Socialist Worker

Paul Mackney's address to UCU conference

Address by Joint General Secretary Paul Mackney's address to the Inaugural Congress of the UCU, Wednesday 31 May 2007

Issue No. 2053

I’m sure UCU will be bold in recognition that you don’t necessarily get what you deserve, you get what you fight for.

It will distinguish elitism from excellence and be the guardian of education in the colleges and universities.

It will take high road to justice. Eventually, by sheer dogged persistence, it will rectify the anomaly of unequal pay (the slogan from Tom Driver, General Secretary of the other founding union, was ‘Anomalies are the toe-holds of progress.’

It will champion the causes of the excluded as it is with the Commission for Disabled Staff.

It will soon learn that there is no point in being militant without being organised and adopt the platitude without organisation you’re just cotton buds with attitude.

I hope it will be forward looking; leaving behind the myth of a golden past, recognise the pace of change and eschew strategic objectives that assume things ought to be a lot more like they never were than they ever were.

It will be clear that, as with actions to Save ESOL, campaigning works and especially when combined with broad alliances succeeds.

It will be clear that it does matter whether you win or lose; it isn’t sufficient to know where to place the blame.

It will learn the lesson that they take us to the cleaners if we do our dirty washing in public.

It will be political, though not party political, to operate effectively in a highly political environment.

It will stand in solidarity with the oppressed at home and abroad where trade unionists are persecuted in countries like Columbia.

On Israel and Palestine it will determine that you have to sow the seeds of justice before you reap the fruits of peace.

It will stand against the rising tide of Islamophobia and instruct its members not to spy on Muslim students.

It will be resolute in opposition to the BNP and other fascist organisations because one BNP leaflet on campus is one too many.

And the issue is not one of polite academic debate: it’s about organised political violence and intimidation of racial minorities and lesbian and gay people.

We cannot just ignore fascists and hope they will go away. As Yevtushenko said: “silence is sometimes a disgrace”.

We have an obligation to ensure that hope conquers hatred and respect replaces racism.

Academics are not immune to the lure of obnoxious creeds. In Germany in the 1930s, after some initial questioning, academics in the heartland of European culture were scrambling over each other to take up the posts of the Jews excluded from Universities.

I’m glad we are affiliated to Unite Against Fascism and lend them accommodation.

The Times Higher are printing letters saying that Unite against Fascism is an SWP front! The 25 trade union general secretaries who together with Ken Livingstone signed the founding statement will be surprised to learn that UAF is just a front organisation. And anyway, with 25 general secretaries the SWP wouldn’t need a front organisation.

We needed UAF in Bath. And, after Bath, every university will think twice before allowing a platform to a fascist.

My term of office more or less corresponded with that of Tony Blair.

Even the most cynical had high expectations in 1997. In FE we hoped they would restore democratic accountability but they only skimmed off some of the toxic froth of incorporation.

Let’s be honest, the government’s hardly been ambitious for Further or Higher Education.

We didn’t expect New Labour government to dance to our tune exactly. But it would have been nice if occasionally they could have hummed along a bit.

There is not only a lot of unfinished business there’s even more un-begun business.

The problems nearly all stem from the government worshipping at the altar of the market, business and failing to deal with poverty.

The first skill too many students have to learn is how to feed themselves. Jack Straw when he was NUS President on a grant spoke of choosing between a book and a meal. Now students choose between finishing an assignment or doing another shift at the supermarket.

I really do not believe that Middle England is so opposed to redistributive income tax. At the risk of insulting Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the UCU membership is about as Middle English as they come.

The passport to a civilised society is progressive taxation. It is obscene that there are 54 people with an estimated income of £126b who pay an average of only 0.14% in tax, while we fight over pennies.

We must ask Gordon to listen. There is a danger that, like Baldwin, he will promise nothing and keep his word.

We don’t just need a change of Prime Minister; we need a total change of direction.

We want him to remove the bones of dead policies.

We need a level playing field for industrial relations rather than current labour law which seems to have the referee playing for the other side.

We need peace not war, grants not bombs.

We want an end to detention, torture, rendition, Abu Ghraib, Belmarsh and Guantanamo … an end to cluster bombs, daisy cutters, white phosphorous and all the instruments of illegal occupation. We want an end to the death of hundreds of British and American troops and thousands upon thousands of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

We want the troops withdrawn – now!

It seems too easy to say that the money spent on war could have gone to education but that actual decision was made when the government decided to ally with the US in the so-called war on terror. Ask Margaret Hodge what happened to her budget when she was Higher Education Minister.

As I’m sure Mark Serwotka will tell us tomorrow, we need a reassertion of the public sector ethic rather than relentless privatisation.

By semantic sleight of hand ‘widening the provider base’ has replaced ‘widening participation’ as the operative slogan. We know what that means: more sticky fingers in our pudding; privatisation parading as public sector reform.

They expect us to embrace privatisation – as the corner-stone to public sector reform – suggesting we are dinosaurs if we don’t.

As I said last year, and someone asked me to repeat it, forcing us into private-public partnerships is like expecting us to enjoy oral sex with a shark.

But we’ve experienced privatisation before: in the 1980s with dodgy training schemes; in the 1990s with spectacular financial crashes, ghost classes, phantom registers, franchising frauds, shoddy quality.

