President’s Report to the AGM 2019

Cardiff UCU President Ryan Prout’s report to our recent Annual General Meeting:

Post-16 education is going through a difficult time across the UK and the intensity of union activity reflects this. Existential uncertainty as a result of Brexit doesn’t help. There seems to have been a cascade of reports about the future of HE – the Diamond Review on HE funding in Wales, in 2017, and the Augur report, formally announced in February this year. In the preamble to the formal notice Education Secretary Damian Hinds said: ‘With a system where almost all institutions are charging the same price for courses – when some clearly cost more than others and some have higher returns to the student than others – it is right that we ask questions about choice and value for money.’ Although Augar is focussed on England its conclusions will inevitably have repercussions in Wales.

The annual UCU Wales Congress was held in Cardiff two weeks ago. Kirsty Williams, AM and Minister for Education, was at the Wales Congress and some of what she said addressed the issue of governance in HE. ‘Good governance’, she said ‘is crucial to the success of the institutions.’ She also suggested that while the relatively small size of the decision-making cohort in Wales has advantages, such as the practicality of getting things done and accessibility, it also has drawbacks, such as making it difficult to challenge those in power.

Greg Barnett (UCU UK official) updated the HE sector of the congress on the pay dispute, reminding delegates that since 2009 pay in HE has decreased in real terms by 21 percent. The fact that the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) wouldn’t discuss workload and gender pay, which they claim are local issues, was a reminder of how we got to the point of a dispute and a ballot.

There was a 41 percent turnout in the ballot on pay, equality, workloads and casualisation: unlike the result for the ballot on pensions, this one was aggregated producing an overall turnout figure rather than one calculated on an institution by institution basis. An overwhelming majority of those who voted were in favour of action short of a strike with a smaller, but still significant, minority in favour of industrial action.

In our local ballot on action over the possibility of job losses, the turnout was slightly higher, 42.2 percent.  76 percent said they were prepared to take industrial action; 83.2 percent said they were prepared to take action short of a strike. To put these figures in a wider persepctive, the turnout in the 2011 and 2016 Assembly elections was 42 percent and 45 percent respectively. Before the anti-trade union laws came in, a turnout of 42.2 percent would have been regarded as record breaking, and it is, in any event, a testament to the efforts of everyone who contributed to the Get the Vote Out campaign and to the significant time that members of the executive gave up to encourage members to take part in the vote.

As the marvellous videos linked from Cardiff UCU’s website illustrate, what transforming Cardiff represented was still quite vague at the time the ballot opened, and even though a document was released shortly before the ballot closed, some people didn’t feel much the wiser for reading it. How should we reconcile the qualified reassurances offered by the VC and the Chief Financial Officer at the recent Town Hall briefings and the reports in the press of well-developed plans to axe nearly 400 jobs?

If a turnout of 42.2 percent was achieved in the face of a still quite vague threat, that turnout would likely go up in the face of a greater clarity about what the CFO has called ‘the direction of travel’. There’s also reason to believe that running Get the Vote Out campaigns locally is a process that builds with each iteration.

The local executive has become a dynamic body that represents well, in my humble opinion, the diversity of our membership and of Cardiff’s employees. It is not easy to balance activism and an ever increasing workload and I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the efforts made by everyone who contributes to the work of the branch. In discussion with management we say that a diversity of opinion in committees and meetings makes for better decision making, and I think we have to believe in this ourselves.

We had a particularly intense emergency meeting of the executive three weeks ago to discuss the invitation from management to sign a joint statement on Transforming Cardiff. The executive wasn’t able to support this and we asked instead for a meeting with all stakeholders at which some of the premises of the restructuring programme can be examined and discussed. Unite, Unison, and the Students’ Union were supportive of this request, and we understand that this meeting will take place on the 20th of March [this has now happened, and we will keep you informed of progress as we digest what happened and plan next steps].

At Senate I queried what seemed to me be the mismatch between some parts of the Transforming Cardiff document and the most recent statistics on admissions and recruitment that point to record numbers of applications to study at Cardiff, and a record number of places being offered. How does it make sense to be planning to cut staff when the student body will almost certainly grow, and when we know that many of our colleagues already feel that their workloads are barely manageable? This, I think, is going to be the key issue for the next year.

There has been lots of other activity locally and I will mention briefly activism with regards to Health and Safety, and Cardiff UCU’s withdrawal from the Gold Award Assessment, as well as the anti-precarity survey; a disability awareness event in December; the setting up of an anti-casualization working group; representations on the university’s commitment to green objectives; campaigning on workload; feedback on the Equal Pay Audit and other equalities work; and the setting up of the financial analysis working group. Caseworkers have also been busy throughout the year representing members and their interests.

To end, and since it’s just over a year since so many people here gave up their time and their income to fight for our pensions, I think the year anniversary of that struggle should be recalled. I can’t do better than Stephen Stanley did in his speech to a member’s meeting last year and so would encourage colleagues to look at the text again on the website.

It’s also a little more than a year since the death of Malcolm Anderson. On the same YouTube channel where the videos with analysis of Transforming Cardiff are posted, you can also find a copy of the clip in which the BBC interviewed Malcolm’s widow. She speaks very movingly about her family’s loss.

It’s been a difficult year, but also one that has seen the branch grow in strength, and we need that, because all the indications seem to be that the difficulties are going to go on and may become more challenging. If I can say one more thing, it would be to appeal to colleagues and members in departments and schools where there isn’t a local rep either to volunteer or to encourage others to do so, because what we’ve found in the Get The Vote Out organising was that this network is really important for making communication with members more effective.

Quevedo, a Golden Age Spanish poet said ‘Donde hay poca justicia es un peligro tener razón’ which means, more or less, ‘Where justice is in short supply, to have reason on one’s side is perilous’. If anywhere ought to be a haven for reason it is our universities, and so they can’t afford to be places where justice is in short supply.

Long live constructive and critical resistance.