefully: some Senate House UCU members seem to be concerned about the consequences of the boycott for them, and their branch appears not to have been consulted or supported in the way that Cambridge UCU was in the implementation of the Trinity College boycott.

Otherwise, there was a raft of successful motions focusing on the USS campaign, covering climate action and divestment, the remit of the Joint Expert Panel, appointments of USS trustees, USS members in post-92 branches, and the commissioning of legal and actuarial advice regarding the USS valuation. As an elected negotiator on USS, I’m pleased to have a mandate from HEC to factor all these issues into our work as the USS dispute continues to escalate.

HEC is not scheduled to meet again until 4 October 2019. If you have any questions or requests before then, please email Kirsten and/or Nick and we’ll do what we can.

This paper represents the views of the authors only. The authors believe 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 the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs74; 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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A set of papers written by University Staff and Students, on University Staff and Students, for University Staff and Students.