Some Thoughts about Democracy

It seems that everyone in UCU is in favour of UCU being democratic, or more democratic. Great! We even had a democracy commission which issued a report which is not an easy read esp. with respect to the state or nature of UCU’s “democratic structures” (i.e., what are they, how are they working out, are they fit for purpose). It mostly proposals for rule changes, but many don’t have a clear (to me, yet) motivation. E.g., why reduce the General Secretary’s term length? And add term limits? What’s the addressed problem?

(I’m not saying that there isn’t one, but there wasn’t a fact finding portion of the report afaict.)

I hope to delve into the report and structures at some point (but OMG, there’s so much…which is itself a problem), but in this post I want to articulate two aspects of democracy that I see at play in a lot of discussions and which are in tension. Some of that is visible in UCU structures as well.

Breath vs. Depth

Most democratic organisations are representative. That is, “the people” don’t directly exercise power or make decisions, but instead they elect representatives who are held accountable to a body of rules and to future electorates. A generally accepted and useful metric for democratic legitimacy of a representative or set of representatives is “breath”, that is, the proportion of the electorate that supports them. One of the fundamental critiques of first past the post (FPTP) elections for geographically determined representative seats is that it tends toward functionally minority accountable rule, esp. if we add in various forms of gerrymandering.

Now, geographical determined representatives does have a rational…the representative is supposed to have a special relationship to their area, typically to represent all of their constituents even if they were elected by a bare majority of the voters (and perhaps only a small plurality of the electorate and even smaller plurality of the population). Constituents can pester their representative and attempt moral suasion as well as simple persuasion. Of course, if a group of constituents can’t muster the votes to control the election, their power is limited.

Of course, pestering a representative about an issue is a good way to demonstrate your intensity about an issue. All other things being equal, in a case where the issue is life or death for one person and a matter of perfect indifference to another, we should weight the views of the person with a hugely significant interest over the person who’s indifferent. Some fundamental rights are strongly counter-majoritarian because a majority either has no interest or no legitimate interest in that issue.

Putting aside “real” interests and their weighting, we can look at intensity of activity as something worthy of respect by a democratic representative. The mere existence of non-compulsory elections bakes some of this into most elections: Those who are eligible to vote but who don’t exhibit less intensity of activity and thus have less influence on decisions. In the UK, members of a political party (i.e., people who pay the fees) have more decision making power in the party than those who are merely reliable voters. Similarly, activists (people who show up to meetings, canvas, and the like) tend to have greater informal influence and may have greater formal influence over decision making.

Activity is generally very unevenly distributed in any polity. Politics isn’t a major focus of lots of people and there are all sorts of barriers to participation. (See all the barriers to voting the US.)

Activity requirements can be strategically increased in all sorts of ways. We’ve all experienced meetings where decisions were made out of exhaustion that ran counter to the general feeling but that one rule-mongering dedicated person who seems to have an infinitely large bladder just wears the rest out.

We can, sometimes, raise the distribution of activity. That is we can increase the number of people who are engaged in a minimal way. But as a rule of thumb, broadening engagement requires dealing down the intensity of the engagement. You’ll get more people voting by mail than attending a meeting. On the other hand, in a (good) meeting, there can be more varied input into the decision making process and more evolution toward a common decision.

If you require a lot of upfront investment of effort to even get started in engaging, then you are going to have a tough time broadening participation. Barriers to entry can be more off-putting than barriers to sustained engagement.

This is why turnout in low-salience elections tends to be much lower than in high-salience elections.

UCU Elections

Let’s compare some recent UCU elections:

Year Post Turnout (votes) Votes won (first choice/total)
2019 General Secretary 20.5% (23,638) 11515/15214
2020 UK-Elected Members HE (5 posts!) 12.9% (10,516) 703/1663.55 1369/1731.34




Total: 4916/8250

2020 Vice-President 11.1% (13,559) 4771/7145

(I want to note that these results are a bit of a PITA to extract…I guess I should have hit the vote tallies first! but multiple PDF documents per election don’t make life easy.)

These are all for UK wide positions. In each case, the turn out is small, though nearly half for Vice-President. General NEC election do somewhat better but not hugely. Grady was affirmed (at some round) by 13% of the total membership. These 5 NEC members were affirmed (in some round) by 1.03% to 1.28% of the total membership.

