Tensions are surfacing over proposals to restructure the union that represents FE and university lecturers. Francis Beckett reports
Tuesday January 29, 2008
The University and College Union (UCU) is six months old, and the two unions that merged to form it still seem far from becoming one. New proposals for restructuring the union from the general secretary, Sally Hunt, have been met with fierce criticism, and a special meeting of the executive has been called next week to discuss them.
New readers start here: In June 2006, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe), whose members teach mostly in further education (FE) colleges and new universities, merged with the Association of University Teachers (AUT), with members mainly in old universities. The Natfhe leader, Paul Mackney, was to stand against the AUT’s boss, Hunt, to become general secretary of the new union, but a serious heart attack forced him to withdraw. Natfhe’s top universities negotiator, Roger Kline, stood instead. Only about one in seven of the members voted. Hunt won by 8,463 votes to 7,117.
Her restructuring proposals, which have been seen by Education Guardian, would reduce the departments in the UCU from eight to three. The two national negotiators for higher education (HE) and FE, currently the most senior posts in the organisation below general secretary, would become relatively junior jobs within the Campaigning and Bargaining Department. This would be the biggest and most powerful of the three new departments, and would include all regional officials.
The other two departments would be Public Policy – dealing with political work, education policy, and external organisations – and Internal Resources, which means administration and finance.
Hunt’s objective, she says in a commentary accompanying the proposals, is to “group staff teams in a more logical and coherent manner, aligned to the union’s main objectives”. But a respected figure in the union calls the plan “a fundamental betrayal of the terms of the merger”.
Critics say that it sends out a dangerous message to FE lecturers, who are in a minority in the union and feel that university people do not regard them as equals. They fear that any move that could be interpreted as a snub to FE could push these members towards a rival union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
Hunt is also proposing a national advice centre that members in trouble can telephone or email, or access via its website. Her critics call it a call centre. They would rather put the resources into building up representatives in each institution, and then providing professional backup for those representatives.
“If you open a call centre to members, you devalue your branch representatives,” says one official. “If someone’s got a problem and phones for advice, they’re still on their own.” Hunt’s proposal, however, states that the advice centre would “provide direct support or referral”.
Caroline Gray, an executive member for the Midlands, says: “Lots of people are working very hard to get this right. I hope we can redefine the campaigning and organising function, and have a clear voice for FE and HE at the top. The advice-centre concept is very controversial, and I don’t want us to slide into a call-centre approach.”
Hunt’s spokesman told Education Guardian the general secretary did not want to comment. “We never comment on internal documents,” he said.
Gray says “it will be up to the NEC to decide” on any restructuring. A fear that Hunt might try to push her proposals through without full consultation caused a row at the key Strategy and Finance Committee 11 days ago. Some senior staff members say that the proposal has not been discussed by the management team.
Talks with trade unions representing the UCU staff broke down a fortnight ago, because several members were worried they could find themselves on much lower grades, even though their pay would be protected for four years. “We wouldn’t accept people being downgraded in a college we deal with – why should we accept it for our own people?” one staffer says.
Declaration of victory
Instead of three super-departments, critics want to see six. They would add separate departments dealing with national negotiations for FE and for HE, and an equality department. They believe such a structure could overcome perceptions that the Natfhe culture is being swamped by the AUT, and that Natfhe’s people are being marginalised. (One of Natfhe’s staff called the proposals “a declaration of victory over Natfhe by the AUT”.) As the proposals stand, critics see no obvious place at the top for any of Natfhe’s leading people.
The challenge facing Hunt is to satisfy the FE people on the executive that their members will not lose out in any restructuring. Next week’s meeting is likely to be a lively one.