The IBL and the left – response to Adam Ozanne’s overview of the UCU factions #ucu2018 #ourUCU


(In pic: Pura Ariza (UCU left), Adam Ozanne, (IBL), Rob Goodfellow (IBL), Dave Muritu (UCU left), pictured at the regions and nations meeting on the eve of UCU2018)

Earlier today the IBL faction published their account of what happened at congress this year, penned by IBL NEC member Adam Ozanne.

The Real Democratic Deficit in UCU

While there have been responses elsewhere challenging the account of congress itself, as well as branches stating that their positions have not been accurately reflected in accompanying material, I thought it would be helpful to focus specifically on the claims made in the article about the Independent Broad Left (a group of like-minded individuals rather than a faction from the point of view expressed in the article) and the UCU left (SWP controlled militant wreckers, again from the perspective of the IBL article). Specifically I thought it would be useful as someone who is in the left and transparently elected to the NEC on a left slate to respond to the differences identified between the two factions, before identifying what I experience as the key differences between the two. I will tackle these one at a time.

Before launching into his assessment of the differences between the factions, Adam repeats the misrepresentation made elsewhere and in particular in connection to the communist party that motions 10 and 11 originated from the UCU left:

“Some members of UCULeft are clearly angry that they lost the argument and the vote, but that does not justify their attempts to mislead UCU members about the March 28thmeeting and discredit the vote; nor does it justify their attack on the GS (who comprehensively defeated their candidate in last year’s election) on the basis of flimsy allegations of misconduct and holding her “accountable”. Moreover, the USS ballot result proves the falseness of the myth they seek to perpetuate, and which was repeated at Congress, that pre-1992 members were keen to continue striking into the exam period after Easter and that the union leadership “stole victory” from them.”

It is for others in HE to discuss the USS vote which is already happening elsewhere but the representation of the left attacking the GS patronises the non-aligned members who brought the motions along with their branches who voted for them. Over the course of congress the left organised to support the right of members to get their motions heard, but we played no role in the motions arriving at congress and had not agreed a position to support the motions. It has been suggested elsewhere that senior members of the IBL are more than aware of this but choose to allow their less politically knowledgeable support base to repeat the lie that the motions were a left plot. For what purpose? A number of different conclusions can b drawn: I have seen more cynical explanations about the long term managed timidity of the union but maybe initial hope that conservative elements of the middle ground would fall into a game of “us and them”?

Adam goes on to say

“The reluctance of UCULeft to accept these defeats gracefully also demonstrates the hollowness of their claims to being for a “democratic and member-led union”, as does their past opposition to the introduction of the consultative e-ballots and Get The Vote Out campaigns that have been so successful in nullifying the 50% turnout requirement of the government’s anti-trade union legislation and building grassroots member support for industrial action.”

UCU left have historically opposed e-ballots as a replacement for branch meetings. E ballots are a useful tool but if they are used as a primary method of communication we leave a member isolated and surrounded by the deluge of messages from management that saturate the rest of her inbox. She doesn’t get to listen to debate or gain the confidence of solidarity that is at the core of successful trade union organising. There has been historical opposition to moves to use “e-democracy” to cut away the democratic layers of our union as a sole direct GS-member connection with no other sources of argument is not how we see a member led union. The allegation about Get The Vote Out is just outright false and buries the role the left have played in developing and pioneering this as a strategy.

Adam then goes on to review the differences between the factions (or as he prefers, faction and network) which I will take in turn.

UCU left

  • controlled NEC from the time of the AUT/NATFE merger until about four years ago;

I first attended congress in 2012. At that point I was not aligned with any faction. The NEC was not to the best of my knowledge dominated by the left, and this certainly wasn’t reflected in the top table. NatFHE historically was seen as the more militant union (representing FE and post-92, i.e. traditionally working class sectors of education), and AUT less so. Others will know more. The next year Liz Lawrence was elected as a left president and this was a break from the norm rather than the norm.

  • has a separate national membership list, which means it can inform its members how to vote in elections etc., and quickly instigate social media campaigns – for example, in the 24 hours before the meetings about USS on March 13 and 28 HEC members received a barrage of 400-500 Twitter messages;

UCU left does have a membership list and pass on information about elections – it would be a pretty rubbish organising outfit if it didn’t. UCU left was not responsible for organising the #nocapitulation member revolt and the more politically savvy IBL members must surely be aware of this. It would be a fantastic thing to take credit for but it came from rank and file members, including of course those who are members of the left but certainly not led by them.

  • has separate membership subscriptions of up to £30 per year;

UCU left do have subscriptions for those who choose to join. This funds campaign materials and organising meetings e.g. the left fringe held on the first night after walkouts where delegates from across the union regrouped to discuss events. I will return to this point in the IBL section.

  • is dominated by the Socialist Workers Party and other ultra-left group (sometimes allies, sometimes enemies) like the Socialist Party (formerly Militant Tendency, famous for “entryism” into the Labour Party in the 1980s – see Michael Crick’s book, “The March of Militant”, 1986), Socialist Equality Party (one of many splinter groups from the Workers Revolutionary Party) who also claim to represent the “Rank and File”, and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW);

UCU left is a democratic group and is not dominated by any political party. It does include members of the SWP along with left wing Labour Party members, socialist party members and Greens. I’ve not heard of the Socialist Equality Party but could be true. Badging the left up as an SWP front is patronising to the majority of us who are not members and acts as a red-baiting diversion to demonise the individuals involved rather than engage in debate over politics. It is a cheap shot and things are about to get cheaper. Before we move on to the next point, I would add that there is clear confusion here between the UCU left and the emerging “Rank and File” grouping. While there are common goals there are clear distinctions between the two. I would say that UCU left is a deep rooted part of the union which stretches across all sectors and centres on the long term project of a member-led fighting union. The Rank and File is more like a wave than a deep rooted plant: it is the momentum of a new layer of angry activists, many casualised, and is the culmination specifically of the USS mobilisations and the perceived shut down of that dispute. It is currently quite specific to pre-92 HE and to the dispute itself though as it is in motion this may well change significantly.

  • the SWP is a Trotskyist party believing in democratic centralism (i.e. a central leadership deciding how members will vote), impossibilism (i.e. raising people’s expectations so that, when they are dashed, they become politically radicalised), vanguardism (the leadership of the proletariat by a revolutionary elite) and permanent, international revolution;

I’m not in a position to answer on impossiblism, but this doesn’t match the behaviour of the SWP members I know which is grounded in pragmatism and broad church organising. I am not the right person to fully explain SWP ideology but I suspect that the author has less of a grip than I do. UCU left is not a democratic centralist organisation hence we have membership, elections and discussions. Where there is no democratic consensus we do not vote collectively.

  • SWP membership declined dramatically after sexual assault and rape allegations involving a leading member, “Comrade Delta”, were denied by the party’s leadership in 2013-14; it has little influence in unions anymore, apart from UCU and the NUT;

I have been working with Elane Heffernan, a UCU left member who left the SWP during the incident referred to and a sister on the women’s committee, to ask that this is not repeatedly weaponised to score political points. It is completely triggering and inappropriate to do this and it has impacted on assault survivors in attendance at congress. I have no idea what membership figures look like but SWP members are active across a broad range of unions, because like the CP who we will come to in a minute, it is a key arm of their organising. So far there has been little  work done by Momentum to organise in unions and other left outfits are just smaller and less organised so far as I can tell. The NUT does not exist: it has been the NEU since merging with the ATL.