For me, this is the starting point of concern about UCU democracy. I firmly believe that both breath and depth need to be accommodated for robust democracy, but this seems to be a big imbalance against breath, which means that we are vulnerable to some of the characteristic pathologies of depth (e.g., over amplification of small minority views).

It’s more striking when we consider that the union, in fact, represented all workers in its remit, not just members. The union negotiates national pay scales, pension issues, and other matters and local branches do local negotiations on all sorts of things (overlapping with, supporting, and supports by the national negotiations). There are ≈400,000 HE workers in the UK and I’m having a hell of a time finding FE stats: I’m getting between 87,725 and 111,000. It’s hard to imagine that these aren’t undercounts and it’s not clear what proportion are UCU eligible. If we take the total workforce to be 500,000 (to pick a round number), then Grady was affirmed by 3% of the people she represents and the others by less than half that.

So one of our democracy problems ranges from yikes to apocalyptic.

If members (or voting members) were a representative sample of the whole polity, then this would be less of a problem, but the mere fact that members and voting members generally have more intense views speaks against that.

Now, look! It’s not all doom and gloom. Getting broad participation is a problem for all democratic organisations of any size. Unions have faced all sort of organising barriers from decades of hostility from employers and governments. But I think it’s especially important when explicitly discussing democracy in the UCU to attend to this issue.


One thing I think can improve at least intra-membership participation are factions or other groupings. One barrier to participation is information misload: Voters often have too much and to little information. Election addresses are long and not typically info-dense (mine included!!!). Hustings are high effort to attend and typically even lower in information. This post is far too long for effect broad based communication. (It’s not intended to be, of course!)

Even understanding the significance of what we’re voting for is hard. The role of the NEC certainly wasn’t known by me or my friends. The vice-president is an odd slot (it’s a one year post chained to 3 more 1 year posts!). And so on. Packaging up this information is extremely difficult and absorbing it in its current form mores. Having a common platform (or set of values or…) as a faction can reduce the info absorption requirements. Similarly, slates allow voters to exploit trust they’ve build up about one person and apply it to others.

Right now, affiliation with a grouping is hidden in election addresses (at best) or other campaign materials. Which means a voter has to scan through these to find that information. Being able to state an affiliation in the actual ballot could help! Or having such information in the supplementary booklets (e.g., organise addresses by Independent, and then by organised grouping).


Making information that would help voters make informed decisions as easy to get and absorb as feasible could raise participation rates. It’s a good thing to do regardless and one of my NEC goals.


The UCU is structurally very complex and we have far too many elections. More elections favours intensity because each election has significant marginal costs for voters, if only in the information they must mobilise. More frequent elections in principle allows for faster accountability but tends to shrink the overall amount of accountability. Having to answer more often to a smaller range of voters seems worse than having to answer less often to a broader range. Obviously there’s a tipping point somewhere in there, but we have multiple elections and ballots each year at the national or semi-national level. The decisions have be super clear and the voting mechanism super easy to make that broad based.


More, too long, why did I write 🙂 I think this is a fairly good long form piece (though it easily could have been much much longer), but it probably is worthless as a general communicative document or election document. But if you’ve gotten this far, perhaps you enjoyed it. I enjoyed thinking things through, a bit.


Ouch. The title is really bad, even if I add “union” in. I have lots and lots of thoughts about democracy 🙂

Update encore

I didn’t include any examples of a depth preferring view but then I happened today to stumble upon a pretty clear example and is 1) published in a sort of publication and 2) an anonymised op-ed so I’m not targeting anyone in particular:

This is reminiscent of a previous era – when Sally Hunt was general secretary during the 2018 USS strikes and the HEC tried to force a national ballot on members in response to a badly flawed deal – and is a shift away from participatory democracy. Having asked branches to organise meetings in their institutions to decide whether to reject or accept the current offer, it seems that the national leadership has now decided to ignore the result of these meetings and take the question again to the whole membership via an eballot. While it may appear more democratic as, in theory, it involves everyone, it only does so in a vacuum where the debate is lost, members are isolated at home and the sense of collective action also disappears. A core principle of participatory trade unionism is collectivity: where members come together to make decisions and to decide on action and so the most democratic decision-making forums are branches. These disputes have been all about members working and arguing together over the way forward. The future of the dispute shouldn’t now be reduced to an atomised electronic vote in your own house removed from everyone else.

