Ongoing Struggles in Higher Education

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.

On 7th May we contributed to an article on ‘Higher Education in Crisis’:

Since then, universities have continued to announce redundancies.  The end of the academic year is often a time when university employers decide to announce bad news, since it is a time when they hope activists will be away and less able to organise action.  The financial pressures and mismanagement of the sector continue.  UCU must demand, now that the General Election has been called, that university employers halt the current wave of redundancies and education cuts.  They should, instead, lobby the new government for more funding and a better funding model for the sector.

Funding system is broken

There is growing public recognition that the system of higher education funding is broken and needs changing.  This means moving away from relying on student tuition fees for funding, abolishing tuition fees and funding higher education via general taxation.  This can only happen if higher education is defined as a public good rather than a personal investment by individuals and their families.  There is a link which activists must address between the educational issues and the funding models.  We must reject the view that education is a commodity which can be purchased.  It is a social process which enriches individuals and society.

Campaigning to defend the value of higher education and for a fairer system of funding should be understood as part of the struggle against neo-liberalism and marketisation in education and the wider society.  It is no accident that regimes of the far right want to restrict education, narrow the curriculum and reduce widening participation.  Bolsonaro in Brazil was opposed to the teaching of Philosophy and Sociology because these disciplines encourage students to think critically about society.

Motion HE31, a composite from the Higher Education Committee, UCL, and the Open University, is more timely than its framers could have expected in calling on UCU to campaign on these issues during the General Election.

For education

Education trade unions need to build alliances with organisations and individuals who believe in the value of education and reject the view that education is there only to serve the needs of the capitalist economy and train students in an apolitical technician sense to perform specific jobs.  There are many educators, not necessarily all active in their unions, and members of professional bodies and learned societies concerned with education, who disagree with trends in education which focus narrowly on employability, rather than fostering critical thinking.

There are many students who want to study, not only to get a job on graduation, but also to learn about an academic subject and about current political and social issues.  Students who are now protesting the genocide in Gaza and other abuses of human rights want universities to provide real education.  Worker student unity in universities and colleges should be built around both the defence of educational provision and the struggle for the right to learn in an environment of freedom and critical thinking. 

For students to enjoy a good quality education they deserve to be taught by education workers who are in secure employment, not stressed out with impossible workloads and not experiencing erosion of pay levels and pensions.  The burden of tuition fee debt should be lifted from students and there should be maintenance grants to enable all students to have sufficient time for studying.  Too many students are struggling with trying to combine learning with many hours per week in ‘part-time’ jobs.

Special Higher Education Sector Conference 17 May

UCU held a special Higher Education Sector Conference on 17th May.  The sector conferences are the democratic bodies, based on branch delegates, which decide the industrial relations policy for each sector.  At the special HESC there was debate around motions regarding timing of industrial action.  Proposals to kick prospects of industrial action into the long grass through repetitive consultations of members were defeated.  The special HESC kept open the possibility of industrial action over the 2024-25 pay and conditions claim.

Special HESC also passed motions in solidarity with branches under attack and in defence of educational provision, especially in the arts and humanities.  Resisting redundancies is currently a major part of UCU’s work in the Higher Education sector.

The special HESC also addressed the need for proper funding of Higher Education and voted to revive the Convention on Higher Education, a body which unites progressive educationalists and trade unionists in opposing the marketisation of higher education.

30 May Higher Education Sector Conference

UCU’s Annual HESC is scheduled for Thursday 30th May.  If this event does not happen on 30th May, because of industrial action by UCU staff, it should be rescheduled.  According to UCU rules, this conference is the sovereign body in UCU for deciding policy and industrial action strategy for the Higher Education sector.  It is vital in the defence of union democracy that this conference meets and decides policy, rather than having all its business remitted to UCU’s Higher Education Committee.  There are 35 motions on the agenda for HESC.