  • the SWP national organiser attended Congress and regularly meets with SWP members before meetings at Costa across the road from UCU’s London headquarters.

I assume the congress point relates to the SWP press pass (which is also extended to the Morning Star, the communist party paper). See above point on organising levels of different parties for “Costa-gate”.

Independent Broad Left Network:

  • was set up around five years ago by NEC members who were fed up with the domination of ultra-left UCULeft members who, it was felt rightly or wrongly, did not reflect the priorities of members and were leading the union into poorly supported industrial actions;

This is just not true though the name may have emerged then. The politics definitely pre-date 2013. Sally Hunt endorsed an IBL slate in the 2012 election and I regularly heard “the Stalinists” referred to before that point. The political picture at that point was that we had won a considerable victory in getting rid of the IFL in FE and had just been on strike with increasing numbers of unions across the public sector over pensions. There was considerable dismay across the membership when Unison GS Dave Prentis effectively ground this to a halt a day after our biggest day of action.

Since that point it has been increasingly clear that the IBL exist to block the “impossiblism” they attribute to the SWP. After a court injunction prevented FE strike action a year or two later the IBL responded by firstly packing a special sector conference in order to pull a live ballot, an incredible stunt to pull, and then later boycotted a further special sector conference when they did not have enough delegates to be certain of control rendering the meeting inquorate – an historical event I remember very clearly as a mother having arranged childcare for the occasion.

  • outside of the previous and current NEC and one or two regions, where like-minded UCU members have set up separate mailing lists, has no national membership list;

This is not reflected in what I hear from people about communications received.

  • has no separate membership subs;

… which begs the question: who pays for their materials etc? I would be interested to know. If the IBL is not a rank and file organisation with members meetings and votes then how do members input into the decisions taken by this group which are communicated on such a big scale to the wider membership?

  • discusses before votes which candidates may stand the best hope of winning but does not “whip”, there is no block voting at Congress or on UCU committees – members listen to debates and vote accordingly, often in different ways;

This just doesn’t reflect how NEC happens. If we had the voting record the left have asked for to deliver transparency it would be absolutely clear to members that there is a bloc vote. I have seen IBL tweets telling people how to vote at congress and material produced for congress with voting instructions – notably to my mind the instruction to vote against the West Midlands motion at Glasgow calling for individual equality seats for all the strands on regional executive committees, a motion which was carried but has not made its way on to regional standing orders. At one congress the chair had to point out that we were in a closed session after the IBL twitter account tweeted telling people how to vote on a motion.

  • includes members and former members of the Labour Party, SNP, Liberal Democrats, Communist Party and no party at all, often with differing views and opinions – the key is “independent”.

Similar range to the left then – I would add that it has included very vocal opponents of Corbyn and also make the point that the CP should be first rather than last on this list.

Adam concludes this section by stating

“Contrary to UCULeft claims that there are two factions in the union, it is fairer to say that whereas UCULeft is indeed a faction, i.e. an organisation within an organisation with its own subs etc., IBL is a loose network or, at most, an “anti-faction faction” that would disband quickly if UCULeft did not exist.”

The three key differences I would identify between the two factions are as follows:

1) Transparency

UCU left are always open about our political beliefs. We make it clear that we are standing as UCU left candidates and that this means we will vote to support industrial action, we believe in a member-led union (hence we supported the right of branches to have their motions heard at congress), and we support equality issues as central to the union. In contrast, the IBL operates in a shadowy fashion with little clarity of intent communicated to the members who elect them. I have only ever known one IBL candidate declare his faction in a contested election – David Ridley. The others all stand as “independent” candidates, suggesting to the voting membership that they oppose factions in the way Adam describes, and often repeat that they are independent in various forums. Nevertheless, they run a slate, organise and vote as a bloc, but without any of this being communicated to those who elect them.

2) Purpose

Adam’s comments make it painfully transparent that the unifying purpose of the IBL is to block. While the left have a shared ideology centred on the  view that unions have to act to be relevant and energise, the IBL do not have an alternative vision. Rather, Adam makes clear, their formation and purpose is to be an obstacle to what he presumably views as impossiblism in the union. It is a hollow position to mobilise around, and to some extent points to an existential crisis in play. The IBL are the self appointed guardians of the membership, but faced with dissent from this membership they declare a leftist plot rather than conceive that they are not in touch. I find it incredibly cynical and sad if this really is the raison d’etre of the IBL as it suggests no hope, no ideas, merely a plan to avoid kamikaze militancy reducing the union to a barely functional shell by modelling the union on a barely functioning shell.

3) Equality

UCU left views equality as central to the union. From the aforementioned material opposing equality strand representation on RECs, to attempts to end self organising equality strand conferences, there is a strong strand of IBL thought (not shared by all) which opposes equality initiatives as expensive and slams hard fought for spaces in the union as discriminatory to hetero white able bodied cis men. While debate exists on the left between class first liberation thinking and intersectional politics, the concept of oppression and the many forms it takes guides the way we think. Equality is something which always has to be worked on and clearly there is permanent work to be done on this in the left but a vacuum seems to exist in parts of the IBL.

Equality, purpose and transparency must be central to whatever comes next as the usual lines of the union shift. What comes next for the IBL is unclear. Their existence and behaviours have been made far more evident to the general membership than has ever previously been the case. I am not sure that they can easily disappear back into the shadows.






Crisis? Transformation? Reflections on #UCU2018 #OurUCU


It’s been a couple of chaotic weeks since UCU’s annual and most explosive yet congress was held in Manchester. I’ve been caught up in student completions and some family issues so not yet had time to write some reflections on what has happened but I wanted to get my thoughts out before too much more time passes for me to fully process it all.

It was always going to be a different event this year. Firstly, there have been unprecedented events. We have had to organise under the restrictions of the new trades union bill and where this has been successful the sheer workload of getting the vote out and the hurdle of having to repeat this has meant the members have voted for and officials have agreed extensive strike action – a possibility always denied pre TU bill because of the belief members would not sustain it. In pre-92 universities we have had huge picket lines as a young, newly active and energised precarious workforce have led the battle for pensions. Elsewhere in FE, where pay ballots have been achieved there have been pickets for days in the snow and rain, again only known at local disputes in left branches like Lambeth or Tower Hamlets historically in UCU. There is a whole other post to look at the differences between HE and FE at the moment to be written but it would eat up paragraphs here. Suffice to say that while FE is years into a corporatisation of culture in which working class education has been transformed ideologically from a social participation struggle to a product which can be made much cheaper than “standard” education through cutting to the bone the knowledge production process, HE is teetering on marketisation but retains a notion of professionalism and academic independence (albeit under permanent attack) in its outlook. Regardless of this, there is energy to organise and fight distributed in various different ways in both.