This…isn’t good. It’s one thing to argue that intensity (specifically, direct, perhaps deliberative? participation) is a democratic value to keep in mind and another to dismiss breath concerns entirely.

I’ll note that voting by branch (and these matters typically involve votes, afaict, not consensus) just is FPTP districted voting and subject to the pathologies therein made more intense and probable by requiring attendance and deliberation in narrow time frame (and often with one’s vote being non-secret). It’s hard to imagine that turnout for branch meetings remotely approaches turnout for the lowest turnout elections.

It’s strategically poor as well. I haven’t crossed any picket lines and don’t want to, but I historically didn’t go to branch meetings (pretty much none at all before maybe two years ago). I would have been much more grumpy about participating in a strike if I had seen the contempt for my vote expressed above. It’s hard to imagine how to broaden participation with action—the key to industrial action strength—if we tell people who choose not to or cannot participate in branch meetings that they don’t get a say. Moreover that their wish to have a say anyway is not democratic!

I’m really struck by this line:

A core principle of participatory trade unionism is collectivity: where members come together to make decisions and to decide on action and so the most democratic decision-making forums are branches. These disputes have been all about members working and arguing together over the way forward.

So, 1) that’s not what “collectivity” is…secret ballot voting is a form a collective decision making, 2) when did we shift from trade unionism to participatory trade unionism?, 3) you can’t just assert that unions are fundamentally one kind of democracy and then conclude the most democratic fora are the ones that conform to your assertion, and 4) sorry, but I think the 4 Fights were “all about” the content of the dispute, i.e., the things we are fighting for.

Let’s be clear here: This is as antidemocratic a sentiment as the tyranny of the majority. If you don’t want a democratic trade union, that’s your prerogative. But you should be upfront about it and the fact that you don’t care about the bulk of the membership or the overwhelming bulk of those we purport to represent. This is a bit overstated. Technically, it’s perfectly possible to care about everyone in the sector and even to (in some sense) their voice but also to think that only certain mechanisms of expressing that voice are valid. It’s dodgy, but possible.

Yet more

I stumbled upon this article which makes similar points. It felt familiar so perhaps I read it back in Sept when it came out?

They focus a bit on the role of UCU Left and their embrace of an intensity focus. This chimes with what I’ve observed and I certainly think that the NEC’s resistance to consult was v bad.

Interestingly, one of the authors, Adam Ozanne, thinks I shouldn’t presume to run for NEC because he doesn’t think I’ve sufficient local experience. I don’t know what local experience would be sufficient in his eyes.

Of course, one should vote one’s preferences. But this preference that I’ve encountered ie that lack of “significant” (but unspecified) branch experience is a bar (rather than one, perhaps strongly weighted factor).

Most of our members aren’t active in our local branches. Perhaps having some people, who otherwise are congenial, with a similar background, would help with those members’ representation.

If you don’t think I’d be a good NEC rep then you shouldn’t vote for me! But I’m gonna side eye your reason if it’s one, which if generalised, would be highly intensity oriented gatekeeping and work heavily against eg precarious people or other folks who might be unable to participate in local meetings.

I mean, do you really want to exclude someone like Ben Pope?

Another Update

One problem with writing such things is that it turns out it’s all been written before, multiple times, and rather well. Rachel Lara Cohen, in a piece laying out the frankly mind boggling complexity of the UCU also captures what I call the depth vs. breath aspects, though she thinks of them as conceptions of democracy rather than aspects of democracy:

The division between the IBL and UCU Left has been usefully characterisedas rooted in different understandings of democracy — plebiscitary versus participatory. Thus, while neither group is monolithic, nor do they vote as a bloc on all matters, they are most polarised with respect to expectations about member passivity or potential for activism. IBL members argue that there is a large separation between members, whom they see as largely passive, and those activists who attend local and national meetings. They have therefore repeatedly argued for e-ballots and other means of gauging the opinion of inactive members, while cautioning against relying on decisions made at meetings. They are cautious about taking industrial action, or even raising subscription fees for well-paid members, on the grounds that such actions might lose member support and result in members leaving the Union. This has been visible recently in the IBL-majority NEC’s extremely tentative approach to redressing UCU’s regressive subscription rates. Currently members earning £60,000 pay just 0.48% of annual income as subs, whereas those earning £10,000 pay nearly 1.37%. In response to pressure and a 2017 Congress motion from the Anti-Casualisation Committee the NEC has submitted a motion to 2018 Congress which will reduce that difference, but only marginally, leaving the difference at 0.51 versus 1.30 percent in favour of the higher paid.