Pay and conditions

Motions 1-5 deal with pay and conditions.  Motion HE 2 from the University of Liverpool correctly argues for keeping all of the issues in UCU’s Four Fights campaign – pay, casualisation, equal pay and workloads – together as part of UK-wide bargaining.  This is important because keeping the issues together allows for a wider basis of mobilisation.  At one time in UCU there was a dominant attitude that the union could only tackle one issue at a time, but the left has successfully challenged this.  Treating the issue of casualisation as a priority is vital for the future of UCU, if staff in precarious employment are going to feel it is worth joining UCU. Amendments from the University of Leeds and the Women Members’ Standing Committee strengthen these points – the latter explicitly calls for timed frameworks to eliminate all precarious employment and to end the pay and progression gaps in race, gender, and disability. Motion HE4 from the LGBT+ Committee strengthens the equality components of the bargaining strategy in terms of addressing the LGBT+ pay gap.  HE motions 2, with amendments, and 4 should be supported.

Motion HE 3 from Bristol University UCU focuses on more consultation and higher union density plus a multi-year industrial action plan.  Motion HE 5 from Southampton University UCU calls for an affordability assessment before further industrial action.  While they present themselves as sensible, democratic practices, the effect of these two motions, if carried, would be to delay any industrial action over pay. These motions must be opposed.

One of the major features of the current employer offensive in the university sector has been the attacks on the national contract for post 92 universities.  Motion HE 9 from the University of Brighton UCU and Motion 10 from the Higher Education Committee address defence of this contract and should be supported.  There is an unwise amendment to Motion HE 9 from Queen Margaret University UCU, which calls for reopening national negotiations to improve the post-92 national contract.  This is not the right time to do this, since the employers also have an agenda of renegotiating or abolishing this contract in the direction of greater ‘flexibility’ and less contractual protection on workloads.

Pension equality

Two motions to HESC address pension equality.  Academic and academic-related staff in pre 92 universities are chiefly in USS (University Superannuation Scheme), while academic staff in post-92 universities are in TPS (Teachers’ Pension Scheme).  HE 8 raises sex inequalities in terms of pension outcomes, on account of lower pay and casualised employment, and calls on the government to fund increased employer contributions in TPS in post 92 universities.

HE 14 calls for reform to USS pensions to provide dependents’ pensions for dependents who were not formally married or in a civil partnership. UCU, through its Superannuation Working Group, is negotiating such a rule change; USS has agreed to consideration of such a rule change by the Joint Negotiating Committee – which has representatives of UCU and the employers – but this rule change has not yet taken place.

More broadly, UCU has won some important victories in overturning the very flawed USS valuation of 2020 and subsequent cuts to pension benefits. These were won through strong actions by UCU members. However, UCU must remain alert to future threats and changes to scheme rules, and continue to campaign for ethical investments by USS and the best possible defined benefits. Motion HE35 from Kings College London calls for USS to disinvest in companies that profit from war, occupation, borders, and environmental destruction.

Unifying and representing all groups

Several motions to HESC address the needs of specific groups of university staff.  This is important in terms of representing and unifying members.  Casualisation continues to be a big issue for UCU. Motions address bargaining arrangements and fair contracts, plus an end to agency work, for postgraduate researchers.  The problem of long-term casualised employment in research is also on the agenda, as is career progression for academic-related and professional staff.  UCU also needs to do more to recruit and organise among private providers of higher education and this is addressed in a motion from the Higher Education Committee.

Defending education and jobs

Several motions to HESC call for solidarity with branches under attack in respect of job cuts and conditions of service.  Motions particularly highlight attacks on the arts and humanities and attacks on what are described as ‘low value’ courses, presumably defined by the fact that graduates in these subjects do not earn high salaries.

UCU has recently established a working group on the Future of Work in post-16 education, looking at the impact of new technologies on employment, particularly Artificial Intelligence. Motion HE21 calls for work on this with other education unions, but amendments to this motion also point out that there are equalities issues for disabled and casualised workers and others, and risks of job losses and outsourcing of these technologies.

Palestine Solidarity

While the issue of Palestine will appear in the debate at UCU Congress as a whole, motion HE 34, which should be supported, flags up the importance of defending pro-Palestinian voices on UK university campuses.

Read the full series of articles here, here, here, here and here

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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