Other than the scale of the fight back, the other unprecedented event this year has been that the newly emerging activist layer is not prepared to allow action to be bureacratically managed without a struggle. There have been two wranglings over the future of the USS dispute: firstly, the mobilisation of branches and activists to reject the first deal under the banner of #NoCapitulation . A combination of live links between activists through the currency of the social media they were engaged in and the live connections of the picket line saw a huge demonstration at HEC where the leadership were forced to reject what had previously been assumed to be a smooth settlement, and the strikes continued. The second wrangling was more carefully managed, and when a second deal proposing what appears from my non-expert position as an FE activist to be a working group was proposed, a sequence of mailings were sent by GS Sally Hunt apparently acting alone without consultation of the HE executive or the branch representatives calling for a yes vote, and the USS mobilisation was effectively stopped in its tracks.

Meanwhile over in FE, more novel events were taking place. The small number of branches who had successfully mobilised for extensive pay action had infuriated the employers group (the AOC) who were now threatening to end national bargaining on pay. We saw a flurry of activity at head office, with all steam ahead for a national mobilisation where all branches would be supported in building for national strike action in response. Now, technically, we have all already been supported nationally, but there was a real drive going on which looked something like the national campaign East Midlands FE committee (who fall under my constituency of the Midlands FE for NEC) have been asking for in motions to congress for some time – repeated mailings, instructions, clear time frames, reminders, repeated support from the GS – all happening in a very short space of time in the build up to congress.

When the papers were released I was not particularly surprised to see that there was a backlash from HE branches involved in the USS dispute. I have seen that there has been a lot of frustration at Keele and Warwick, two branches in the region I was chairing at the time of the dispute, over the way that decisions were being made, and more generally have been hearing calls for transparency and democratic accountability in decision making. At the last NEC we were presented with a motion coming from then VP Douglas Chalmers condemning leaking of documents related to the HEC and the USS dispute. I joined Rachel Cohen in trying to amend this to acknowledge the need for members who make sacrifices to feel there is transparency in the process. I stated that there is a perceived hierarchy between the membership and the the leadership and that this is damaging to collectivity. I was told by Douglas that this hierarchy is necessary.

Appearing on the order of business for congress were two contentious motions: motion 10, calling for the GS to resign, and motion 11, calling for her to be censured.



Tuesday: the storm gathers

I arrived at congress on Tuesday afternoon where the NEC were meeting as is custom to look at any last minute business. As Joanna De Groot (as president) began introducing business the GS pointed out that she and other staff needed to leave the room and bar Linda Newman, who as national head of resources is – I think – the senior HR official within the union, they all left.

Joanna or possibly Linda (apologies that I cannot remember which) then stated that they had had some last minute legal advice relating to motions that were being brought to congress and that motions 10 and 11 were considered to be breaching the GS’s terms and conditions of employment in threatening her continued employment and moving to act on a complaint which had not been investigated using correct procedure. Effectively we were being told that the GS was an employee and that this was sovereign in terms of how she should be treated rather than her elected position as leader of the union. We were also informed that the NEC are considered the employer of the GS and that should things progress it was possible that we would end up with a trade dispute from Unite, the staff union, and possible legal action.

Joanna advanced to say that there was a pre-prepared statement from the NEC calling for the removal of the motions from business which we would vote on in this meeting. There then began, unsurprisingly, some heated debate. There is a lot to remember here and I will miss a lot but the key points I remember are as follows:

  • Disabled members identified the (not new) disabling effects of presenting material in a meeting to allow no processing time. This is fairly common in NEC and while it is difficult for all, it is particularly problematic for disabled members.
  • Related to this but more generally, given the timescale of the motions having been ordered on to business for some time, questions were raised as to why we were now on the point of a potential crisis where a staff walkout could stop congress from functioning.
  • It was pointed out that CBC (congress business committee) and not the NEC are the correct body for the guardianship of the democratic processes of congress. We asked why this was coming to NEC and were told it was because we were the employer (a factor certainly not brought to my attention a few weeks previously when I asked about a resourcing issue in relation to gender pay work and was told by the GS that staffing is between her and Unite, not a matter for me on NEC, and that I should not be lobbying her). The left argued that CBC have ordered the motions on and we therefore have no right as NEC to undermine this – we were told that a parallel meeting was taking place where CBC would be given the same “new and urgent” legal advice.

A vote was taken. UCU left members voted against presenting the NEC position that the motions should be removed. While I was unconvinced that I could vote to support motion 10, I felt that it was absolutely the right of branches who have followed democratic procedures to have their motions heard in line with the ruling of CBC, the committee elected to rule on these things. We were joined by one independent member of NEC. The “independent” members of NEC who are advertised annually on the IBL election slate and vote in a bloc but are not in any way a faction, more a loose network, voted to support the position of the UCU president, elected from their slate, in what looked to me like ill advised protection of the GS, also elected from their slate.

Wednesday: walkouts, bullying, the fight for democratic control

The next morning, Wednesday there was tangible stress and energy in the air as we came into congress. I had signed the UCU left NEC statement explaining our opposition to the NEC majority statement, as I could not in good conscience having been elected on a mandate of a member led union support silencing of dissent. The Unite branch had also circulated a statement explaining their objections to motions criticising the GS being heard, on the grounds that these threatened all staff. Just to give a bit of context for what comes next, it is standard practice at Congress that if a member of staff is criticised all staff walk out. I have seen this happen once before, in Liverpool, during the FE sector conference. The principle is that as staff have no right to reply they should not be put in a position where they can be attacked with no recourse –  a fair principle. The problem in the way things unfolded as I will discuss being that the GS does in fact have a voice and a way to respond – she has personal communication with all members, a right to address congress, and channels to speak to every section of the union.

Congress began with a report from the unflappable guardian of our sovereign democratic body, CBC chair Alan Barker. Alan and CBC should be held very highly for the impartial resistance they showed in pursuing their roles as the elected rulers on the business of congress. A motion brought by Sheffield University had been ordered off the agenda by CBC and after some other motions’ removal were challenged, Sam Morecraft from Sheffield came forward to argue for the restoration of this motion. It had apparently been ruled out on the grounds of a line asking for a consideration of election of officials. This was voted on to be returned to the agenda. As this was perceived as a direct threat to staff job security, Unite members then walked out, and the president suspended congress.

Within a very short amount of time, notable figures from the non-faction the IBL were walking around the hall of congress shouting “Everyone up! Support our staff!” and a number of delegates walked out. A solidarity with staff demonstration then began, with signs held up and chanting of “No to Bullying!”

As an NEC member, given that one of the key priorities of the union is engaging new members and building activism, I found this worrying. Sam Morecraft had offered to withdraw the offending line within a very short time after the president suspended congress and it was increasingly apparent that the people being identified as “bullies” by the non-factional IBL (but probably not the soft support they had pulled around them) were the first time delegates from the branches bringing motions 10 and 11 – in other words, grass roots members of the union who had participated in the correct democratic procedures to get their voices heard being met by a large and noisy minority attacking them for this, along with a more general mobilisation in support of staff.

Meanwhile back in the hall the larger group of delegates left behind gathered to discuss what we thought the issues were. My contribution was to express my concern that there was a deliberate conflation between the position of the GS as an employee (which she is, to allow her the financial support to do her job, but not an employee with any “boss” unless you count the NEC) and her role as an elected leader. I quoted the five questions from Tony Benn for all who hold elected power which I felt were very relevant for the situation we were finding ourselves in:

“What power have you got?”

“Where did you get it from?”

“In whose interests do you use it?”

“To whom are you accountable?”

“How do we get rid of you?”