UCU Left has a more dynamic understanding of members and activists, seeing less difference between these groups and arguing that members are likely to become more active as action occurs. Therefore, in contrast to the IBL, they suggest that if the Union engages in effective action more members will join. UCU Left typically argues that meetings involving debate and active participation, and in which views can be interrogated and challenged, are a cornerstone of union activity and that e-ballots are not a substitute, especially e-ballots in which questions are determined by the leadership and members given limited closed-response choices. Critically, because of their different understandings of the role of members/activists, IBL members are typically happier than UCU Left to assign day-to-day issues, and sometimes bigger ones, to the Union’s unelected, paid officials.

It is almost certainly the case that the wider membership…not to mention the general body of workers…is far more conservative than even the broadest conception of activist. I.e., the set of people who work in FE or HE are more conservative and are not UCU members, as a whole, the subset who are UCU members but don’t vote or participate who are more conservative, as a whole, than those who only vote on disputes and offers who are more conservative than those who vote in all elections who are more conservative to those who go to meetings or otherwise engage in UCU activity more than 1 hr/week on average. All major groupings are “on the left” in a way that understates how left we are.

I had a conversation with a colleague who is a quite militant, though not activist, UCU member and generally fairly left wing wherein I was describing some HE related NEC hustings and causally said, “They don’t give a lot of new info. All the candidates mentioned wanting to get rid of student fees, but everyone wants that.” They said, “I don’t! I don’t think they should be this high but I think students should have some skin in the game.”

Now I don’t agree with my friend and we had a good chat about it, but I hope this example shows how we can become acculturated to a set of views and even think they are representative (esp if we believe them to be correct and morally significant).

I don’t quite understand Cohen’s idea that the “participatory” perspective views there being less difference between members and activists…it seems to be that members can be converted into more active roles if e.g., more action happens. But by saying “consultative ballots” are inappropriate, they seem to be saying that if you aren’t active then you have no role in decision making. That consultative ballots can be manipulated in bad was is, indeed, a problem. But so is a small, comparatively homogenous group making decisions that the larger membership fundamentally opposes.

I don’t think we can eliminate the tension between breath and depth by picking one of them. Activists can and should push boundaries and, well, lead. The union isn’t just a summation function of a snapshot of the views of its members. But if the union core is too disjoined from the membership (and the polity) as a whole then it is isn’t representing them and will lose support.

Why I’m Running for the UCU NEC

It’s not the most comfortable thing in the world to do. But here goes!

I’m a candidate for the UCU NEC (National Executive Committee) as a HE (Higher Ed…as opposed to Further Ed). I’m on twice: Once as a national rep and one as a regional (North West) rep. This is a bit of artefact of the voting system and basically ups my chance of getting one of the seats. I obviously think I’m fit for the job either way, but while being a regional rep would overlap a lot with being a national rep, there are key differences in focus.

I’m running on the UCU Commons slate. We have a very nice election guidance page and I encourage you to read it. It’s useful even if you don’t want to vote for us!

I wrote before I was motivated toward much greater involvement with the UCU because of problems I see in national governance, strategy, and communication. I’ve no complaints about my local brach and have happily picketed with them. I’ve never personally needed case work support, but I’ve see a few cases and their support has been pretty good. I’ve been a rank and file member and happy to be so.

There are a lot of a lot of challenges facing UCU members individually and collectively. The general environment is not structurally favourable: We have restrictive laws which make things challenging. We have a hostile national government bent on “remaking” (that is, breaking) the sector. We have escalating mismanagement. We have an ongoing trend toward casualisation. And, oh, the massive pandemic crisis and all it entails. (This was not an exhaustive list. It is exhausting, however!)

