The Tory assault on education, and resistance to it, dominated the UCU union’s annual congress in Liverpool last week.
The higher education white paper is designed to open up universities to competition and make it easier for private providers to enter the sector. Meanwhile “area reviews” aim to close and merge further education colleges.
All of this will slash access to education for working class people – and transform the nature of adult education in Britain.
Higher education delegates backed local strikes throughout the summer and national action in the autumn over pay.
And further education workers could strike over pay and cuts. Delegates to the further education sector conference passed a motion for a pay claim of £1 extra an hour for all and gender pay equality.
It said the union should ballot members if bosses didn’t agree.
Sean Vernell from City and Islington College said the reviews would change “the nature of FE”.
He said, “We cannot defeat these attacks college by college. We need to use all our strength, not just sections of it. We need a national fight.”
Pete Bicknell from Lewisham and Southwark College described the impact of mergers.
“We had five sites, we now have three,” he said. “We’ve lost 50 percent of the staff. Let’s be in no doubt – mergers can lead to a pretty awful situation.”
Delegates passed an amendment committing the union to setting up a panel to oversee local agreements. Debbie Rolls from Bradford College said this would give “support” to workers and help share best practice.
Conference passed a series of motions to support workers in Adult and Community Education. It also passed a motion that noted the “UCU’s willingness to garner deals via private conversations with principals”.
This instructed the union to create a “greylist” of colleges where principals had broken deals.
Another called on the UCU to “take every opportunity to campaign politically and industrially alongside sister education unions to defend education”.
Conference voted to organise, along with the NUS, a demonstration on a Saturday in autumn to defend education.
Left wing fringe meetings were popular. Over 100 attended a meeting on defending education on Tuesday evening, called by UCU regions. And more than 100 came to a UCU Left meeting on Wednesday.
Rhiannon Lockley, chair of the West Midlands region, spoke at the regions’ meeting. She said college mergers were “catastrophic” for those affected.
“The government is going to war on working class people,” she told the meeting.
The meeting heard about the impact of victimisation in colleges and universities. Ste Burns, a UCU rep at Liverpool City College, said he was the third rep to be dismissed by bosses this year.
Ste told Socialist Worker, “Further education has always been there for the most deprived students. I care about it because I benefited from it myself.
“It’s basically a class war being waged now in colleges.”
Many delegates were clear that it is possible to fight job cuts and defend education.
Delegates celebrated the victory by EIS/FELA union members in Scotland, who won an equal pay deal after beginning an all-out strike. This gave the lowest paid, mainly women, workers a pay rise of 33 percent.
Conference passed a motion saying the win showed that “hard hitting escalating strike action is the best way to close the gender pay gap”.
Donny Gluckstein from the EIS in Scotland told the UCU Left meeting how workers won. “It takes a lot of work,” he said. “Our campaign took a couple of years and it was very political from the start.
“We were only out for one day but that day was worth a million days. We didn’t go on strike on a whim. We said we would be on strike until we won – and we can win.”
Workers have fought and won elsewhere too.
Chris Webb from Bradford College told Socialist Worker, “This time last year we faced 135 redundancies. We fought them all off.”
Chris said workers won by “sticking together”. He said the college regularly had union meetings of 180 or more – and explained how workers had built such a strong branch. “We go round the staff room once a month to talk to people and give people a newsletter,” he said.
“We give new workers forms to join the union.”
And Marion from the University of Dundee told the meeting workers there had stopped compulsory redundancies. “We took action and stood firm,” she said.
Bosses at London Metropolitan University announced 395 job cuts last week. One worker said the attack will mark the “endgame” for the university.
David Hardman is branch secretary of the UCU at London Met. Along with branch chair Mark Campbell, bosses are trying to make him redundant.
David told Socialist Worker, “I think the number of job cuts has shocked a lot of people. We’d been told it would be at least 100.
“The cuts are likely to mean more casualisation if some workers are replaced by others on casual contracts. We don’t yet know the impact in terms of course cuts and closures.
“They obviously wanted two union activists, myself and Mark, out of the way because they knew what was coming.”
Mark Campbell said bosses had tried to downplay the impact of the cuts by including workers on zero hours contracts in their total headcount.
David said in reality the cuts would hit “around a third of full time posts”. “It’s like the endgame for London Met,” he said.
“There may be nowhere to go except being privatised or closed.”
Privatisation and cuts are the key aims of the government’s higher education white paper. It wants to see universities opened up to competition and education turned into a business.
David said, “London Met could become the poster boy for the white paper.”
The attacks at London Met are an attack on working class education and the idea that education should be open to all. They must be fought.
David said, “Activists are trying to organise joint union meetings with the UCU and Unison at London Met. I hope this will galvanise more people to fight.”
Delegates condemned the Trade Union Act. A motion said the TUC’s “failure to plan and campaign for a national one-day general strike against the bill deprives our movement of one of its most potent weapons”.
Dave Muritu from Sandwell College moved the motion. He said, “The time for lobbying and letter-writing is over.
“Our response has to be broad, militant and imaginative. Only a mass movement can do this.”
An amendment passed promising that the union would give “full practical solidarity” to workers taking action who find themselves “outside the law”. And a further motion said workers must “defy these new anti-union laws”.
It committed the union to call on councils and devolved governments to “refuse to implement” the Act.
Lesley McGorrigan from the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Committee said, “Our union should take a lead in pushing the TUC to turn fine words into action.”
Delegates overwhelmingly backed a motion condemning the torture and murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian who was studying at Cambridge University. They also backed a motion condemning repression in Turkey and demanding the “immediate release and withdrawal of charges against Chris Stephenson”.
Chris, a lecturer and socialist activist, was detained following protests criticising the Turkish government.
Another motion instructed the union to encourage universities to “freeze agreements with Turkish universities” taking action against lecturers who had signed an “Academics for Peace” statement.
Delegates also passed motions against bombing in Syria and supporting refugees. One instructed the union to “forge direct links” with refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk and to encourage UCU branches to organise sending materials and money to them.
Delegates voted to affiliate to Stand Up to Racism and the Justice for Sarah campaign. This campaign is fighting for justice for Sarah Reed, a young black woman who died in police custody.
Conference pledged “full support” to Malia Bouattia, the first black woman Muslim president of the NUS.
It denounced the “discredited” Prevent strategy and resolved to campaign against the government’s Counter Extremism Bill. One motion said the union must “support members/branches who refuse to cooperate with Prevent”.
Margot Hill from Croydon College told delegates, “There is an attempt to silence Muslim voices. Students are being asked to sign up to Prevent before they can sign up for courses.”
Delegates defied the union leadership to vote for a motion reaffirming support for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions. An amendment from the national executive committee removing these words was lost.
The motion also reaffirmed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) campaign, which targets Israel.
It demanded that union officers “uphold Congress decisions when acting in their UCU capacity”. It said officers should “resile from such external positions as create conflicts of interest”.
Union officials said the motion was “unlawful”. But delegates rejected this.
Sue Blackwell from Birmingham university told Socialist Worker, “It’s a pile of pants. The boycott is aimed at institutions, not individuals.
“There’s overwhelming support for Palestinians among delegates – every time a motion is put it gets passed overwhelmingly. This is an attempt to suppress the will of the majority at congress.”
Karen Evans from the University of Liverpool and the NEC told delegates, “I’m proud to be part of a union that has taken support for Palestine so seriously. This is not the time to row back.”
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