Once the withdrawal of the offending sentence had been agreed there was some more time allowed, presumably for Unite to meet with NEC representatives (the presidential team, all from the GS’s slate) to discuss steps forward. There was not any apparent negotiation with the branches bringing motion 10 and 11, to the best of my knowledge, and NEC as a body were not informed or involved in what was going on.

Business continued and we progressed through the budget and related issues until we came to the key contentious motion, motion 10. The president presented the NEC statement calling for the motions to be removed and this was rejected by congress who voted to follow the ruling of CBC rather than the advice of the NEC. The staff then again walked out and business was suspended for the rest of the day. UCU left invited all delegates interested in discussing steps forward to attend our fringe, where a large number gathered to debate what had happened and discuss progress. My contribution here was to state that political education is a key part of how activists develop and we all have a responsibility, particularly in regions, to make systems and democratic structures as transparent and accessible as possible for all members. I also urged new members as a long time supporter of Corbyn in the Labour party where similar battles have been fought that there is a need to stay and fight for a union which represents what they want rather than being pushed out by those who resist change.


Thursday: a lull (for some)

Thursday was the sectoral conference day meaning we broke into FE and HE to debate the policy of the union for our sectors. I will report on the FE business elsewhere, but I think in general there was a bit of sense of relief as we made progress and experienced collectivity after the fraught previous day. Elsewhere things were happening to further entrench positions and damage the democratic collective will of the union. Communist party members, key organisers in the IBL faction, used their paper the morning star to attack the delegates who had brought the motions criticising Sally Hunt. There was also much done to spread the view that the motions were not in fact the views of critically minded members expressing frustrations following a dispute, but in fact a plot orchestrated by the SWP/UCU left as part of a plot to oust the GS. This was ignorant of two points:

  1. No SWP members were involved in the motions, and the party as far as I am aware (as a Labour party member so not someone involved in their internal communications) had come to a collective position to oppose motion 10.
  2. The UCU left, a much wider collection of individuals, including Labour party members such a myself, socialist party, Greens, etc., had not take a position on motion 10 as there was no clear consensus on it. I was intending to vote against the motion because I am elected to represent FE members and an internal battle over leadership at this point would seriously undermine our members chances of finally getting nationally coordinated action off the ground and this improving pay and therefore funding for the sector. This was the view of many in FE, with HE understandably more involved in the USS dispute taking other positions. I had not completely made up my mind as I felt I would need to listen to the arguments on the floor of congress to get a broader overview.

The unsubstantiated claim of “SWP member” and deliberate associations between this and the history of the party was used by certain members of the IBL non-faction to engage in highly damaging red-baiting which forced a delegate from one of the branches bringing the contentious motions (who is not an SWP member or a member of UCU left) to disclose assault survival. I am horrified by this and myself and Elane Heffernan who is also on women’s committee have interceded at various points to ask for rape and sexual assault not to be weaponised and used to score points. Some of the forums this has taken place in are private but I understand the Morning Star were forced to retract something.

At lunch on Thursday we were called into an emergency NEC meeting. We were told that the NEC had met Unite to negotiate moving forward. Who, UCU left members asked, were the negotiators for the NEC? We were told that Sally Hunt normally sits on the employer side but could not in this instance so she had been replaced be a senior paid official, who was joined by another senior paid official (both of whom had been involved in the Unite action) plus the four members of the presidential team, all from the GS’s slate, to negotiate on behalf of the NEC and therefore the membership.

I made a couple of contributions during the meeting. After seeing a disabled sister being spoken to inappropriately by the top table I asked all present to remember that we are elected to represent our members and that we need to have respect in our communications to make progress towards our members being able to have their business debated and voted on. I also made the point that I felt the current negotiation team (two paid officials who had acted with Unite to stop business and four senior elected officers who are from the same slate as the GS) may not be a full enough representation and that the branch delegates for the motions being disputed must be consulted and involved for any meaningful progress with the political problem in hand to be made. This received I think a nod but to the best of my knowledge no negotiations involving these delegates took place. We were informed that a second statement combining Unite and the NEC had been prepared as the outcome of these negotiations which once again asked Congress to drop the motions from business. It was my view that our elected body to deal with these matters, CBC, had ruled them in order, and that Congress had voted to hear the motions, so the statement was effectively a “second referendum” position which was anti-democratic and highly unlikely to succeed. The left plus one independent member voted to reject this statement but were outvoted by the IBL network of like minded activists coming to a majority position in favour.


Friday: groundhog day, stalemate, #OurUCU

On Friday CBC gave advice on hearing further business to get this advanced before returning to the contentious motions, which was rejected by Congress. There was presumably some suspicion that filibustering would lead to the motions dropping off the agenda leaving a big hole in that the problem had not been resolved.

An emergency motion calling for a commission to review the democratic processes of the union was passed after some to-ing and fro-ing. Congress also voted to continue the lost business through an extra congress. We then returned to groundhog day.

The president presented the NEC and Unite combined position calling for the motions to be withdrawn. I contributed to this by pointing out that the GS had not been involved in negotiations (as I had heard many rumours that she was the chair of the Unite branch – not true and utterly oppositional to her role as a “senior executive” in the union, and some speculation that she had retained her normal seat on the “employer” side of negotiations). I also brought it to the attention of congress that the NEC were represented by the four members of the presidential team elected from the same slate as the GS and two senior paid officials as I felt that this was relevant in considering the combined statement reached.

After some debate, including Alan Barker in his role of CBC chair identifying that congress were being asked once more to vote on an issue that had now been decided three times through a vote (once when accepting the CBC report on the first day, once rejecting the NEC advice to remove the motions on the first day, and once voting for the emergency motion calling for the business to be progressed), the vote was taken and a much increased majority voted to uphold the previous decisions and the ruling of CBC that the motions were in order and should be considered.

Once again, staff walked out and the chair suspended business, not returning. I was incredibly distressed at this point by some interactions that were taking place and when I returned to the hall congress had apparently been shut down by the head of democratic services. A large number of delegates had gathered at the middle of the room. On the outskirts some sort of dispute over the sound systems was taking place, and I saw a woman associated with the network of the IBL aggressively rebuking a young female delegate for asking to have sound put on so that disabled members could hear what was taking place.

My sister and comrade Nita Sanghera stepped in at this point as the new VP to chair a meeting of remaining delegates who were angry and frustrated over the shut down and looking to see what we could do next. This included some members of UCU left but was certainly not a left caucus, with most of the delegates not identifying with factions and many opposed to the existence of factions (there is a whole other post for this I could write but not here). Together a way forward emerged in the formation of #OurUCU. Delegates gave their ideas which were put together into a statement expressing our views over what had happened and our determination to safeguard the democracy of the union.