What prompted me to greater and more formal involvement with the UCU was the 1-2 punch of the second round of 4 fights/pension strikes plus the levy debacle. As a rank and filer I found:

  1. The stacking of essentially 5 disputes with variable, sometimes seemingly conflicting, goals made organising and communicating with e.g. students difficult. Amongst my UCU friends (mostly rank and filers like myself, i.e., willing to vote for action and undertake it but not necessarily engage with everyday branch activities), there was a consensus that all the issues were important, but challenging to explain to people. (The fact that we had 4 fights…and the other one…doesn’t make much sense unless you understand the organising reason behind it which takes you deep into the weeds of trade union law.) It wasn’t clear to us what winning meant even!
  2. I was surprised by the second wave. While technically no second consultation was needed, I certainly was surprised that such a major escalation didn’t involve much consultation of any kind. Again, my department based union friends were similarly confused. We definitely weren’t expecting something like that and it felt like it came out of nowhere. People who had been fighting union members long before I came to the UK felt demoralised and reluctant to participate. Especially people who could have had a big effect were reluctant…they didn’t want to essential destroy a whole year for our undergraduates with no plan for making them whole if we won.
    Industrial action has collateral damage in most cases (indeed, that is where there’s leverage), but it challenging to get people to inflict that damage without clear goals and some idea of mitigations.
  3. One thing I thought was well done was strike pay. I could afford to forgo it, but many people simply couldn’t. (Some people in my branch discussed how they were going to have to use holiday time for some strike days because they simply couldn’t afford losing that much pay even with strike pay.) But then came the levy which seems to have been a real failure of governance. For many people £15 isn’t a big deal but for a large segment of our membership it is not. If you are living from inadequate pay check to inadequate pay check, or get money in irregular “bursts”, a missing £15 can have large consequences (e.g., overdrafts or missed payments).
  4. I tried to track down how these decisions were made and, well, let’s just say that the UCU website wasn’t super helpful.

Whew! That’s a lot. (And one problem with comms is that there’s info overload.)

So this is why I’m running for NEC. These seem like NEC problems and I want to work on them. I will work on them however I can even if I’m not elected…but I think I can be more effective at addressing them as an NEC member. This may be a bit of unwarranted optimism, but I choose to embrace it!

More in subsequent posts. If you have particular questions email me or flag me on Twitter!

If you find the UCU Commons a good fit, I encourage you to join up. We’re still small but I think the people involved are great and welcoming. It’s one way to be involved. Should you ever want to run for NEC, I’ll happily give you whatever insight I get from this run!

Strike Deductions

If you strike, you may not get paid for the days you were on strike. That feels basic to a lot, in some sense. You don’t work and you don’t get paid. Conversely, if I didn’t get paid, then I won’t make up the work.

Of course, it’s not quite so simple. Employers forgive strike days for all sorts of reasons (generate good will; get make up work done; etc.). I’ve taken so few vacation days over the years that the University would come out well ahead even if it forgave all my strike days ever.

Conversely, strike pay deductions are punitive. They are intended to exact a cost from the strikers and to discourage them. This is particularly the case in an unresolved dispute.

How you deduct strike day pay matters. We were on strike for 21 days. For a lot of people, if you took that all from one pay packet they’d be screwed badly. So it’s often the case that the employer and employee negotiation some sort of stagger.

Well, I had no strike days deducted in March, but all of the deducted in April. I’m not the only one.

Gotta say, it pisses me off. It pisses me more that people who can’t easily weather it the way I can got hit (note I’m not taking strike fund pay either; I can afford it; I’m senior staff and have low expenses, etc.; obviously, I don’t enjoy it but it doesn’t put me in any sort of bad position this month they way it does for a lot of people).

It actually makes me regret all the extra work I did getting colleagues online for their classes. It doesn’t make me happy about doing extra work now. The fact that they are doing weird patterns of pay (which seems more due to problems in HR as our last rounds were messed up to, but the COVID crises can’t have made that easier) adds some salt.

There’s a straight forward case that forgiveness of deductions was the right move morally and strategically. The COVID lockdown is a highly unusual event and people who went on strike probably didn’t anticipate that. Doing so makes the uni look generous and caring which surely would zap some enthusiasm for industrial action in the future.