In Birmingham there was so much ghosting going on that one street in the Golden Hillock area was dubbed the Street of a Thousand Registers.

Then at the beginning of this decade we had millions of pounds of private sector fraud with Individual Learning Accounts mark one.

Nevertheless, we are told we have to accept the reality of the market. If what I have described represents reality, then Proust was right to call reality the waste product of experience.

We are not describing rotten apple syndrome – quite healthy apples will decay in a rotten barrel.

We don’t need training outfits run by spivs who wouldn’t recognise an educational argument if it were spray-painted on their company cars.

But the experience is unexamined. For all the talk about evidence-based policy making, what we are seeing is policy-making grounded in amnesia from the back of the fag packet institute pushing ideas which even Keith Joseph didn’t have the guts to articulate ... ideas usually expressed in a strange kind of quanguage which somehow manages totally to divorce words from their meaning.

And it has been UCU members who have paid the price – with casualisation, relentless reorganisation and redundancies.

They torment us with bureaucracy, inspections and consultants – who seem to borrow your watch to tell you the time and then run off with it – and with pay offers with more strings than the London Philharmonic.

Our members are grossly overworked. We’ve been expected to leap from total incredulity to full implementation of the latest government initiatives without the time for thought or indignation.

As one lecturer wrote to me “I keep cutting professional corners, short-changing the students; the only way to survive is not to care.” Or as Bob Dylan put it: “I used to care but things have changed.”

But we shouldn’t be too hard on the government, they have double standards to live up to – or, as the prescriptive grammarians would have it, up to which they have to live.

We may need a total change of direction and should demand it of Gordon. When I see Gordon Brown, my faith… in doubt is almost restored.

And what of ministers over the years? There have been lots of lifelong learning ministers. For all the talk about lifelong learning, few of them have lasted more than a year.

I have to confess I haven’t hung on their every syllable even though some have been legends in their own minds. Some have had hidden depths; others hidden shallows.

I’ve tried to get across the notion that opposition is true friendship, that it is the friend who brings the bad news ... but it hasn’t always been received with the enthusiasm with which it was given.

Some were incredibly gifted and committed but were not given any budget to play with. With one or two of the others, I have asked: is there no beginning to their talent?

In the end none of them – with the possible exception of Malcolm Wicks – have given sufficient attention to nurturing the lecturers and other staff in colleges and universities who are the people the students come to meet.

With limited resources some of them coasted along until they were moved on.

I can’t decide what’s best: neglect or hyperactivity. Bill Rammell works incredibly hard at his principal objective of ‘delivering Leitch’. But as the management theorist, Drucker, said: “there is nothing so dangerous as doing efficiently what should not be done at all.”

There are hundreds of thousands fewer places in adult education but Bill tells us he is not making cuts merely rebalancing conflicting demands. If that’s his idea of a balanced approach, I’d hate to see him riding a bike.

They say a man’s best friend is his dogma and the latest is the importance of ‘demand-led provision’ – though, when we asked Bill why he was restricting access to free ESOL, he said it was because there is too much demand.

A number of ministers have become obsessed with the notion of ‘Britishness’. Bill wants us to teach ‘Britishness’ but has stopped us teaching English.

Presumably this is to celebrate the European Year of Equal Opportunities just as last year we celebrated the EU year of migrant workers.

Baljit Ghale, the NUT President was right to remind us two hundred years after the abolition of the slave trade that much of the world’s experience of ‘Britishness’ has been uncomfortably close to brutishness.

I am not being unpatriotic: a nation can only build for the future when it has come to terms with the actuality of its past. If you want to remind yourself about it, read John Newsinger’s ‘The Blood Never Dried’, available from the Bookmarks stall. Unfortunately we are not learning the lessons. It’s still going on: the Iraq war has besmirched Britain’s reputation around the world.

Before winding up, I should like to thank the Beard Liberation Front – a mass movement of truly historic proportions (and believe me I have seen small meetings turn into mass movements….and mass movements turn into small meetings) – anyway, I would like to thank the BLF for honouring me this week with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Virginia Woolf said: ‘The first duty of a lecturer is to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever’.

Here’s the nugget: if you want to be happy fix yourself a job with the wonderful people I’ve been working with for the last 15 years – the members, the activists and above all the staff.

I want to say thanks to all of you for the privilege of letting me serve in such a senior office, and to particularly thank Steph Lang and Afshan Khan, who have had to put up with me in the Britannia St GS office,

as representing all the staff. I would like you to show your appreciation for them.

It is an honour to be a spokesperson for those engaged in research and teaching. As the late Ted Wragg said of teaching in his last article: “There is no higher calling: without teachers society would slide back into primitive squalor”.

Finally, for those who feel we’ve been too much on the defensive, I’d like to finish with some lines from Brecht:

“While you are alive, don’t say never!
… things won’t stay as they are …
So, if you are beaten, you just rise again!
If you think you have lost, fight on!
Once you have seen where you stand,
There is nothing can hold you back again –
For those defeated today will be the victors tomorrow
And from ‘never’ comes our ‘today’.”


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Fri 1 Jun 2007, 12:16 BST
Issue No. 2053
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