The statement reads as follows:


This was signed by

Peta Bulmer, University of Liverpool

David Swanson, University of Manchester

Dan Hunter, Guernsey College of Further Education

Paul Prior, University College London

James Brackley, University of Birmingham

Clelia Boscolo, University of Birmingham

Bob Jeffrey, Sheffield Hallam University and Yorkshire & Humbersice Regional Committee

Bruce Baker, Newcastle University

David Harvie, University of Leicester

Gareth Brown, University of Leicester

Dharminder Chuhan, Sandwell College of FHE

Andy Fugard, Birkbeck, University of London

Maciej Bancarzewski, University of Hertfordshire

Sorcha Ní Chonnachtaigh, Keele University

Lesley Kane, Open University

Sarah Kean-Price, Bath College

Tor Krever, University of Warwick

Chris McLachlan, University of Hertfordshire

Steve Roskams, University of York

Hannah Cross, University of Westminster

Michael Starrs, Epping Forest College

Mike Finn, University of Exeter

João Florêncio, University of Exeter

Rhian Keyse, University of Exeter

Sonja Curtis, University College London

Ben Plumpton, University of Leeds

Malcolm Povey, University of Leeds

Roddy Slorach, Imperial College London

Sean Vernell, City and Islington College (NEC)

Linda Cronin, University of Roehampton

Annie Jones, Sheffield Hallam University

Gwen Vickers, Anti Casualisation Committee

Tony Brown, University College London

Dave Hyde, University of East London

Pauline Hall, Southeast Region & West Kent and Ashford College

Matthew Pritchard, Chesterfield College

Peter Heath, Heart of Worcestershire College

Cecily Blyther, Petroc

John Walker, Southern Region Retired Members Branch

Karen Evans, University of Liverpool

Lesley McGorrigan, University of Leeds (NEC)

Tim Hall, Senate House

Anna Duncan, University of Oxford

Mark Farwell, Southampton Solent University

Jaya John, University of Oxford

Simon Courtenage, University of Westminster

Jan Koene, Sutton College

Simon Smith, Coventry University

Pura Ariza, Manchester Metropolitan University

Isabelle Rahman, United Colleges Group (College of North West London)

Keir Mobbs, University of Bath

Mesar Hameed, University of Bath

Richard McEwan, London Regional Committee

Tassia Kobylin, Goldsmiths University of London

Tom Hickey, University of Brighton

John Carter, Teesside University

Glyn Heath, University of Salford

Chris Sheahy, University of Salford

Kevin Bean, University of Liverpool

Dianabasi Nkantah, University of Coventry

Sean O’Brien, Halesowen College

Railene Barker, Nottingham College

Elaine White, Bradford College (NEC)

Crispin Farbrother, Bournemouth University

Sai Englert, SOAS, University of London

Maciej Bancarzewski, University of Hertfordshire

Steve Lui, University of Huddersfield

Eleni Michalopoulou, University of Liverpool (NEC)

Saleem Rashid, Sheffield College

Margot Hill, Croydon College

Joel Anderson, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Mark Baxendale, Queen Mary University of London

Linda Moore, Ulster University

Nicholas Cartwright, University of Northampton

Brian Garvey, University of Strathclyde

Brian Hambidge, East Midlands Retired Members Branch

Anthony Johnson, Croydon College

Alison Forsyth, East Kent Colleges Group (Canterbury College)

Owen Mather, Runshaw College

Victoria Paine, West Kent and Ashford College

Nita Sanghera, South & City College Birmingham (Bournville College)

Rhiannon Lockley, Halesowen College (NEC)

David Muritu, Sandwell College of FHE (NEC)

Bernadette Driscoll, London Regional Committee

Charlotte Stevens, Birmingham City University

Ron Mendel, East Midlands Regional Committee

Marian Carty, Goldsmiths University of London

Sunil Banga, Lancaster University

Marian Mayer, Southern Regional Committee

Judith Suissa, UCL Institute of Education

Tony Brown, University College London

Nalini Vittal, University College London

Sherrie Green, University of Essex

Timothy Goodall, University of Leeds

Stefan Kesting, University of Leeds

Craig Gent, University of Warwick

Maria Chondrogianni, University of Westminster

Julie Hearn, Lancaster University (NEC)

Sean Wallis, University College London (NEC)

Carlo Morelli, University of Dundee (NEC)

Vicky Blake, University of Leeds (NEC)

Paul Anderson, Queen Mary, University of London (Incoming National Executive Committee)

Fiona Bailey, Capital City College Group (Westminster Kingsway College)

Mustafa Turus, Capital City College Group (City and Islington College)

David Tandy, Lambeth College

Mike Barton, New City College Group (Redbridge College)

Safia Flissi, South & City College Birmingham

Elane Heffernan, New City College Group (Hackney Community College) (NEC)

Darren Tolliday, Warrington and Vale Royal College

Julia Roberts, Lambeth College (NEC)

Mandy Brown, Lambeth College (NEC)

Ian Crosson, London Regional Committee

Brian Hawkins, Canterbury Christ Church University

Martin Morgan-Taylor, De Montfort University

Cristian Serdean, De Montfort University

Randal Jack, JISC

Stan Papoulias, Kings College London

Deej Fabyc, London Metropolitan University

Chris Keast, Nottingham Trent University

Tristan Sturm, Queen’s University Belfast

Cyprian Njue, University of Brighton

Chris McLachlan, University of Hertfordshire

Michael Szpakowski, Writtle University College

Rachel Cohen, City University of London (NEC)

Marion Hersh, University of Glasgow (NEC)

Mark Abel, University of Brighton (Incoming National Executive Committee)

Ioanna Ioannou, UCL (Incoming National Executive Committee)

Russell Caplan, London Regional Committee

Carol Cody, City of Liverpool College

Christina Paine, London Metropolitan University (NEC)

Pete Bicknell, Lewisham Southwark College

Kitty Howarth, Nottingham College

Jane Elliott, Kings College London

Anthony O’Hanlon, University of Liverpool

Josh Hollands, University College London

Will Megarry, Queens University Belfast

Rosey Whorlow, University of Chichester

Jim Thakoordin, Luton ACE

Naina Kent, Hackney ACE

Janet Oosthuysen, Bradford College

Catherine Oakley, University of Leeds

Martha Harris, City of Liverpool College

Martin Nickson, University of Hull

Grant Buttars, University of Edinburgh

Crispin Farbrother, Bournemouth University

Justin Wynne, East Sussex College Group (NEC)

Mark Hobbs, University of East Anglia

Amy Jowett, Hackney ACE (NEC)


Moving forward: what next?

There are a number of issues to think about in terms of how the union moves forward from this point. I believe that crisis is to some extent always going to be present in change so there is not necessarily a need to despair at the position we are in, though there are considerable challenges. It is also my view that this crisis point could have been averted through the GS hearing out her critics and reminding congress of her mandate in winning the USS vote, whatever means were used to do this. This would have been a much calmer process but the consequences would have been difficult to predict. A deadening of the energy of newly engaged activists maybe, which is not necessarily problematic under a bureaucratic model of trades unionism.

As I said, there is a whole other post to write, but I think there needs to be clear water between the officials of the union and those in the IBL who appoint themselves (currently) as their defenders. The IBL are probably to the right of the officials politically. There is also a necessary recognition to make that the IBL operates in different layers – the central grouping who identify as being part of the IBL, whatever communications they make in election material, but also a much broader surrounding group who share the conservatism and fear of the central group and vote in a bloc with them having listened to their arguments and been educated by their materials, but do not identify themselves as being “part of the IBL”. There is also a looser grouping to the right of the middle ground who are much less involved than the central or second group but who are linked in to the propaganda produced by both and imagine that the union is made up of “sensible non-factional representatives” and “the SWP”. All of these groupings have different interests and will act in different ways from each other. The officials are different again and are not one homogenous group.