Our Fearless Leader apparently asserted “Those who didn’t go on strike want the deductions.” I have to say that even if this were true, it’s an interestingly rare case of leadership listening to staff. In any case, there didn’t do any kind of survey to determine what staff actually wanted and, for fuck’s sake, they are supposed to be leading.

(Note: I would be nearly as happy if there were a spine point cutoff for forgiveness and I was above it. As I said, I don’t like getting paid less (no one does) but I’ll be fine. Lots of people who went on strike won’t be. Show some compassion!)

Why I support the Feb-March 2020 UCU Strike

See also Simon’s and Markel’s statements.

We had 8 days of strike in November and December. The UCU has called for up to 14 days of strike over the next month.

I don’t want to do go on strike. I don’t want there to BE a strike. It’s stressful and damaging.

And yet, here we are.

There are two disputes going on, one on pensions and “the four fights”: pay, workload, equality, and casualisation That’s a lot of disputing!

The pension battle is the result of a small number of exceptionally rich institutions cheating on a survey and throwing the whole system into chaos. (There’s some other bits, like the uni’s taking a contribution holiday when times were good and now wanting us to make up the lack.) It’s very frustrating to be in this position at all. It was completely unnecessary.

We might not be able to get back to the status quo ante (things, once broken, rarely get perfectly repaired), but we need the universities to step up here. Pensions are deferred compensation and the should live up to their commitments.

Aside from pension, I’m only significantly directly affect by workload. Our workloads have always been high and they are getting higher. When I started at Manchester in 2006, we had a nominal 4 third year projects and 4 MSc projects a year and I never had my nominal load (some people had more, but they got relief elsewhere).

I currently have 6 third years and 4 MScs. I don’t know HOW I lucked out on the MScs. Last year I had 6 MSc projects and 6 the year before. Last year I had 6 third years and 4 the year before. So, over 30 project students over the past three years. When I started, it’d more likely be 18.

This is a big jump in work and in only one area! We have to propose more project, meet more often and for longer, grade more. We can be more efficient, e.g., by meeting for shorter amounts. Often that compromises quality. I used to be able to give whole afternoons to my project students, if they needed it. Now it seems if I go over even a little my diary is toast.

Now some of this was due to odd bulges in our student numbers but much of it is not only a new normal, but we’re being asked to increase our student numbers!

Multiply this across all activities. There’s a steady escalation both in required work and in expectations. Something has to give.

Pay, equality, and casualization don’t directly affect me (I’m senior, a white enough male, and on permanent contract), but they are no less important to me. A healthy university is a community where all its members can flourish. People can’t flourish if the are struggling to make ends meet, or don’t know if they’ll have any work next month, or see people doing the same work for more money. It doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t want to be in a two tier system.

Alas, University management has not been very aggressive in tackling these problem on their own. The need to be pressured and, at the moment, this seems to be the only way.

You can help end the strike early by writing to the university to let them know that you support our goals.

Universities Are Not Well Run

I read the news today, oh boy:

Students planning legal action against University of Manchester for lost teaching time during strikes

It’s understood that during talks between the student union and Manchester University, one suggestion has been that graduation fees – of £35 – could be waived in compensation for lost teaching time.

Remember that the people who were on strike are getting their pay docked. That is, the university feels that if we do not supply what they are paying us for then we don’t get paid on a pro rata and proportionate basis.y rough and low bally estimate is that students pay £50/day.

Now, to be fair, it’s complex. We didn’t shut down the whole university. But even then, it’s a bad look.

And nominal fee isn’t the whole story…it’s what’s been agreed upon for that fee.

Given that this whole thing was utterly unnecessary because the precipitating event was absurd, evil, and based on lies by the universities, they should step up.

But perhaps they are hard up?

Latest figures show increases in universities’ income, surpluses and reserves

UK universities’ income increased by £915m (2.7%) between 2015/16 and 2016/17, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). During that time they made a surplus of £2.3bn and now have total reserves of £44.27bn.

The data also revealed an increase in capital expenditure, but that the proportion of money spent on staff had not improved. Compared to seven years ago, the percentage of expenditure spent on staff has fallen by 3.35%, but the percentage spent on capital expenditure has shot up by 34.9% over that period.

UCU said the figures made a mockery of universities’ claims that staff were a top priority. Staff in universities have seen their pay fall by around 20% since 2009,

So no. They just don’t care about spending money on staff.

