Over 150 delegates from universities across Britain met in Harrogate last week at the Unison union’s higher education conference.
They met to the backdrop of the student protests and the biggest attack ever on higher education in the form of rising fees and mass privatisation.
Delegates passed a number of useful resolutions on defending, and using, equality impact assessments in the fight against job losses.
As conference business moved onto a discussion on the cuts, a real debate opened up how we should respond. In some areas, confidence is low and there was a feeling of inevitability about the cuts.
But key branches that have managed to fight the cuts were able to point to concrete examples of why fighting can win. Delegates from Manchester Metropolitan University, London Metropolitan University, the School of Oriental and African Studies and Birmingham University were especially clear that there was no alternative to mounting a defence of jobs, pay and services.
The big debate was around the question of pay. The union leadership and the service group executive’s position was that this year’s pay claim should be based on a flat rate increase of £250—David Cameron’s suggested “reasonable” pay rise for public sector workers.
This claim would then form the basis of a campaign around fair pay. Two motions that aimed to peg the pay claim to the RPI measure of inflation were ruled out of order.
But the leadership’s strategy was rejected as one that “carries out Tory cuts for them”. Conference was clear that many members faced spiralling living costs and it simply wasn’t possible to accept another wage cut.
Higher education conference also renewed its commitment to fighting for a free and accessible higher education, as well as passing a resolution calling for greater co-ordination with student groups—not just the NUS. Unfortunately, the union leadership ruled a motion condemning kettling and police violence out of order.
Lastly, there was a clear call from NEC member Max Watson, and many of the floor delegates, for Unison branches to show concrete solidarity with UCU members currently balloting for strikes.
The UCU education strikes are the next logical step in the campaign to defend education – Unison branches must follow with local action wherever possible.