Similarly, whether it is deliberate or ignorant, the conflation between the emerging activist layer (mainly in pre-92 branches) and the UCU left is misleading and reductionist. While there are common goals, and people who are in both groupings, dismissing activist criticism as a left plot willfully or  naively misrepresents both groups. The left are not democratic centralist so have different positions but are certainly not a plotting group who exist to thwart the leadership. To some extent, the GS is irrelevant to the left in that if the goal of a strong enough activist base is achieved, as happened briefly in the USS dispute, the leadership have to be led by members. If this base is not established, the bureaucracy will always hold power. The left focus therefore on building industrial action and campaigns, and contesting elections to decision making seats within the union with a clear message to members that they are voting for a member led fighting union and that this will be represented in the votes of those elected from a left slate if we take these seats. This is quite different from a grouping of activists emerging around a specific dispute with very clearly held views on the leadership in terms of how this was handled, activists who have a lot of the energy drained from the left by years of resistance but do not automatically share the same focus on a “long game” extending across the union of defending education, defending class interests and building activism through action. It is not problematic if what was the left is reformed into something different in form because this is part of the goal.

In contrast, the IBL openly admit that their reason for forming is to oppose the left, and they claim that they would disband if the left disappeared (unlikely if the left is reformed to something broader). I believe that they formed to oppose the left and this is really really sad. It is a politics of opposition: no vision, no ideas, just the act of blocking those they see as threatening stability. It is a confusing argument to follow: we are afraid that militants could lead the union into unwinnable fights, leading to member exodus with only a non-operational shell remaining. We will avoid this by fighting for a non-operational shell model to keep everyone safe. There is therefore something of an existential crisis going on for them in that they see themselves as guardians of the membership and the members are revolting against them, hence perhaps the insistence that the motions are a left plot. The more politically savvy inner circle know that this is not the case but are relying on it to appeal to the outer members; the outer circle who are often to the right of the CP are often loyalists who engage in black and white assessments of how things work, hence you end up with astonishing output like this Kipling video!

There are a number of hurdles coming up in terms of progress. My sense is that a core of members are furious with the actions of the GS and to some extent the top table over the course of the USS dispute, and a broader group are angry over the actions to prevent dissent at congress. A broader group again agree with this position but are embroiled in other issues which claim their anger and energy, or are supporters of the democracy of congress but would support moving forward with the current line up. However there are events coming up which could sway this.

NEC meets on Friday next week and we could see more disruption of the business of the union depending on how this is handled. Vicky Knight as the new president is known for her warmth and people skills compared to others but as a key CP member she is unlikely to move on the existing position which could create much more resistance. If the recall congress is shut down we come to an impasse where Sally Hunt’s position starts to look untenable. Add to this the growing body of branches apparently moving to support motion 10 and express no confidence and we see problems ahead for the leadership even if the business of the recall congress is heard: much greater problems than would exist if the motions had been heard in the first place.

Ultimately, things don’t look good for Sally Hunt, and this spells big immediate problems for the union a a whole, although clearly these problems are not insurmountable or permanent. The real question is whether a fighting union which is relevant across the sectors emerges from what happens next. One leader is only a tiny part of that and that is the bigger struggle.

Terror, being a man, and my son Ben

I had my son in bed with me again last night because he was frightened.

Yesterday while we were eating our tea my daughter was asking about our cats and I told her again the story of how they had been found tied up in a bag squeaking at a bottle bank. She asked me what we knew about who had done it to them and I said we knew nothing about them but that I thought it might have been a man because Ronnie was scared of men for years and used to hide when men he didn’t know came to the house.

For those of you who know her my daughter is very enquiring and pretty dispassionate in her response to things.

My son burst into tears because he was sad about our cats being scared. Then he said “I bet it was a man. It is almost always men who do those stupid things. Why are men such stupid horrible idiots?”

I said that men are not and reminded him of all the good men in his life. I reminded him that his dad is a nurse who helps people struggling to live every day. I reminded him of his Grandad who has always worked to try to make the world better and who would do anything for anyone and of his Uncle Brian who has been like a second dad to me and supported me through some really difficult times. I reminded myself internally that it is ok for my son to cry and that it is ok to raise him as someone who can express his feelings even though it is sometimes difficult because he feels things very strongly like I do.

Then, hours later, more terror was reported in London and in the confusion and attempt to explain where terror comes from religion is once again under the spotlight.

I grew up in a religious household though I am not a religious adult. I think it has strengths and weaknesses.

When it brings people together and gives them a sense of collective belonging it is good. Over the years my dad has been very poorly and his church family have pulled together around him.

When religion takes away individual thinking and creates authority over belief, knowledge and actions it is a bad thing. But all social systems have the potential for this. The core principles of science may be value free but the way it has been used as a system of authority is not.

We always talk about the culture or religion of terror but never much about why terror like state violence so often has a male face. Authority through violence is not a state men are born into, and it is not exclusively male. We can see a woman lining herself up right now to try to take the role of the chief authority against extremism. My son feels things more deeply and is far more emotionally expressive than his sister because they are different children.

But the push on boys to reject emotion and equate power with authority through violence and numbness is immense. It’s there in the guns that surround them from toddlerhood, there in the culture of policing feminine behaviour out of them through ridicule or force, and there in the male suicide rate that takes so many men who could be role models of how to feel.

No deportation or clamp-down on religion is going to sort it. It has to come from all of us where feelings are not weakness but a reaction to the world to be expressed and discussed and owned.






Abortion rights and the wider struggle: a call to arms


In this week of unfolding dystopia, there is a lot going on.

I was gutted not to be able to attend the women’s march last Saturday and very grateful for the sisters who marched for me. The global women’s marches completely caught much of the left on the back foot. There has been a general antipathy and some antagonism towards the Hilary-defending of liberal feminism. I share the frustration that she was a terrible neo-liberal candidate in a time that demands radical alternatives, though at the same time mocking women by saying “no, it wasn’t because she was a woman” is reductionist, divisive, and ignores the wider problem with the left and women.

I’m not a liberal feminist. I have solidarity with liberal feminists in very many struggles but I don’t see a reformist approach to gender inequality which trivialises economic oppression or attempts to take economic oppression of women as an isolated part of the class system that can be used to fight for gender equality as a holistic or workable direction to travel on.

I am a Marxist feminist, so I believe in class ceilings not glass ceilings. I get that women in the middle classes are massively frustrated by being overlooked for promotion and to a point as a member of a democratic union I will always join the fight to highlight and try to remove these barriers. But other than in a broad trades union context it doesn’t resonate with my world. When you have faced economic struggles that go beyond promotion opportunities being thwarted to family survival it can be incredibly alienating and painful to hear the liberal feminist line on glass ceilings and promotion even though you know that they are right that it is a massive injustice to have gender inequality in the push to get to the top. My world involves women (and men) at the bottom and many of them have aspirations to rise up which hit barriers way below the glass ceiling. Even beyond that, I don’t think that structually fighting the glass ceiling will ever work because it is a model which retains the hierarchies that keep women, as an easy target for economic oppression due to childbearing and other physical differences, at the bottom. The solution for me is the picket line, not smashing through the glass ceiling.

And of course on a personal level as a union rep who deals daily with the impact of management at its very many levels I can see that there are “shades of manager” between decent people and outright bullies, but the role itself for me is oppressive.