I know that in some circles having shrinking staff salaries in a labor intensive industry would be thought to be good management. But those circles suck. They don’t care about the labour force.

And then there’s this lovely bit:

On Wednesday 25 April Senate endorsed the Faculty Leadership Team’s recommendation regarding a change to the School structure in the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Senate endorsed the proposal to reduce the number of Schools, from nine to two and name the new Schools the School of Engineering and the School of Natural Sciences.  In addition, the paper submitted to Senate included the following recommendations which did not require formal endorsement:

• the retention of the current School disciplines in ‘Departments’

• the formation of a Faculty Teaching College and a Faculty Research College.

Yes, a reshuffle that essentially is one part renaming and one part adding an extra level of management is a bold response to the many challenges we face! This makes me really confident that our senior leadership team is trying to acquire managerial cred for their next job…er…solve the tough problems…er…help US solve the tough problems of teaching and research in these troubled times.

This Strike Vote Is Killing Me


So, the good news is that the massive strikes have been wildly successful. Thanks to colleagues putting themselves on the line (and out of pocket!) and all the students who’ve supported us. Boo to UUK and USS and the scabs (with a kind of grudging exception for those people with strong financial need)…if you weren’t participating, you owe the rest of us.

But now, we have a strange “offer” and a weird consultation. Trust in UUK and UCU! are low (I know they are for me). The current offer is reasonablish and if it had been the starting point I doubt we’d have taken action. But it wasn’t the starting point! The starting point was fucking brutal and offensive and based on lies and bullshit and contempt for staff. Some of the negotiation moves were opaque. The consultation process for this vote was odd. Past disputes weren’t so well handled that the UCU leadership has a deep well of  credit. Past broken promises from the employers makes me want to go for the kill.

But, 14 more days of strike? During exams? And what are we aiming for, exactly?

So, I’ll read angry Twitter and USSbriefs and whine.

I’ll also read some Martin Luther King, Jr. and remember that he died while supporting a strike. Those workers were fighting far worse conditions and they are an inspiration.

Sometimes There’s an Appearance of a Conflict of Interest Because There’s an Actual Conflict

So we’re about to go on strike. Again. To defend our pensions. Again. This is the big one…moving from a defined benefit to defined contribution. This shifts all the risk onto us, from the universities and will definitely involve big cuts, sometimes (if your retirement timing is bad) huge cuts to our pensions.

This sucks.

It seems that Oxford and Cambridge have played a large role in fucking the rest of us. Good show, you jerks. I think students should get compensation, after all, the unis dock our pay!

The union has been busy otherwise. They released (in conjunction with the Guardian) the results of a lot of Freedom of Information requests. Here’s the headline result:

The vice-chancellor was either on the committee that sets their pay or allowed to attend its meetings at 95% of UK universities. Three-quarters of institutions would not release full minutes of the pay committee’s meeting.

Oh, and surprise surprise, VC compensation has also risen…dramatically:

University vice-chancellors have enjoyed huge pay rises in recent years. The average pay (excluding pensions) for vice-chancellors in 2005/06 was £165,105. Over the next decade it increased by 56.2% to £257,904 in 2015/16. UCU said its report with the latest figures on senior pay and perks will be released shortly.

In case you were wondering, I’m not allowed to attend promotion or pay meetings about myself. Or sabbatical deciding meetings.

Now, would these massive increases happened anyway? Maybe! Why not! But it isn’t just an appearance of a conflict of interest…it really is a conflict of interest for the VC to attend (even) a meeting where their pay is discussed.

I checked out the findings to see how Manchester did and sadly:

Vice-chancellor/head of institution is a member of the remuneration committee? Although not a member, vice-chancellor/head of institution attends remuneration committee meetings? Remuneration committee minutes received 2016/17? Rationale for refusal to share minutes? Minutes redacted 2016/17?
The University of Manchester No response No response No response No response No response

That’s not the transparency I would hope for from my institution.

Needless to say, one would have thought, minimal proper governance dictates:

  1. VCs should not be involved in anyway with the committees setting their compensation.
  2. Their compensation shouldn’t be growing so much faster (or…faster) than the rest of us, barring very specific and exceptional circumstances.
  3. The facts about their membership and attendance and, indeed, the rationale for their compensation, should be public (with minimal redaction for properly private bits).
  4. This should all be watchdogged like hell.

