Douglas Chalmers writes: As President of UCU Scotland, I was fortunate to be invited to attend the Welsh UCU congress for the third year in a row. From across the border (or indeed several) it’s only possible to form some impressions of how the union is doing, but I really felt a buzz this year and was impressed by the level of debate and the issues addressed. I’ve put my impressions below. Any mistakes in the report are of course mine (but do let me know)
The Welsh UCU Congress once more showed the union to be at the heart of education matters in the Welsh post-16 sector when it met in Cardiff on 4th March.
Opening the well attended conference – which impressively for me, offered bilingual translation from Welsh into English – Chris Jones, Vice-President Wales UCU, outlined many of the problems facing the sector – casualisation, zero-hour, contracts, and especially in HE, the gender pay gap. Chris also looked at the gains they had made in the last year. In Welsh FE, every lecturer was now on the national contract, and prospects looked positive for a joint funding council. Despite some problems, (which were dealt with later on), the Diamond report would offer the most generous grant or loan situation for students in the four nations. On Brexit, Chris pledged that no matter what position individual union members had taken in the referendum, all members were united against the insidious upsurge of racism, stating “for the UCU there was no ‘us and them’ only the one race – the human race”.
Two members of the Wales Assembly addressed the congress and took part in questions and answers. Kirsty Williams the cabinet secretary for education, and member of the Lib Dems, took up the tone of Chris’s speech, stating that
“Staff and students from the EU and beyond are welcome in our universities, our colleges, and in Wales in general”. Her speech covered a whole range of issues including the Welsh Government’s response to the Hazelkorn report on post-compulsory education and training in Wales
She highlighted the government’s support for parity in esteem between academic and learning routes, and also talked of current moves to establish a single strategic authority to improve cohesion and promote collaboration as the foundation of a ‘whole systems’ approach which should give parity of esteem for part time and full time students in the system. Referring to developments in England she stated that it was important to ‘look at the unintended consequences that have too often emerged from reforms across the border.’ In a similar vein on TEF, she stated the Welsh government recognised and shared the UCU concerns about this, and while needing to live in the actual situation facing us, the government ‘did not share the same marketisation agenda as across the border’’ so would not be encouraging universities to take part in this. On the living wage issue, she talked of her concern that Cardiff was the only university that had achieved accredited ‘Living Wage’ employer status.
Alun Davies AM, the minister for life long learning and the Welsh language struck a similar tone critical of the policies emanating from Westminster. Brexit had been an ‘unmitigated disaster’ and impinged on the conversations about ‘who we are’, and meant we needed to stand united against racist attacks, now becoming more common.
Referring to FE he talked of the sector as often being on the ‘sharp end of change’ and also stated that there were often gaps between what was said in speeches on issues such as parity of esteem and the reality we actually experienced. This needed to be openly discussed.
He commended and argued for the need to register all of the educational workforce, towards the aim of achieving equal status for all educational professionals in Wales.
Some key questions were then put from the floor including one relating to the funding gap, a second on austerity. A question was then asked on democracy in universities, and a final one on the impact on Welsh speaking students of the Diamond proposals.
A question was put requesting transparency on senior salaries in post-16 education, and on workload issues.
In the subsequent discussion of the ministers’ contributions, points were made that while the Hazelkorn report was welcome, and dialogue was being requested, very little effort seemed to be being made to ensure that the unions’ voices were at the table. The Diamond report was also welcomed with its emphasis on lifelong learning, including adults. However the dangers of it increasing marketisation were also mentioned.
On the living wage, while this was welcomed the issue of zero hours and fixed terms contracts also needed tackled. Secure contracts were felt to be key.
While the EWC (Education Workplace Council) was welcomed it was felt important to move on to have proper representation on that body to deal with questions such as the charging of full fees for part timers, and the problematic nature of the disciplinary aspects of the code. The union was having to hire barristers to fight the vindictive use of it which was costing the unions thousands of pounds. Regarding CPD this was double edged unless the issues of adequate time to undertake it was tackled together with a say in the nature of CPD. No one wanted to use their precious time to learn how to fill in forms correctly.
Finally on professionalisation, it was felt that proper workloads were key to developing a fully professional workforce.
The HE Sector conference heard from invited guest Reneé Prendergast chair of UCU Northern Ireland who compared and contrasted some of the issues facing the sector in what was a period of political instability. Not surprising to those listening, the similarities in terms of heavy workloads, casualisation and the funding gap seemed familiar in both Wales and Northern Ireland.
Representing UCU Scotland, I also addressed the HE Sector conference and confirmed that these issues were also common to us, although we were working in a situation where university governance was being democratised and where the current Holyrood SNP government had published a joint paper with the STUC, praising the work of workplace trade union reps – a clear contrast with either Wales or NI.
The sector conference went on to debate motions on electing Vice Chancellors of Welsh HE institutions, on improving the current under representations of BME staff in academic roles, on the funding gap and its relationship to the sustainability of the sector, and on funding for reforms in Initial Teacher Education and Training.
According to delegates I spoke to, the FE conference had a lively discussion on motions on growing workloads, lesson observations, the lack of union representation on the EWC, the pay claim, CPD and subsidiary companies in Wales.
Unfortunately, transport being what it was, I had to leave before the full congress resumed after the sectoral conferences, but I want to thank my colleagues for a stimulating and positive experience, which left me with confidence for the union’s future in Wales.