I think this is at the heart of the complexities of organising a broad movement which unites liberal feminism and class-first activism.

That said, there are a lot of points that get missed in a of this building a broader movement business.

Firstly, it is pretty unusual for feminists to be solely liberal. Most who focus on the glass ceiling approach both feel frustration at incidents like Hilary not getting elected, women not leading the Labour party (and I think we should be very clear that most of the most outspoken feminism in the Labour party is liberal feminism) etc whilst still recognising women at the bottom get a raw deal. Some have nuanced and ambivalent views and others just believe really strongly in the power of women in leadership to make a difference and raise everyone up behind them. Liberal feminists are intelligent and caring and they don’t need patronising by the left as a way of changing their mindset.

The second issue is the problem the class-first left often has with feminism itself in unfairly categorizing women’s activism as the property of liberal or radical (not even going to go into them right now!) feminists. The assumption is that feminism is a bourgeoise movement in the right direction which needs to be utilised to build the class struggle. Women’s liberation will come through the overthrow of the class system. This is not just patronising and reductionist, it ignores the incredible work of intersectional feminists who identify and challenge privilege at every level of activism. It’s not enough to say affluent and educated women need to recognize their privilege and get behind the class struggle: class first leftists need to hold a mirror up to every level they operate at and look at how not just class but gender, disability, ethnicity, sexuality and all the other broad fronts the left fights on externally also need to be recognized within. You can’t just treat a women’s uprising as political capital and explain the strategy for the direction you believe the left can push the movement towards: you need to recognize that while many middle class women marched so did working class women, black women, lots of women who are already fighting for the things you want to achieve, and that these women have firstly agency but secondly shared struggles that the class-first left has not at this point presented itself as addressing.

With these points in mind, one key arena where the movement can strengthen its interconnection and solidarity is abortion rights. This needs to be a global fight back, not as a means to bringing people to another cause but of itself.

If you believe in class first and solidarity with women’s liberation, think on this. Yesterday Vice President Pence became the first VP to address the US March for Life in Washington. At that event he promised that Trump would remove the funding for abortion in the US. The only abortion funded in the US takes place through Medicaid where the woman’s life is deemed to be at risk. So Pence effectively proclaimed a death sentence for women in poverty if they seek out an abortion. Alongside this, Trump’s move to cut any funding globally to health programmes which even suggest abortion as part of wider reproductive choice gives an additional death sentence to women in impoverished and or wartorn countries. This is a women’s issue and a class issue and it is about them killing us.

While I have focused on the complexities in the left of uniting movements with shared goals but different ideology, there is another issue to be addressed in this call out to support the pro-choice fight back.

Pro-choice is not pro or anti abortion. It simply means respect for women as rational decision makers. Many women (and men) are anti-abortion on a personal level whilst supporting choice more widely. This may be because they see the evidence that clamping down on abortion economically actually increases abortion rates, especially if it comes hand in hand with hard-core conservative refusal to engage in promoting or funding contraception. Or it may be because they see their religious beliefs as personal whilst respecting wider democracy over theocracy. If this is you, please support the pro-choice fight back.

As a Marxist feminist, I also think we need to look at how austerity and attacks on the NHS restrict choice too. Just as every woman should be able to freely access information about abortion and abortion itself, women who want children are having that choice taken from them by our society. Support universal free childcare. Support action to tackle child poverty, lone parent poverty, family poverty, and of course fight to defend health and education if you really believe in choice. Fight to defend our NHS, fight for Sure Start, fight for a national education service. Fight academisation, grammar schools, private schooling and tuition fees. Fight for every child to get a fair chance.

On 20th May this year the annual March for Life takes place in Birmingham. Birmingham is specifically targeted because it set up the BPAS. You can find out about joining the counter-demonstration here, and I urge you to do so. Just as the extremism of groups like the EDL bring large mobilisations on our streets to protest the message of intimidation, so should a mobilisation against women’s agency. Which means all women, not just the liberal feminists who have given so much energy and activism to this issue. It is a necessary part of a global fight back.






To my 7 year old daughter on the day of #Womensmarch

20161023_1832212To my lovely baby

You belong to you. Grow as big and as bright as you need to. You are allowed to take up space in the world. Your body is your body and no-one but you has the right to decide what to do with it. Your body is yours to run and jump and try to fly.

You have no duty to decorate yourself or to be an ornament to look at. But no-one has the right to criticise you if you want to use yourself as a canvas to express yourself.

You are always thinking and always talking. I am sorry for when I don’t listen but it happens because I am tired, not because I want you to stop. No-one has the right to try to silence you. Sometimes people will be intimidated by the clever woman you grow to be. Be patient when people take longer than you but never ashamed of your sharp mind. I know that you are not a boastful child and you should not be made to feel like you cannot ask questions or challenge “common sense”.

You are so full of love and energy. Never change. There is so much darkness in the world but love is the power to brighten it.

When you were two you used to sing your “No”song and it’s still a word you use a lot. As frustrating as it can be for me, please don’t ever lose the belief that you can say no to anything.

You may well find your energy means you are pulled in lots of directions. Please don’t ever feel guilty for taking time for yourself, and please never let another blame you for putting your energy into the things you love and believe in.

There are lots of things society will be looking for from you that I have not really given you a role model for. I’m not demure, I’m not houseproud, and I look nothing like the images of women you have been saturated with by this world. All of those things are ok if you choose them but never feel that they are things you have to be.

My Megan, I love you so much and I am so proud of everything you are. I am always with you, and even when I can’t be there and person, you carry my love with you. I will be there when you ask a question, when you stand up for others, when you cry over things other people think are silly.

We are all fighting for you and for all the children who will live through what this world is bringing. We will not let them win.



Further Ed is vital for a healthy democracy: 5 fatal flaws need changing to let it flourish

I trained to teach in FE in 2004 and since then have had the privilege of sharing the journeys of hundreds of learners as they progress through college and on to bright futures. I work in adult education, and my learners come in with a load of barriers. The most common are mental health issues, domestic abuse, juggling childcare and work, poverty, and unhappy memories of their previous educational experiences. Some we lose; many more go on to share their life experiences, sharpen their skills, and take the next step.

I genuinely love working in adult education and my time in the classroom is precious to me. However working in FE also comes with a whole load of other exhausting baggage.

FE teachers are teachers, mentors, counsellors, but also full time administrators. Our students are increasingly held back by problems with how wider society is run, from demanding bosses (who have them on zero hours contracts meaning they miss lessons to pay their bills) to bedroom tax evictions.

In 2016 there was a collective liberal facepalm. Divisions in the UK continued to build in the debate surrounding Brexit and there were shockwaves when the result came through. There is a picture being painted of an illiterate, angry and selfish working class, blind to the economic implications of cutting our ties to the EU and determined to grasp a sense of control through strengthening their ownership of the one thing austerity cannot take away: the nation. The nation and its borders, its services from housing to health, and of course national identity itself.

I don’t recognise that picture in the people I know who voted out, and I think the energy that went into recriminations over the out vote has been a real collective failure. Brexit was effectively a public schoolboy bun-fight between appeasing big capital over the free market and stoking up nationalist populism, and what we need now more than ever is a collective unity on the left to deal with the aftermath as the big boys (and girl) clearly don’t have a clue on what to do with the mess they have made.

