I asked Roger what he saw as the future of the new union. He said, “We will be the biggest post-16 education union in the world. And we need to, in a number respects, do better than we have managed to do so far.
“Both the AUT and Natfhe have done some really good things over the years. But we didn’t manage to shift the government over pay, and we ended up with a pay deal in Higher Education (HE) that is probably less than we could have got.
“Further Education (FE) has faced an onslaught on provision over the last two decades - with our members in front line. It has partly been about funding and partly about the kind of education we provide.
“So although we’ve done lots of good things we also haven’t managed to achieve quite a lot of things that our members rightly want us to achieve.”
Roger said that in terms of the structure of the new union, accountability was key. He said, “The union may need to get better at involving members. The strength of the union especially depends on its reps, its branches and all members who play an active role in the union. Otherwise it’s hard to see how someone is kept to account and kept in touch with what the members want.”
Lecturers in both FE and HE are facing the marketisation of education - with changes in both employment and what is taught.
He said, “A union has to be involved in what our members do and how they do it, about control over the job, a respect for their work - and that inevitably leads you to being political.
“I don’t believe you can be an effective education trade union unless you are political - that doesn’t mean that you are necessarily attached to any particular party, but it does mean saying that the amount of funding that goes into education is a political decision. The government choosing to put money into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than health and education is a political decision..
“Education increasingly taking place in an international context. Take the increasingly important issue in colleges and universities of Muslim students. It’s both an international and a domestic issue.
“The current situation where the government is asking lecturers to spy on Muslim looking students - is not just an encroachment on academic freedom, it’s part of a general demonisation of Muslims in the country as a whole.
“So the suggestion that some make that you can be non-political seems to me that you would be doing the members a disservice. Education takes place in a political context. Many of the problems we have in education at the moment are direct consequences of political decisions.
“The impact of top up fees effects people in terms of class, race and gender. In FE the cuts in adult education are disproportionately hitting people with disabilities. So equality, both in terms of how staff are treated and what kind of provision is funded, ought to inform everything that we do.
“The reality is that if you are a white straight man dealing with equality you need to listen very carefully to what the organised groups of gay members, of disabled members, black members and women members in the union say.
“The only way to do this is to give the space for groups to organise and inform union policy. Not just in terms of equality, but also in terms of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - there must be sufficient autonomy.”
I asked Roger about the proposed Israeli academic boycott. He said, “In terms of Israeli government policy, I always remember what my dad who was both a communist and Jewish said - that he was unremittingly hostile to the Israeli government foreign policy but that didn’t make him anti-Semitic. I think that unfortunately the Israeli government foreign policy has done no favours for Jewish people. The treatment of the Palestinian people is a complete disgrace.
“ I think UCU - including both joint general secretaries - is united is expressing concern about the continuing plight of the Palestinians. My concern about an academic boycott, as with any other academic boycott, is primarily whether or not it is effective since boycotts that are not effective are counter-productive. I think that is the position incidentally on any academic boycott. With the academic boycott of London Metropolitan University there was such overwhelming support it was relatively easy to carry out. I don’t believe UCU should make token gestures so we have to find better ways to express solidarity with Palestinians and protest at Israeli foreign policy.
“What we can’t allow is the portrayal of people who are opposed to Israeli government foreign policy as being anti-Semitic - which I think is outrageous.”