The University and College Union (UCU) held its annual Congress and its Further Education and Higher Education sector conferences (FESC and HESC respectively) on 29 May to 2 June. Given the current state of restrictions, these were all held online. Over 200 delegates were present, 67 motions/rule changes were submitted, and speaking requests for each debate had to be made in advance. I attended both UCU Congress and the HESC as a delegate from Cambridge University UCU, so will only report on those meetings (for which motion results only emerged on 15th June). All motions and results can be found on the UCU website.
This meeting was held with the backdrop of the UK government increasingly crippling post-16 education: with funding cuts, the poor handling of basic health and safety provision in the pandemic, escalating tensions between the national USS pensions management and university staff, and tightening rules on free speech. These issues dominated the agenda, though motions on more general political issues were also heard.
Motions on “Myanmar Solidarity”, and “China, Hong Kong and the Uyghurs” were submitted to Congress, written and pushed by independent left members of the union including readers and supporters of Solidarity. Despite calls for the motion on China to be remitted (based partly on Uyghur genocide denial by members of the union’s IBL faction, comprising the right wing and a smattering of "tankies"), remission was rejected by a slim margin (115-91), and the full motion passed overwhelmingly (165-23). The union now has a clear stance against the authoritarianism of the Chinese state, and for building links with pro-democracy currents within China, Hong Kong and East Turkestan.
The call to support the Myanmar Civil Disobedience Movement passed resoundingly and means the UCU will also strengthen ties with the movement resisting the Burmese military coup. As reported in Solidarity online, I also spoke in the debate on Israel/Palestine against boycotts of Israeli academic institutions, and the need to build links with pro-peace activist groups within Israel as a bulwark to the hard-right policies of the Israeli government.
Delegates were critical of the government’s move to force universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism into their statutes as potentially limiting rights to organise on campus and raising the disciplinary powers of our employers. However little was said about the educative value that the IHRA definition can provide in combating antisemitism, with this definition being widely condemned. The outcome was that instead of campaigning against the need for enhancing statute rules, UCU branches will likely campaign for a different definition to be adopted, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. That definition does not come without its own problems, and the fundamental problem of tackling left antisemitism, in my view, remained unaddressed by the union.
The HESC session was largely filled with discussion on how to respond to the latest USS pension proposals, with the Conference ultimately backing calls to build towards industrial action, with a live strike ballot by next term (Sep/Oct). Whilst this means acting quickly, the last time UCU fought to defend pensions in 2018 saw the biggest upsurge in rank-and-file activity and largest membership growth since its formation. We should get behind all efforts to beat the anti-union laws and make these strikes bigger and bolder than before.
Fully online conferences are less democratic events, and I am hopeful this will be the last one as such, but a congress was better than no congress.