What I do know is that free access to education at all ages is the vital seed needed to grow a healthy democracy. Further education – in our colleges and our communities – has to be a priority if we want change.

For Further Education to be allowed to deliver all that it can for our troubled society, it needs a radical reinvestment, not just in terms of funding but also in terms of belief. My students and colleagues never fail to amaze me in terms of what they pull off in incredibly challenging circumstances, but we could do so much more. For that to happen though, as well as investment, we need to fix the following flaws at the heart of how our colleges and wider FE is run.

1. The lie that 50% of student journeys are failing at any one time. 

One of the greatest ironies of FE, given that it is part of the education sector, is the mind-numbing lack of intelligent oversight which has delivered the Orwellian standard that all learner achievements need to be above average. You can’t do it! It can’t be done! An average is the middle. This is not rocket science. This New Right mantra that competition drives up standards has been allowed to wreak complete havoc in FE with this ongoing pursuit of everything being above average, giving students the unhealthy label of failures whilst destroying teacher motivation and in some case careers. It is supposed to be a deadly sin to set an un-SMART target. But everyone being above average is just that. It is not achievable.

For Further Education to deliver, we need to move on from this meaningless total focus on how students compare with one another – a snapshot of what will inevitably be a curve with half on either side of the middle – to a holistic understanding that FE is about distance travelled. Not in the form of a reductionist obsession with success rates, but with a meaningful understanding of where a student’s starting point is, what barriers they have, and where they want to get to. 

2. The panoptican as the standard for success

Ofsted. The obsession with Ofsted. In FE colleges across our country, policy never appears to have an independent validity, it is always about how we appear to external visitors. Are you highlighting your promotion of the Prevent strategy and British values? You need to for Ofsted. Does each learner have an individualised target and set of resources for your lesson? Are you embedding literacy, numeracy, E and D, employability, e-learning? You need to, and you need to provide detailed paperwork to show that you are for Ofsted. All of these things, of course, are valuable and things that we need to think about (as well as the desk time to actually do any thinking about). British values and Prevent are a different story. But the obsession with showing things are done means that everything becomes a shallow exercise to evidence something has been met. Similarly lesson observations, which could be so useful as a continuing peer-led tool in development, are a source of high anxiety and create pockets of unnecessary paperwork marathons across the year, taking away the valuable time needed to actually plan how we work with our learners to help them develop. And as for senior management, no-one even bothers pretending any more that policy is in any way holistic and student driven – everything is always done for those who assess us.

To establish a culture of development and growth in FE, we need to move on from the incessant focus on meeting external arbitrary standards to a focus on giving staff the trust and time they need to do their best. Stop the poisonous top-down pressure on staff and establish peer-based collective development strategies to allow us to grow together. 

3. The lie that we need to “make” migrants learn English

From Cameron’s bravado over deporting spousal migrants who fail English tests to the latest cross-party social integration group’s demand that migrants learn English as soon as they enter the UK, there has been a consistent untruth told by politicians about where blame lies over language barriers. ESOL courses have been at the end of some of the most savage cuts to FE, with colleges across the UK reporting huge waiting lists as they have not got the resources to provide places for people who want to learn. To suggest that poor English levels result from a refusal to enter education is not only wrong, it is dangerous.

Now more than ever we need to look at how FE can work to heal and grow the strength of our communities. By investing properly in ESOL, we give people the voices they need to communicate and share in the community. As divisive rhetoric is used to stir up fear and alienation, this is needed now more than ever. 

4. The belief that education should finish in your early twenties or before

In 2015 adult education, already under funded, was hit with a 24% cut. The cuts have been devastating, but are just part of  a wider and nonsensical belief which frames how our education sector works. FE and in particular adult education is often referred to as “second chance” education, implying that it is a kindness bestowed on someone who has already messed up once, with no recognition of the barriers adult learners overcome. The structure of our education system is heavily weighted against working class women (who will be pitied or scorned if they have their kids early on) in particular. But the idea that education is something which happens at the start of our life and is then over is short-changing society as a whole. Why do we have to learn everything we should know early on? And why is there no room not just for retraining but for life long learning as a way of continual skills and knowledge development for the workforce and as a bridge to wide participatory democracy?

Further Education colleges have the power to transform communities for the better. We need to move beyond the obsession with “business need” and “skills” that overshadow the entirety of how the sector is run and have the imagination to see what access to education for its own sake, not just for meeting the needs of businesses, could transform society. 

5. The obsession with competition

Neoliberalism and the New Right philosophy that we raise standards in education by creating a free market and competition took root in FE early on. Since incorporation in the 1990s this has meant a culture of fiefdoms in our colleges. Principles and corporate boards have high levels of power over things are run, student input is considered from the point of view of consumer feedback rather than as democratic participation, and staff and communities are shut out of decision making. Local colleges are referred to as competitors. FE has lost sight of the idea that it should be a wide reaching network of opportunity which any community can plug into and just like the students, colleges themselves are in a constant state of measuring themselves against one another. How much effort is wasted on each year on persuading individual students that they should pick one college over another when we should be persuading them of the value of FE itself? How may opportunities for colleges to work together to meet the needs of an individual have been lost in the self-preservation culture of winning through out-performing? Last year as the FE commissioner undertook area reviews to create “fewer, more efficient” colleges (read – mergers and cuts) we ended up in the position where the under-funding of the sector had to be blamed on the reckless finances of individual colleges, with a new emphasis on colleges working together with their competitors to deliver services like apprenticeships – whilst still competing, obviously.

Further Education should belong to the communities it exists in and wider society – there is no place for corporations and the lack of accountability and hostility that a corporate ethos brings. To transform the democracy of our society we need to bring collectivity back into colleges. Colleges which are social assets and not corporations will transform communities for the better.

So, how do we fix these 5 fatal flaws? I believe there are two key steps to take.

  • To defend our colleges we need active unions. You can join UCU, the union for FE lecturing staff here. What we also need is the recognition that Further Education is too precious to lose. UCU needs strategies to defend education which go beyond hand-holding members out of the building and releasing statements to actively fighting for our colleges. I am supporting Jo McNeill for GS and the left slate in the UCU election this February and also standing for Midlands NEC rep. I would encourage all UCU members to back the left slate for a union which goes beyond a service model and fights for education itself.
  • Support Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a National Education Service. A national education service has the power to transform society. Lifelong learning means skills needs are consistently met – but it also means we are all raised up. Education is a positive source of empowerment, it allows us to question and critique the way society is run to improve it for the better, and it creates spaces for us to share our stories and learn from one another. We need to take the opportunity together to fight for education for everyone.


UCU General Secretary Election Coming Soon…

Jo McNeill for UCU National Vice President

After talking to a number of members in various different branches recently, I realise not everybody knows that we are about to receive ballot papers which will allow you the opportunity to vote for a new UCU leadership.

This election period is important, as well as the annual election of NEC members, this time you also have the opportunity to vote for a new General Secretary. The GS election only comes around once in every FIVE years.

I’m publishing this blog post to ask those of you who are aware of the upcoming election to raise it’s importance with your colleagues and professional networks. Turnout in the last General Secretary election was only 12%.

This time, there are just two candidates, Sally Hunt and me.

The ballot opens on February 1st and closes on March 1st. If you don’t receive your ballot paper, make sure you request one asap…

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