Letter from Jo Grady (UCU General Secretary) - 28/9/2020

Despite the massive challenges facing the HE sector, members everywhere are striving to make the first few weeks of term go as safely and smoothly as possible for themselves and for students. At the same time, we need to keep one eye on the months ahead and with that in mind I am writing with some updates regarding our democratic decision-making over the next few weeks as well as our immediate health and safety concerns.

Sector conference to decide on November/December industrial action ballots

Delegates from branches meet this Wednesday for our first ever online higher education sector conference (HESC). Branches have submitted a number of important motions for decision, including two motions to ballot for UK-wide industrial action in November or December.

The purpose of sector conference is to give you control over the union's strategy via your branches. I have given my views about our approach to industrial action in previous emails and events, but it is ultimately conference delegates that have the responsibility of making decisions about these very serious matters. If your branch hasn't consulted you about the debates that will take place on Wednesday, you still have some time to get in touch with them and give your views - especially since voting on motions is not scheduled to take place until after the conference has ended.

Online Congress in October

Looking further ahead, our first ever online Congress - where all sectors of the union meet to discuss UCU policy, finances and other matters - will take place on 28-30 October. This will be members’ first opportunity to attend Congress without anyone having to travel or stay overnight. I hope that will make the event more accessible and that we will be able to welcome more members than ever into our decision-making processes. Branches rarely send their full entitlement of delegates, so if you are interested in attending please contact your branch and read our further information here.

Health and safety

I know that right now your immediate focus is likely to be on the outbreaks of Covid-19 that are taking place across the sector and the same is true of me. We are seeing students forced to lock down in their accommodation without the proper support and without access to the in-person teaching which they were supposedly on campus to benefit from. Meanwhile, staff in the overwhelming majority of institutions continue to be instructed to come to campus for work that can and should be done remotely. 

Last month the union called for remote working to be adopted wherever possible this term because it was clear what would happen if it wasn't. Since then, our polling of members of the public in university towns and cities has revealed a wider consensus in support of our position. I have spent the last few days appearing on TV and radio to highlight these issues and I have never received so many emails from students and their parents, as well as staff, thanking the union for standing up for them.

At the same time we have learnt that before any outbreaks happened on campus, the government's own modelling experts had identified in-person teaching and student halls of residence as two particularly high-risk areas. Today I have written to the prime minister to reinforce our views and demand an explanation as to why this modelling was ignored.

We have created a new web page to bring together reports from members and branches about the risks you are facing. Please share your stories on social media using the #HygieneTheatre hashtag. We are also now seeking stories from members who would be prepared to go on record about experiences that will resonate with staff and students across our sectors. Read this recent Guardian article for an example of the type of coverage we can achieve when people are prepared to speak out. If you’d be prepared to have an initial conversation with us, please email campaigns@ucu.org.uk.

Finally, please do not forget to contact your branch and use the resources which I emailed you about recently to articulate your concerns and put pressure on your managers to move more work online. Some institutions across the UK are starting to suspend in-person activities. I do not think that would be happening without the efforts of UCU's members, branches and staff - but we have to keep making our case through every channel we can.

As ever, please email me with your concerns or questions about anything covered in this email and I will do my best to respond.

Jo Grady
UCU general secretary

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