This is a terrible look, both internally and externally, for the universities. That’s something the VCs are directly responsible for.


Yet Another Strike Day

A university is a community: staff and students, graduates and families, people in the town and people around the world. The university is its people. Buildings are more iconic; the physical environment conditions all our experiences and memories; but a university’s mission is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and all knowledge exists in the people and communities that know it.

My union, the University and College Union (UCU), is in dispute with a large number of universities, and my local and my university (the University of Manchester) are part of that dispute. We are on strike today.

Strikers stand by the UCU banner with the slogans "Knowledge is Power" and "Unity is Strength".

Strikers by the UCU banner.

The Reason

It’s a pay dispute. The capsule UCU summary:

The dispute has arisen following a pay offer of just 1.1% from the universities’ employers, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. UCU said universities could afford to pay more and the latest offer did little to address the real terms pay cut of 14.5% that its members have suffered since 2009. The squeeze on staff salaries comes despite vice-chancellors enjoying a 6.1% pay hike.

The union has also called for universities to commit to closing the gender pay gap and reducing the proportion of staff on casual and zero-hour contracts. On average, female academics across the sector are paid £6,103 per year less than male counterparts while 49% of university teachers are on insecure contracts.

Since 2010 the amount spent on staff by universities as a percentage of total income has dropped by 3%. However the total of cash in reserves has rocketed by 72% to stand at over £21bn.

(It started as a 1% offer. We pushed back. The Universities came back with a 1.1% offer. The faith is not good here.)

Note that we are in the midst of a £1 billion building spree  (after spending £750 million since 2004 on 10 buildings some of which are already falling apart and were hideous and misdesigned in the first place.

Now, I know not all money is the same, yadda yadda yadda. However, where is the billion pound effort to improve staff? Staff development, better pay, better recruitment…these are things that are not part of a giant, well funded master plan. Instead we get stagnant pay, increasing work loads, onerous busywork, metrics, targets, punitive measures, pensions slashed, etc. etc. etc. Less academic freedom and more centralisation of functions for the sake of centralisation.

The administrations should be actively figuring out how to “build up” staff which includes building up staff pay instead of having every drop wrung from them by disruptive action. Until they do, they are failing at their jobs.

The Tactics

This is part of a second round of targeted strikes after a national two day strike. Each local is picking a day designed to be maximally disruptive for their university. We are focused on exam boards (where we make final decisions on student grades). Oxford is targeting honorary degree and graduation ceremonies.

This is serious stuff. Disruption is disruptive. Student degrees may be delayed, complicating their job starts. Ceremonies that normally generate cherished memories are marred. It’s not something the union takes lightly. But there is really little choice. The administrations are not negotiating with us. Nor are they performing the basic function of nurturing the university. Neglecting staff issues is neglecting the foundations of the university.

It’s disruptive to staff. It’s not a “day off”. People are picketing. There’s work that’s delayed or created. Our pay is docked by the university. It costs us to go on strike (though often that is returned as a negotiation sweetener). It’s emotionally draining both to be faced by this situation and to engage in the action.

Simon Harper et al picketing one of the entrances to University Place.

Simon Harper et al picketing one of the entrances to University Place.

It is in the power of the adminstrations to prevent this disruption, to have prevented the risk of it. Coming in with 1% and “moving” to 1.1% isn’t a opening move in a sincere negotiation. Having no long range plan to address wage declines is not the background of this “discussion”.

As I often do, I look to Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

MLK was fighting a much, much more serious fight with dramatically greater stakes. but his description of direct action is applicable in a wide range of circumstances, including labour disputes.

(Read the whole thing! Read his books! It repays the effort many times in many circumstances. It is not merely of historical interest. King’s thinking is live, complex, theoretically interesting, and practically helpful.)

What you can do if you aren’t staff

Students and families can show solidarity. Write your university in support. Call for administrations to look toward staff development as the central part of their job, worthy of big efforts and active work. Stop and say hi to picketers!

Place the blame for the disruption where it belongs, with the administrations. Turn the situation into an opportunity to stand with others in your community. Instead of a marred experience, make it a proud moment.