Equality an ongoing agenda for UCU

The University and College Union (UCU) 2024 congress is taking place at the end of May in Bournemouth, write Liz Lawrence and Philip Inglesant. Several important issues are tabled for debate, which have a bearing on how the union is organised and its priorities..


There are 67 motions on the order paper, plus amendments. In addition, the Further and Higher Education sections hold separate conferences in the middle of the event . Unite members of UCU staff who are in dispute with UCU may strike that day and stop those conferences. We support these staff members in their struggles.

This is the second of a series of articles addressing the debates before UCU Congress 2024.  This article looks at equality, an issue that UCU has often referred to as being at the heart of the union.

There are 12 motions on equality in the equality section of the agenda of the main UCU Congress. These motions are due to be debated on the morning of Friday 31st May.  Equality issues also arise in the motions for the Further Education and Higher Education Employment Sector Conferences.  This is because UCU addresses equality issues as part of the collective bargaining work of the union as well as in campaigning and organising work.

Subsequent articles will look at union democracy and organisation, education and academic freedom and employment issues in Further and Higher Education.

UCU has a strong equality tradition and, as in previous Congresses, this is reflected in motions which seek to move the union’s agenda forward. Equality issues include recognising intersectionality, support for single parents as a protected category in the Equality Act 2010, and the implementation of the Disabled People’s Manifesto including the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People into UK law.

UCU’s Equality Structures

UCU has equality structures designed to take forward its equality work.  This includes an annual Equality Conference which elects members to the Equality Working Groups.  UCU recognizes five equality strands: Black Members, Disabled Members, LGBT+ Members, Migrant Worker Members and Women Members.  There is an equality working group for each equality strand.  These groups are advisory to the NEC via the NEC’s Equality Committee. 

UCU also has reserved seats on its NEC for equality groups: 2 seats for Black Members, 2 seats for Disabled Members, 2 seats for LGBT+ members, 2 seats for Migrant Worker Members and 5 seats for Women Members.

Racism in UCU

The Equality section of UCU Congress starts with Motion 38, scheduled for the morning of the third day of Congress.  This is a composite from Dundee University UCU and Manchester University UCU, entitled ‘In Support of the Black Members’ Standing Committee’.

There are no motions this year from the Black Members’ Standing Committee (BMSC). In February the Times Higher Education reported that UCU staff were experiencing systemic racism and operating under a culture of fear. Now UCU staff, who are members of the UNITE trade union, have voted to take strike action over these issues as well as over various aspects of their working conditions, including hybrid working arrangements. Around the same time in February, the BMSC produced a well-argued statement on Palestine and freedom of speech (here) which was censored by official UCU channels. An amendment to motion 33 on Palestinian rights (see our earlier article on international motions) from the LGBT+ MSC calls for UCU to publish this statement and circulate it to all members.

In response to both these deeply problematic developments, the BMSC took the unprecedented action of issuing a statement including the decision that they have “no choice but to boycott further engagement in UCU until genuine engagement and action is taken by the leadership and until an external investigation into UCUs conduct is underway.”

Motion 38 rightly demands that the General Secretary take immediate, effective action to overcome this entrenched racism and bullying at the highest levels in the union.  This will be one of the key debates of UCU Congress.  There is a real gap between the existence of many good policies on equality, carried at UCU Congresses, and the lived experience of Black members and UCU staff.

Equality motions

Motion 39 from the Women Members’ Standing Committee calls for more understanding of intersectionality and for research into intersectionality in post 16 education, including a survey of Black women members.  Motion 40 from UCU Cymru calls for more awareness and mandatory training for staff and students around the menopause and perimenopause.

Two motions and one amendment discuss areas in which protections against discrimination should be extended.  Motion 41 from the University of Birmingham calls for an extension of the Equality Act 2010 to include being a single parent.  An amendment from Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Committee proposes that the best way to achieve this would be to include all single people as a protected category under the Equality Act 2010.  At present, protection against discrimination on grounds of marital status applies only in the employment field and only to married people and those in civil partnerships.

Motion 42 from the University of Oxford proposes that caste be added as a protected category in UCU’s equality policy.  This will be an interesting discussion about where equality awareness and agendas need enlargement.

