A GUCU delegate’s subjective report on the Special Higher Education Sector Conference, 21 June 2018
I’ll start at the end, because, for me, it encapsulated all that this conference was about. Time was running out: only two and half hours had been allotted for the conference, and with only a few minutes left on the clock, 13 motions still needed to be presented and put to a vote. Our own motion on casualised staff pensions, composited with a nearly identical one from Dundee, was up next, and delegates moved to add another 15 minutes to the schedule to get through all the motions on the agenda. The Chair, Douglas Chalmers (UCU President Elect), rejected this move outright and, despite loud objections from the floor, forced a vote on remitting the remaining motions to the next Higher Education Committee (HEC) meeting. This motion was carried, because voting against it would have meant that all the remaining branches’ motions would have fallen: such is the rule of bureaucracy. But many delegates – the majority, I believe – abstained in protest at this false choice, and their votes were discarded.
The tight schedule was suspicious. Why the rush? Was it designed to curb discussion and limit the power of a newly energised rank and file? According to the report of the Conference Business Committee (CBC), which set the agenda, 28 motions were received for consideration. Of those, six were excluded, and much of the first half hour of the conference was spent on debating their re-introduction. The push-back was important and gratifying – these motions dealt with the transparency and accountability of the Joint Expert Panel and, ultimately, four motions were restored – but of course it meant we had even less time than planned to debate each motion (you can see the motions here: https://www.ucu.org.uk/hescjune18).
Every aspect of the conference was controlled and ritualised, keeping power firmly in the hands of the Chair. I was particularly struck by the insistence on terminology: whenever delegates tried to pose a question or make a comment, the Chair demanded to know whether it was a ‘point of information’ or ‘point of order’. It was almost comical, but of course there’s a sinister edge to the use of these conventions. Much like the managerial jargon that increasingly dominates discussions and decision-making within universities, this kind of language serves to obfuscate what should be simple processes and to limit our agency. When the request for additional time (15 minutes!) must be phrased as a ‘move for suspension of standing orders’, pedantic procedures quash discussion, and formalities are valued over substance. The same happens when our departmental exam board must request a ‘suspension of regulations’ from the College before taking an individual student’s circumstances into account: institutional administration takes precedence over both the judgment of academics and the interests of students.
The formalities can also be alienating, even intimidating, for those who, like me, are new to UCU conferences. There were many of us first-timers in Manchester, and my other lasting impression was the enthusiastic reception new delegates enjoyed when they got up to present a motion and prefaced it with a nervous ‘this is my first time’. (I’m not alone in appreciating this support: see the report by Andy Williams from UCU Cardiff.) We all know that UCU membership grew dramatically during the strike, and that many of us – both new members and newly engaged members – are determined to carry on as activists in the union. The Special Higher Education Sector Conference, like UCU Congress 2018, show that we have a lot of work to do within the union. But these two events also shows there’s a lot of will and energy, because we know that democratising the union is a crucial step in the real battle: the battle for the soul of higher education. The remitted motions were discussed in the Higher Education Committee meeting on 29 June. There is no report (yet?) on the UCU website, but you can read the one from UCU Left. It appears that our motion on casualised staff pensions was carried. As we prepare for the next step, here’s a point of order for the Chair: #WeAreTheUniversity, and it’s #OurUCU; give us back our union!