Sharon Strawbridge (EUCU president)

UCU Congress met this year over the May Bank Holiday weekend, in sunny Harrogate. Rhian Keyse (VP) and I attended this year’s Congress.

As many of you will know, the UCU annual congress is the supreme policy making body of the union and motions passed at congress become union Policy, so are hugely important: a full account of all motions with decisions can be found here.

This was my first ever experience of a Union Congress and it was a little daunting to start with, but once I understood how Congress was structured, I found it very interesting and enlightening. Outside the main hall, I had some really useful discussions with other delegates from across a wide range of institutions, which has given me a real insight into the problems we share across HE as well as in other sectors.

The first session of Congress is held on the first day of the meeting, all of the delegates attend this session, then the delegates split into the separate Higher Education Sector conference (HESC) and Further Education Sector Conference (FESC) for the second day, where motions specific to the respective sectors are debated and voted on. Then everyone comes back together for the remainder of Congress business on the third day. The three days were very packed!

The agenda (Congress business /Motions) was organised by committees into equality; education; recruitment, organising and campaigning (ROC) and strategy and finance. The agenda also included the HE sector conference motions in a separate section, so everything was, in fact, very easy to follow. Each motion and any amendments were debated and voted on, with the vast majority of motions being passed either unanimously or by an overwhelming majority. I voted on nearly all the motions and where I could, I did so in line with Committee views, where I knew these.

In this brief report, I will only cover a few important highlights from Congress from my perspective.

There were a number of really good debates around motions which linked strongly with issues we see as a Branch, as well as more National issues, such as relationships with sister unions, working with students and climate change.

In addition to attending the congress/HE conference, I also attended a couple of the Fringe meetings. One on the effect that occupational stress, bullying and workloads are having on our mental health: this meeting was supported by the Education Support partnership, a charity that supports anyone involved in teaching (across all sectors). They provide a 24/7 helpline staffed by trained counsellors.

I also went to a “Get The Vote Out (GTVO)” meeting, getting your vote in is vital, if we need to take action as a union and given the current TU legislation (re: 50% ballot threshold), it’s something we need to put effort into! There were a lot of really practical suggestions and tips and the session was very lively and there’s lots I can share with Committee.

There was a very strong drive to tackle precarious employment at Congress, it is clear that anti-casualisation is a central UCU issue as well as a local one for us. This was typified by a motion 37(EP) brought by University of Glasgow, which called on the NEC to obtain data about casualised staff and fractional contracts across all institutions, naming and shaming the worst employers, as well as using the evidence gained from this exercise to publicise and encourage good practice.

Gender equality and inclusivity issues were also strongly highlighted in a range of motions, including motions aimed at tackling the unacceptable gender disparity in pay, an issue very close to home!

There was an agreement to ballot members this coming autumn on precarious employment, pay inequalities, workloads and salary erosion.

However, by far the biggest issue at the HE-sector conference, was USS pensions, resulting in an agreement being passed to ballot members on USS pensions in the autumn, if employers refuse to pay all the additional pension contributions demanded by USS, as this would contravene the no detriment position we have.

There was huge unhappiness across the board about the failure of USS trustees to accept the full joint expert panel (JEP) recommendations. The three alternative contribution options offered by USS trustees (none of which reflected the JEP recommendations) were rejected. In addition, HESC gave its full and robust support to Prof. Jane Hutton a USS trustee who whistle blew and who has subsequently recused herself from the board of trustees under pressure after her questioning of the valuation methodology used by USS.

The late motion taken to HE-conference from our recent AGM, which expressed no confidence in the USS board of trustees, was combined with a motion from Newcastle University (L5A.1) in a composite motion (L5) which was passed, with the amendment; that if UUK refuse to confirm by 1st of June that they will not impose any contribution increases in Oct 2019, HESC will instruct the Higher Education Committee to initiate a campaign for industrial action with a ballot commencing 1st Sept.

Both Rhian and I had the opportunity to address Congress/HESC on casualisation, and in my case, on the USS pensions.

It was a packed agenda with hundreds of motions and lots of lively and passionate debate. There were inevitably motions remaining at the end of Congress that there just wasn’t time to debate, these have been remitted to the National Executive Committee (NEC) for decision and those relating to rule changes were remitted to the Special Democracy Conference which will take place in November.

I felt it was well worth missing out on a long weekend at home, to go to Harrogate!

For those of you who would like to read more, there is a very good and much fuller analysis of the conference just posted on Leeds UCU website.