UCU Congress is happening, like many trade union conferences, in the context of an impending General Election.  Equality activists are particularly aware of the dangers of an election inflamed by the politics of hate, around race, migration, transgender rights and any other human rights that racists and fascists can object to.  Motion 43 from Imperial College UCU calls for keeping racism out of the General Election, in which, disgracefully, the government is likely to scapegoat asylum seekers and promote appalling policies such as the Bibby Stockholm prison hulk, while Keir Starmer argues that Labour will reduce immigration.

Motion 44 from the NEC addresses another important theme for trade unionists, defending the right to protest. It also recognizes that Black and migrant members are particularly vulnerable to police violence.

Disabled People’s Rights are addressed in two motions.  Motion 45 from the Disabled Members’ Standing Committee calls on all political parties to implement the Disabled People’s Manifesto, including incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People into UK law.  Motion 49 from the Disabled Members’ Standing Committee condemns government attacks on disabled people and proposals to end Personal Independence Payments.

Two motions, as well as FE20 in the FE Section, support transgender rights. Motion 47 is a composite from the Women Members’ Standing Committee and the LGBT+ Members Standing Committee.  It commits to working to resist the Cass Report Recommendations and to pressure UK governments ‘for an approach to trans healthcare that affirms and centres trans people’.  Motion 48 from the University of Edinburgh UCU calls for tackling transphobia and working with trans-led organisations to do this.

Motion 46 from the LGBT+ Members’ Standing Committee calls for UCU to be declared ‘Proudly Woke’.  There are increasing right-wing attacks on equality and on those who support it. The term “Woke”, has a long history in African-American struggles and has more recently been taken up to encompass a broad awareness of inequities, but is now being used pejoratively by the right.

Equality throughout the Congress Agenda

There are equality issues which do not fit neatly into the business of the Equality Committee. Motion 28  – under the Strategy and Finance Committee part of the agenda – notes that migrants from conflict zones and marginalised groups face particular barriers in accessing education, not least through discriminatory visa schemes in the UK. Motions 12-14 – in the Education Committee part of the agenda – address questions of academic freedom, which should be supported but not abused as a cover for discriminatory attitudes and practices. As Motion 13 from LGBT+MSC notes, academic freedom does not mean the freedom to deny the rights of trans and non-binary workers and students.

Proposed rule changes in motions 58, 59 and 63 would enable UCU meetings and Congress to be held in hybrid form. This is an equality issue not only because of COVID but also because online access would enable participation by disabled members, those with caring responsibilities, and any member unable to travel to a meeting for any reason.

Assuming that the HE and FE sectional conferences take place, several motions there have equalities implications. Motion HE8 to the Higher Education section notes that women, particularly Black, migrant, or disabled women, are disproportionately impacted by changes to the Teachers’ ’ Pension Scheme, which applies to staff in post-92 universities and some colleges, and employers are also seeking to put staff on inferior pension schemes. UCU must campaign for full equality for women’s pensions.

Motion HE29 points out that online recruitment methods – increasingly used by HE institutions – discriminate against some disabled people, neurodivergent, deaf workers, and others. The motion rightly argues that employers have a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make recruitment processes fully accessible, and must make reasonable adjustments.

Motion FE11 to the FE Sector Conference calls for a working group to explore how to increase involvement in UCU by workers in Further Education, Adult and Continuing Education, and Prison education; an amendment from the Women’s MSC calls to ensure the involvement from all equalities strands in this initiative. Motion FE17 calls for actions to address FE policies and practices that do not support gender equality, despite a majority of women as FE teachers. Motion FE18 deplores the lack of reliable, standardised data on differentials in pay and progression based on gender, disability, LGBT+, and ethnicity. Motion FE19 calls for a working group to explore how to increase UCU membership of disabled workers across FE. An amendment to FE9 on the use of AI and other technologies in education notes that AI has an equalities impact particularly for disabled and casualised workers.

Motion FE20 compares the draft government guidelines on “Gender-Questioning Children” to Section 28. Young adults as FE students are impacted by this guidance, conflating them with children. This guidance is blatantly transphobic;  and even though it is non-statutory, UCU must resist the kind of self-censorship that followed Section 28.

The fact that equality issues surface throughout much of the Congress agenda, as well as in motions related to the work of UCU’s Equality Committee indicate the development of consciousness around equality issues, including intersectionality, and how activists seek to integrate equality awareness and practice into all UCU’s work.

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Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

Philip Inglesant is a member of London Retired Members' UCU branch and formerly of Oxford University UCU

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