Commons Mail #4: “Solidarity and Prayers”

Dear Subscriber, welcome back to Commons Mail. Things were quiet over the Easter period and in the wake of UCU’s recent election results, but as we approach Congress at the end of May, both union activists and employers are on the move again. Many of you will doubtless be aware of the recent USS pensions valuation, which proved so conservative that it called for increased contributions around 30% higher, again, than previously, to make up a projected £18bn shortfall. This is almost certain to be the main industrial action issue at a national level in the coming months. It is also a day of the week, so that means employers are still trying to dissolve numerous arts, humanities, and social sciences programmes and to push through redundancies, for instance at Chester, Aston, London South Bank, Liverpool, Goldsmiths, UEL, and Kingston universities.

One would think that now is a good time to try to return some sanity to the ‘market’ for students in Higher Education. Unfortunately this view is not shared widely enough by elected representatives on the union’s Higher Education committee, which on Friday narrowly voted down a motion proposed by Leon Rocha which aimed to bring back student numbers controls. It is almost exactly a year since this motion was first introduced, and it has now failed four different times. Universities continue to ‘stockpile’ students, and closures and redundancies continue to wreck the sector, particularly its arts and humanities provision at ‘post-92’ institutions. How committee members voted is not yet universally public, although some of the arguments against the motion are starting to be articulated on Twitter, including that it did not address the ‘root’ problem of student fees and thus was not radical enough (the motion simply was not about fees), and that it would deny working class students access to good educational settings, a rebuttal disproven simply by looking at how UK student numbers controls functioned previously only a few years ago. So instead of action, we have an unchallenged tory consensus about the broad shape of the ‘student market’, and we have only ‘solidarity and prayers’ for programmes across the UK in danger of closure.

We have taken the collective position for some time that the union’s elected national committees (the NEC and HEC in particular) are broken; rendered unfit for purpose by endless petty wrangling, by opaque procedures and voting records, and by the behaviours of members who cling to seats there. Here was a chance to try to do something good to help the sector as a whole: to reduce workload and the sheer stresses of excessive student numbers at Russell Group universities, and to counteract the constant draining away of students from local universities and so prevent departmental closures. But instead, all that union members facing job cuts and the demolition of their programmes will get from the HEC are messages of solidarity and calls for general strike action: the new ‘thoughts and prayers’ of union politics. We will not stop our attempts to see a return to some semblance of control over student numbers and we hope to see the union campaign strongly for a return of controls as part of the consultation on a post-qualifications admissions system.

On a more positive note, outside of the national committee meetings we have been busy engaging on other fronts; particularly the #ebooksos campaign and the extortionate prices that libraries pay for access to knowledge during the pandemic, which Ben Purvis recently wrote a short piece about, here. Tilly Fitzmaurice and Lata Narayanaswamy also sat down together at our second ‘Commons Coffee’ to discuss the terrible UKRI cuts and the slash and burn approach to research funding which is currently decimating active projects across the UK and the globe. We are also getting ready for Congress, where a wide range of UCUCommoners will be sitting as delegates from both branches and the national committees. There we will continue to put forward our positive vision for education and our union as about more than solidarity. We also need genuine care, and immediate, practical action to help save jobs and livelihoods. Perhaps we will see you there!