A well attended Cradle to the Grave conference in TUC Congress House put the UCU once more firmly in the centre of the major issues facing us all in post-16 Brexit Britain.
A range of key speakers, from shadow chancellor John McDonnell, leading pro-refugee campaigners, Steven Hale, and founder of Care4Calais Claire Moseley, NUS President Malia Bouattia, political commentators Steve Richards and Melissa Benn, together with leading academics Peter Scott and Kalwant Bhopal, and our own UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt were joined from North of the border by Jenny Gilruth MSP, SNP Parliamentary liaison officer for education. A workshop on transforming FE also heard from academics Vicky Duckworth, Rob Smith and Sean Vernell together with Steven Exley, the Further Education editor of the Times Educational Supplement.
John McDonnell’s speech which opened conference was, as might be expected wide ranging, although perhaps inevitably also dealt with the internal temperature in the Labour Party, something which resulted in some flack in the post speech discussion.
John supported the holding of an enquiry into the impact of Brexit in HE, and pointed out that the education sector did not feature on the current UK government’s list of negotiation priorities. He however, thought that education should be central to the debate on the principle that ‘another Europe is possible‘. He also pledged labour’s support to UCU in ‘building a coalition of opposition‘.
The next session of conference saw the launch of the joint UCU-Refugee Action pamphlet on ‘A Place of Safety’ where we heard Stephen Hale chief exec. of refugee action and Claire Moseley, founder of Care4Calais talk of the horrific conditions facing refugees and the disgraceful decision of the current Tory government to ditch the Dubs amendment. This government decision ended the acceptance of unaccompanied child refugees at approximately one tenth of their previously understood commitment. Sally Hunt talked of why this area continued to be a key one for UCU, while NUS President Malia Bouattia also talked of the NUS campaign to support refugees drawing on her own personal experience to illustrate this.
Highlights in this session were the focus on the Let Refugees Learn campaign, with speakers pointing out that for many refugees it was at least 2 years until they could sit in a class room and study English. Claire also pointed out that there was no safe and legal route for refugees to claim asylum in the U.K., which put anyone aspiring to get to the UK immediately into the ‘illegals’ category.
Malia congratulated UCU on producing the pamphlet pointing out that refugees didn’t come here by choice. She invited everyone to the 12th March national summit on Trump, Brexit and Beyond, finishing by commenting that refugees were clear on who their friends were, acknowledging ‘we are here because you were there‘
Peter Scott, the newly appointed Comissioner for Fair Access in Scotland started the next session on the challenge of Brexit and Trump using a powerful presentation downloadable here. He considered the ‘many sides of populism’, and it’s link with education, or lack of it, what he believed had gone ‘wrong’, and ‘right.’ He then considered Picketty’s views on the rise of economic inequality, and the ‘achievements’ and ‘disappointments’ of mass education. He finished up by stating that re-asserting public good/ and the values as the core of the academy’s mission was the ‘unfinished business’ on the table.
SNP member of Scotland’s parliament Jenny Gilruth, then talked of how the Scottish government was trying to tackle widening access, including the important of contextualised admissions, and ‘taking direct action to create a level playing field’.
Leading researcher and academic Kalwant Bhopal looked in details at her ongoing current research on BME student experiences in higher education. This covered legislation in theory and practice, then the demographics, and degree attainment of BME students. Amongst the many invaluable insights that her research had uncovered was the fact that when BME students got good grades, they were less likely to be pushed to apply to Russell group universities. and when they did, less likely to get in. The role of social and cultural capital was also a key issue that BME students and aspiring students faced. The powerpoint images can be downloaded here
In the final joint session of the conference columnist and commentator Steve Richards talked of his view of the insurmountable problems now facing the government due to the Brexit result, and how we might take advantage of it. He thought that her non-Thatcherite and indeed non Cameronite or Blairite restating of the role of government and even the state in a modern society was one that campaigners needed to take up and use from our point of view.
Malia Bouattia talked of the work done with UCU on issues like the NSS survey and the need to recapture education for staff and students.
Melissa Benn talked of how the government was trying to reshape universities as temples of consumerism and conformism, and stated that the government were ‘tackling the wrong question, with the wrong people, in the wrong way’. She also made a devastating argument against current increasing Tory support for selection in schools.
Sally Hunt then finished the conference by talking of the battle against casualisation and the implications of the HE bill, and quoting Primo Levy’s words of the ‘would be tyrant waiting in the wings with beautiful words’ argued for the need to take back the language being used in the current debates against intellectualism and even experts, and restate the real meaning of truth and evidence.
At the end of the conference, a very moving film 722 TMX Engineering battalion looking at a refugee camp in the town of Alexandria in Norther Greece.